KAPAA, Kauai — A few minutes before 7 most evenings, images of two rooms in ordinary island homes appear on Facebook, with faces prominent. One is a living room here. The other is a bedroom in Waimea.
The Kapaa room belongs to Mel Rapozo, a former Kauai cop turned politician — he served as a Kauai County Council member and its chair. Rapozo’s visage nearly fills the screen, but in the background, tied up curtains swing slightly in the breeze.
The Waimea bedroom is at Charlie Iona’s house. He’s also a former cop — on Maui — who later served as a Honolulu liquor control inspector and headed the Kauai Police Commission. He sits in a chair that often has a background of T-shirts neatly hung on hangers.
For weeks, the T-shirts were promotional items for the talk show he and Rapozo have had together since March. The shirts sold out and Rapozo and Iona contributed all the profits — $6,000, they said — to the Kauai Strong Fund, set up by the Hawaii Community Foundation after floods devastated the island’s North Shore in 2018.
To say the live stream — informally known as the Mel and Charlie Show — is thin on production values would be overstatement. It is, unapologetically, a Zoom meeting.
More or less at 7, Rapozo calls the show to order. On nearly all nights, the theme is unrelenting alarm at what COVID is doing to Hawaii. Nightly, the focus is on how government agencies have largely allowed people to evade or ignore many legal and common sense precautions with impunity. Anger and frustration are the backdrop.
The duo detail ways tourists and locals have learned to scam the quarantine system, for example, by providing the address of a hotel to officials screening arrivals at the Lihue Airport. But then the visitors move to a more secret location after one night, ignoring rules that say they must stay indoors and avoid restaurants. They are seldom caught.
As the show starts, an unrelenting stream of comments fills the left side of the screen. Usually, at least 1,600 Facebook accounts are watching. With links and subsequent views of archived episodes on Rapozo’s YouTube channel, he and Iona believe, as many as 20,000 people may see any one show. As this happens, Rapozo and Iona are furiously texting one another to focus on how to keep interviews on track.
“I would say what they are doing is providing us with that water cooler experience at a time we are all distancing,” said Darcie Yukimura, the community foundation’s senior philanthropic officer here. “You want to get out and air your concerns and questions, but they are bringing on the experts and influencers for a lot of that discussion.”
Guests have included Lt. Gov. Josh Green, state Rep. Nadine Nakamura, state Senate President Ron Kouchi, other state legislators and Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami, who has made several appearances. Green, who has acquired almost the status of a regular guest, said “I enjoy appearing on it. They are smart and interesting characters.”
The show had its roots in 2018 when Rapozo left office because of term limits. He started doing a weekly Facebook live show on various county issues. Though many observers believed he was doing it to keep his political future alive, Rapozo said he was really trying to find a way to help the public focus on issues.
He filed to run again for County Council this year, but pulled back his papers at the last minute so he and Iona could keep the show going.
It continued as a solo until early 2020, when COVID-19 hit.
“I just got very upset because it was clear to me at that point that the governor (David Ige) had the interests of the visitor industry as his priority,” Rapozo said. “Charlie and I are like brothers and the first guest I wanted to bring on was the chief of police, so it only made sense to involve Charlie.”
It was personal for Iona. On Sunday, March 29, he saw a Facebook post that said his brother, Ed Bissen, who lived on Long Island, had come down with COVID-19. Iona talked to Bissen on the phone that day. But a day later, there was no answer and Iona found out Bissen was in the hospital. Then he was put on a ventilator.
On April 4 there was another phone call, Iona said. “It appeared he had no brain activity and, when they turned off the life support, he passed away within a minute or so,” Iona recalled.
So Iona agreed to join forces with Rapozo and the partnership is still going strong. Rapozo’s day job is as an investigator for Kauai County Prosecutor Justin Kollar.
“The bottom line is I think we can do more for the betterment of the community with the show than I could as one of seven people on the County Council,” Rapozo said.
“I think Mel and Charlie are two people who clearly care very much for the health and safety of this community.” — Kauai Prosecuting Attorney Justin Kollar
Typical of the dialogue, one recent evening found Rapozo indignant about how ludicrous it is for government officials to think people drinking in bars will actually pay any attention to COVID precautions. His frustration obvious, Rapozo exclaimed, “Why are the bars even open? Why are these high risk places even open?”
There was a hiccup in late July after Hawaii News Now identified Rapozo as one of Kollar’s investigators in a story reporting on ways tourists and their enablers had devised to beat the quarantine system. Actually, the discussion in which Rapozo made statements attributed to him had occurred on the show and Rapozo had not referenced his job on Hawaii News Now.
Kollar was not terribly concerned. “I think Mel and Charlie are two people who clearly care very much for the health and safety of this community,” he said. “Their show has helped to educate and inform our residents. I don’t mind him identifying himself as an employee here.”
Kouchi, whose district is on Kauai, said the Mel and Charlie Show is followed in government circles in Honolulu. He said the sentiments expressed on the air are valuable, largely because they tend to validate polling and other data on COVID-19 issues that lawmakers also see.
State Rep. Nadine Nakamura, who represents one of Kauai’s three districts and has appeared on the show, said she’s been impressed at the depth of penetration the program has, especially among policymakers.
“I was a little nervous doing a Zoom conference call on Facebook live, but Mel and Charlie have it all worked out,” Nakamura said. “It’s a great way to get useful information out. This format keeps everyone safe.”
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