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Raising the Titanic—Akakū-Style

October 7, 2010
Norm Bezane

Leading the charge is Akakū CEO Jay April, a long-time TV producer, documentary filmmaker and public access advocate.

April was brought in during a first skirmish in 2004 and is now in battle mode again (see my next column for details).

April’s Maui story began in 1993 with a $1 million Onyx super-computer sitting idle in an Upcountry mansion. (A similar Onyx was used by George Lukas to produce the original Star Wars.) The wealthy owner of the computer sought out April, then an award-winning, Los Angles-based, out-of-work TV producer, who had created an environmental series for CNN and a series for PBS called The Nineties.

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Akakū CEO Jay April is a long-time TV producer, documentary filmmaker and public access advocate.

Agreeing on a three-month contract, April planned to use the Onyx to make an animated IMAX film of Hawaiian birds, of all things. Sidetracked, he later finished a project for McDonald’s that U.S Today called the best TV commercial shown during that year’s Super Bowl telecast.

April, it seems, has been a bit of a maverick since his school days. “I was always kind of an activist, even when I was a child,” he said. “I was always in the principal’s office. I would always ask the question everybody was thinking, but was afraid to ask. I have always been pretty enamored with the natural world, and I have never tolerated injustice. I don’t know if it’s my Irish roots or what.”

April’s first exposure to video came at Boston College when he became fascinated with a crude portable video recorder and realized it could be used to make TV programming. “I was an early adapter,” he said.

Early adapting became a habit. For his first Maui gig, the talented documentary producer was one of the first in the country set up Web cam, which he positioned in Kīhei. Later, Akakū was one of the first to use Skype in TV reports.

Long story short, as he puts it, this lifelong environmentalist eventually ended up joining the Akakū Board of Directors, and three years later, succeeded Akakū pioneer Sean McLaughlin, who left after being embroiled in controversy.

At the time, Akakū was engaged in a free speech battle royal with a local developer, other business interests and “bureaucrats” from Honolulu who, he said, threatened the station’s very existence.

Akakū had been set up as a public access channel by the state, financed by a 3 percent slice of revenues TV cable companies were required to provide by law. Segments taped by independent producers were very critical of a well-known island developer the Honolulu Star Bulletin identified as Everett Dowling.

According to April, the developer once said that if he could do it, he would shut down Akakū. April further maintains the developer has spent huge sums to cripple the station.

Today, April admitted that “some of the criticism may have been unfair, but we do not police free speech in this country the way the Soviet Union does.”

Think of commercial TV as a series of buildings in a community, April explained. “Public access TV is like a park. Everyone can come in. It is non-discriminatory,” adding that even Facebook is not free speech venue. The social network recently dropped an anti-BP Facebook page that was put up after the oil spill, said April.

The Akakū board became bitterly split, some backing critics and others asserting free speech. Some pro-business and education advocates wanted to give three-fourths of the cable revenue to Maui Community College (now the University of Hawai‘i Maui College), which would have led to Akakū’s financial failure. A compromise with the state resulted in Akakū turning one-fourth of its revenues over to the college channel.

A judge later dissolved the board to replace its contentious membership. The new board called on Jay to become CEO to turn around the beleaguered Akakū.

It didn’t feel right that the “land community” that wants gated real estate now wanted electronic real estate as well, said April. “The board called me up and wanted me to run the joint. I couldn’t walk away from it,” he said. “I was committed to access TV, so I figured, you know, I have six months to paint the Titanic, fill the holes and raise it. That was in 2004.”

Good news for Maui. April would eventually shape Akakū’s three community access channels into some of the best in the nation, according to colleagues at national conventions.

Akakū has been sailing high on the waves ever since.

 
 
 

 

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