It's 2:50 a.m. on a Monday morning.
You make your way through the dark and deserted pathway leading to the back of Hemenway Hall on the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa campus, and walk up a dim flight of stairs. The entire building is sealed and locked down, save for a single organization: the KTUH radio broadcast station. You’re about to play your first probationary three-hour time slot, and you’re more amped than anyone has a right to be at this unholy hour.
The student-run, noncommercial radio station KTUH has been keeping Hawai‘i’s airwaves diverse since 1969. Part of that process includes teaching and training new DJs to carry on the legacy. And by train, I mean some serious Radio Miyagi business.
“It's tough for the DJs, and it's designed to be physically grueling—that's why we run those weird hours,” says Nick Yee. “The training separates the men from the boys, if you will, in that if you don't want to truly be there, you're going to leave. It's definitely a nocturnal thing. It's a rite of passage for a lot of people.”
Yee is better known as DJ Mr. Nick. He’s a former training director at KTUH and currently runs a radio show on Hawaiʻi Public Radio (HPR) called “Bridging the Gap.”
“I had wanted to be there for God-knows how long,” Yee says about his own training experience. “Having idolized KTUH and KTUH DJs for so long—I don't want to say it was like the holy pilgrimage...but it kind of was in a way. When I got the call back and I realized they were going to let me touch the board and actually, like, throw a song on there, it was the coolest feeling in the world.”
But before he got to operate the board or spin vinyl on air, Yee—just like everyone else that wants to become a KTUH DJ—had to go through the rigorous training program.
To become qualified, trainees are required to complete a once-a-week training class with the training director for four weeks (from midnight to 3 a.m.); a written Federal Communications Commission (FCC) policies and procedures test; an essay about why they want a particular show slot; an on-air check where DJs record an hour sample of what their show might sound like; and the successive completion of a minimum eight-week probation in a practice slot from 3 to 6 a.m.
Even after all this, there’s no guarantee aspiring DJs will get their dream radio time slot, as openings depend on the show grid and what’s available.
We don't play any Top 40 and we want variety.
“DJs bring different personalities, strengths, and weaknesses to a show, and different musical tastes, so we have to find the best place for them to fit on the show grid that makes sense with the other current shows,” says current KTUH General Manager (and former training director) Paige Okamura. “We have genre listings for time slots, and certain slots are high drive times because they’re during commute times. Some of it also comes down to FCC policy. If you want to play hip-hop, that's great, but unless you have clean versions of all your songs, we're not going to be able to put you on air until after 10:30 p.m.”
The training class spans four weekly sessions that go from midnight to 3 a.m. The first two nights show the three or four aspiring DJs how the station functions overall, going over programming, the “show grid,” how to run a show, and FCC and station policies. The last two nights have the wanna-DJs alternating practice on-air. The Training Director checks to make sure the DJs’ musical selections are up to par.
“I don't tell people what they should play,” says Okamura. “Everybody has their own tastes, and the first day isn't always the best day to ask to see the depth of your musical taste, because you're probably picking stuff you're used to. But I can tell you what you should not be playing: we don't play any Top 40 and we want variety.”
After the four-week training session, the wanna-DJs are moved to a probationary slot at 3 to 6 a.m. Here, they can begin to refine their shows, develop a feel for their on-air personas, as well as practice the technical aspects of working the board, talking on the mic, and juggling music.
“I have to be comfortable leaving them alone, in terms of FCC policy, working the board—everything,” says Okamura. “If I feel uncomfortable with any of those things, I would pull them out. Normally though, by the end of four weeks with me, you should be able to run a show on your own."
On The Air
“The 3–6 slot often produces a really wacky show, because the students are experimenting and they're doing whatever they want before they see daylight hours,” says Yee. “We tell them [to] get all of your weirdness out before. Get it out now, because not a lot of people are listening now, and if you do this weird [stuff] during a daylight show, it's not going to fly.”
There are very few radio stations that will teach what KTUH teaches, if any.
When Yee went through training, the class was also at 3 a.m., a policy he changed when he became Training Director because, “by that point, I was old and crotchety and I didn't want to come in that late because it would screw up my sleep schedule.”
Not everyone feels the same, especially since wanna-DJs can’t miss a single day of class (or their probation) or be late. “Often we immediately know who's going to make it and who isn't,” says Yee.
Which is important because, as Okamura tells me, “Part of KTUH's mission is to educate not only the campus community but the outside community. This is like a learning lab, but what you're learning in here, what you do in here, affects the community outside because they're the ones listening to you. There's no other station that's like KTUH in giving you 100 percent creative freedom and totally hands on experience. That's part of our purpose...to give [DJs] that kind of experience.”
“One of the reasons it's so rare and important is because this sort of hands-on training doesn't happen very much any more,” says Yee. “There are very few radio stations that will teach what KTUH teaches, if any. Even HPR doesn't teach talking on the mic, juggling music, selecting music plus all the FCC licensing stuff. You used to have to go to broadcasting school for that, so the fact that this is something that KTUH offers for free is really special. We're so lucky to actually have a resource like that."
Tune in to KTUH and hear a live DJ, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 90.3 FM in Honolulu, 91.1 FM on the North Shore, 89.9 FM on the Windward side, streaming on Time Warner Digital Cable channel 866, and online at www.ktuh.org.