‘A Trusted Voice’: Honolulu Radio Station KNDI Entertains And Informs Non-English Speakers

The Filipino-owned station broadcasts in 13 languages. But after 60 years of programming, it faces the challenge of attracting a new generation of listeners.

KNDI 1270 AM’s weekday morning radio host Flor Martinez, aka “Mr. Parbangon,” speaks with guest Joselito Agustin Jr., a retired Navy chief petty officer. Photo: David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Broadcasting out of a small, white bungalow in Honolulu, KNDI 1270 AM Radio has provided news, entertainment, faith-based programming and critical information for Hawaii’s growing immigrant population for over 60 years.

Now in the digital age, an old guard of dedicated Filipino hosts hopes the next generation will keep the momentum going.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic and in the months leading up to the Nov. 8 election, the station dubbed “The Voices From Around the World” has proven to be a valuable resource for people in Hawaii who do not speak English well, or at all. It also provides a link to their homelands with music, talk shows and other programming.

KNDI is becoming increasingly relevant to migratory audiences as well as the advertisers, leaders and public service entities seeking to reach them. The station reaches people not only across the Hawaiian islands but throughout the Asia-Pacific region and out at sea. Some listeners in Europe and North America have also called in after picking up signals.

“When I came here, I was surprised that there was a Filipino Ilocano radio station that my auntie and her tenants listened to. It seemed like I was in Ilocos Norte in the Philippines because there’s KNDI on the radio,” recalled Marissa Dela Cruz, director of clinical operations at the Kalihi-Palama Health Center. She now frequently makes public service health announcements on the station.

Philippines Filipino Fil-Am KNDI 1270 AM Radio Station Studio 1734 South King Street
The broadcasting center of KNDI 1270 AM Radio at 1734 South King Street, pictured on Oct. 18, 2022. Jia Jung/Civil Beat/2022

KNDI’s programs serve a growing need for foreign language services in Hawaii. The station’s 30 hosts speak 13 languages: English, Chinese, Chuukese, Laotian, Marshallese, Okinawan, Pohnpeian, Samoan, Spanish, Tongan, Vietnamese, and the Filipino dialects of Ilocano and Tagalog.

According to 2020 census data released earlier this month, one in 10 adults in Hawaii speaks English “less than very well.” Over half of this demographic is from the Philippines, which comprises the largest and fastest-growing ethnic group in the state. Since 2010, the number of Filipinos who speak limited English has increased by 60%, from 51,000 to 81,000 individuals.

Original Concept

The initial concept when KNDI first aired on June 7, 1960 from its original studio at the International Marketplace in Waikiki was an “all-girl” lineup with  “sweet, snob-appeal.” The idea did not last. The station incorporated more ethnic and religious content in subsequent years, including “Filipino Leisure Hour” featuring Bonnie Pascua, Margarita Suyat and Marina Crisostomo in 1972.

Philippines Filipino Fil-Am KNDI 1270 AM Radio All-Girl
KNDI advertisement for “Candy” 1270 AM’s “all-girl” radio event in The Honolulu Advertiser on Oct. 9, 1960. The Honolulu Advertiser

Meanwhile, a woman named Leona Jona who had entered the U.S. as a refugee from the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 went to work as an accountant for KNDI in the 1970s. She took charge of programming in 1976 with Maggie Domingo, a prominent Filipina in Honolulu who, at age 92, still broadcasts live shows at dawn on weekends.

After purchasing the station in 1988, Jona founded Ethnic Education Hawaii in 1993, a nonprofit group eligible for grants supporting broadcasts for non-English speakers. The organization’s other partners include Japanese and Korean radio and TV stations in Honolulu.

KNDI also gets funding from listener contributions and advertising revenue from Medicare-related companies and other businesses targeting older listeners.

Some politicians make personal appearances to speak to the Filipino community in addition to placing campaign ads. On Oct. 19, Republican gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona spoke with host Flor Martinez during his morning show.

“Without education, you cannot stay in mainstream America. We rally our Filipinos to be at par with people in America. We have to organize. We have to vote,” the 76-year-old host said. For over 40 years, he has invited guests from the Filipino community and provided news from sources in the Philippine provinces in addition to Manila.

