By ERIN MILLER
Christine Kaehuaea may have sold one of KAHU-FM’s transmitters Wednesday morning.
The manager, who came to the Pahala-based community radio in late 2011, has been slowly paring down the station’s remaining equipment and office supplies, selling what she can to offset about $68,000 in debt the station accrued during its last 18 months of operation.
“When it started, there was no business plan set up,” Kaehuaea said. “There was no test for sustainability.”
KAHU, the station at 91.7 on the radio dial, was the only station serving residents from Volcano to Naalehu. About 11,000 people live in the station’s coverage area, Kaehuaea said. The station stopped broadcasting in April and the manager earlier this month circulated an email list of equipment remaining to be sold. She already donated a number of office supplies to nonprofits and community groups, she said.
Kaehuaea’s father, Wendell, launched the station in 2010, picking the community radio format. He did so without first securing nonprofit status, Kaehuaea said.
The community radio format played a role in the station’s fiscal downfall, she added. The Federal Communications Commission offers discounts to community radio stations for certain applications, but also limits what community radio can do to raise funds. The station couldn’t sell products or advertising and was forced to rely on donations to cover operating costs.
All of the employees — Kaehuaea included — were volunteers. She praised the Ka‘u community for the help offered the station, from finding her a place to raising $2,800 in one night to keep the station’s electricity on. Employees at Hawaii Electric Light Co. and Oceanic Time Warner Cable went out of their way, she said, to keep the station running.
“Had it been commercial radio, it probably would have survived,” Kaehuaea said. “There was potential to sustain ourselves.”
Ka‘u has a reputation of being an economically depressed district, but Kaehuaea said there are residents in the area with deep pockets.
“There is a lot of influential people,” she said, adding that those people couldn’t see how they could get a good return on an investment in the small station.
KAHU isn’t the only small, community radio station to sign off of the airwaves in recent years. Kaehuaea said many members of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters are running out of funds, particularly following the country’s recent economic downturn. Broadcasters are starting to discuss whether the FCC should relax or change fundraising rules for small, community stations.
Stations with larger markets, such as Honolulu-based Hawaii Public Radio, have fewer issues doing the fundraising, Kaehuaea added.
Hawaii Public Radio is in the process of buying the station’s call letters, which will allow the broadcaster to resume airing Civil Defense alerts and, maybe, bring some of the local radio hosts back, Kaehuaea said. The FCC is set to issue its approval of the agreement in August.
KAHU was the only station available to residents from Naalehu to Volcano, and reached about 11,000 residents from Ocean View to Kalapana.
When she arrived in Ka‘u about 18 months after KAHU took to the airwaves, she found the station hadn’t done a good job of advertising its presence.
“Because radio had never been here before, they didn’t have radios,” she said of residents she met in the community. “There was more digital technology here. There were some people in town who didn’t realize they had (a radio station). They were so happy to have something to break the silence.”
The station also served as a conduit to broadcast Civil Defense alerts.
Before KAHU was operating, “you could hear the sirens, but didn’t know why” they were sounding, Kaehuaea said.
She said she’s heard from community members that they miss the station, and the community continues to rally around her, even if they couldn’t save KAHU.
“Even to this day, they’ve found me places until I can get my feet back on the ground,” she said.
Anyone interested in purchasing what remains of KAHU’s equipment can contact Kaehuaea at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Email Erin Miller at email@example.com.