Born in the Ilocos region, Martinez traveled to Hawaii on assignment to the Philippine Consulate in 1977 with the task of explaining the martial law that then-President Ferdinand Marcos had imposed on the Philippines. This was before the dictator was overthrown by the People Power Revolution of 1986 and exiled to Hawaii. The media-facing position led Martinez to KISA Filipino radio. When that station folded, Jona invited him to KNDI.

Philippines Filipino Fil-Am KNDI 1270 AM Radio James Ownby Leona Jona Larry Ordonez
KNDI’s founder James Ownby, left, subsequent owner Leona Jona, center, and longtime KNDI host Larry Ordonez pose together. Courtesy: KNDI Radio

“I thank Leona for all her foresight, to have all the ethnicities on the same station so we can survive,” he says.

Today, KNDI is one of the only 66 radio stations serving Honolulu that is owned and operated by Filipinos — Geronimo Malabed Jr. and his wife Nellie.

Now residing at 1734 S. King St., KNDI is busier than ever as Hawaii’s non-English speaking population grows.

The interior of the station’s building is filled with audio equipment and memorabilia. Playback from the studio hisses out of a dusty black boombox on a plaid-papered countertop stacked with local publications such as The Fil-Am Courier and The Filipino Chronicle, as well as flyers from the community.

Filipinos and other immigrants stop by here when they first arrive in Hawaii, eager to find familiar voices. The hosts often throw welcome parties for newcomers at Blaisdell Park.

The station’s long-standing relationships with the city and state’s public and health emergency management entities are also deepening as pandemics, global conflict, and climate change consequences loom.

Public Service

“They do more than any radio station does in a single language,” John Cummings III, a spokesman with Honolulu’s Department of Emergency Management, said of the KNDI staff. The agency provides public service announcements for translation by KNDI and makes studio visits to disseminate emergency notifications and disaster preparedness information for hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions.

“There’s something about that one voice in one set of ears. It’s a connection that makes radio a trusted voice.” – Adam Weintraub, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency has outfitted KNDI with a generator in case it ever gets thrown off-grid. “There’s something about that one voice in one set of ears. It’s a connection that makes radio a trusted voice. It’s very powerful. People develop relationships with the voices on radio,” the agency’s communications director Adam Weintraub said.

≈ Emergency Generator
This generator, supplied to KNDI by Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, is meant to ensure uninterrupted communications with the limited-English speaking community in case of an emergency or disaster. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Dela Cruz’s first appearance on KNDI was when her employer, the Kalihi-Palama Health Center, sought an Ilocano speaker to persuade older Filipinos to adopt healthy eating habits and get diabetes screenings. Years later, the health center collaborated with FilCom CARES, an initiative responding to Covid-19 by setting up vaccination clinics at at schools, churches and other community locations.

She recalled that KNDI shone through as a trustworthy resource for the Filipino community, which was among the groups hardest-hit by the pandemic. She says,

“There are so many sources of information. We need to make sure that we filter them and deliver the message. Yes, it is your body. Yes, it is your choice. And here is the information that’s backed by effective practice guidelines like the CDC and the Department of Health – the gold standard on the radio, not just from fake news.”

FilCom CARES began hosting a half-hour segment with Covid-19, health, and wellness information on Larry Ordonez’s Sunday evening show. Dela Cruz no longer appears on the radio much but helps FilCom CARES find multilingual speakers for KNDI. Her aunt and grandmother, both 95, still listen to KNDI nonstop. Her 16-year-old daughter grew up hearing the programming.

“I’m telling people: I bring the Philippines closer to you.” — KNDI host Ernie Bautista

Hosts say their challenge now is to engage more members of the younger generation.

Martinez livestreams his show on Facebook to capture a wider audience. Fellow KNDI host Ernesto “Ernie” Bautista, 82, uploads self-recordings of his Tuesday evening segments to his Facebook account. Each post brings in hundreds of likes and comments; he replies to each one.

Philippines Filipino Fil-Am KNDI 1270 AM Radio Host Ernesto Ernie Bautista
KNDI 1270 AM Radio host Ernesto “Ernie” Bautista preps for another live installment of “Filipino Fiesta”. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

He says that the legacy of Ilocano and Filipino language programming goes back to the sakadas, farm laborers from the Philippines who were contracted to work on sugar cane and pineapple plantations in Hawaii beginning in the early 20th century.

“During those days, they were lonely and they needed entertainment. Some of those guys came here as supposedly illiterate but were smart,” Bautista says.

Philippines Filipino Fil-Am KNDI 1270 AM Filipino Fiesta Tata Faustino Respicio
Faustino Respecio, widely regarded as the “Ed Sullivan of the Filipino Community in Hawaii,” pictured on the cover of a souvenir book he made when “Filipino Fiesta” wrapped after 33 years. Faustino Respicio/KHON2/1986

When Bautista came to Hawaii on an education visa on Dec. 17, 1958,  Ilocos Norte transplant and broadcast producer Faustino Respicio had already launched a variety TV show called “Filipino Fiesta” on KHON2 in October 1954. The show lasted until 1986 – the longest running locally produced television program in Hawaii, with a radio spinoff as well.

Bautista became involved in the show. Martinez and Ordonez followed. The “Filipino Fiesta” alumni continue hosting at KNDI today. Ordonez was also president of Ethnic Education Hawaii from 2019 until earlier this year, when he handed off the leadership to Dr. Agnes Malate, a professor at the University of Hawaii and co-chair of FilCom CARES.

After over 40 years of hosting, Bautista says, “Most of my program is still ‘Filipino Fiesta.’ I’m telling people: I bring the Philippines closer to you.”

Bautista said younger Filipinos in America listen to KNDI to learn and maintain language skills.

Dela Cruz, who speaks English, Ilocano, Tagalog, Itaglish and and a dash of Visayan, said there’s a gap between recent immigrants from the Philippines, children of immigrants born in Hawaii and second or third generation descendants of Filipinos who understand traces of the language at best.

She thinks KNDI should try to identify issues that interest the largest common denominator of young Filipinos – perhaps stories of young immigrants navigating culture shock or experiences that all teenagers encounter.

Bryan Munoz, 40, the station’s first second-generation host, could be a bridge for these younger Filipinos listeners. The Hawaii-born Filipino American remembers how much his father Byrne (pronounced “Bernie”) Munoz, a beloved KNDI host, tried to get him and his siblings to take interest in broadcasting. But he remained aloof, only sporadically covering for his father if he went on vacation. But in 2009, when his father had a paralyzing stroke, Munoz stepped in the next day to keep the “Fun-O-Rama” show of Ilocano music and modern hits going.

Fun-O-Rama

Bryan Munoz opens his Fun-O-Rama show on Oct. 18, 2022.

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Munoz has gone from never speaking Filipino to incorporating both Ilocano and Tagalog into his shows. He is learning the languages from his Philippine-born cousins Chester and Ronnel Tangonan, who often co-host with him. As production manager, he is in the studio almost daily, often overnight. At 3:30 to 4:30 a.m. during these graveyard shifts, he hears his father’s voice on reruns of “Linabag Ti Napalabas,” a reverb-rich serial drama translated as “Memories of Yesterday.”

Linabag Ti Napalabas

Narrated by Byrne Munoz in the early 1980s, at the beginning of his KNDI hosting career

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He said it took awhile for his father’s fans to embrace him. “I had one caller though, after a week or two. He told me, ‘You know, we miss your dad. Get off the air. You suck.’ And I was crying,” he recalled. But by the time his father passed away in January 2021, Munoz had won over old listeners and earned new ones. The process has brought him back to his roots.

Bryan Munoz's Journey

Story of Bryan Munoz, KNDI's first second-generation host

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Fans approach him constantly, especially if he is riding TheBus or eating at a Zippy’s in the heavily Filipino-populated spots of Waipahu or Kalihi.

“Even if they haven’t seen me, they’ll hear my voice, and they’re like: ‘You’re that guy on the radio!’” Munoz says. He jokes that he will have to frequent other parts of Oahu if he wants some space.

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