Story by Dawn Southard
Photos by Charles E. Freeman
High up Tantalus Drive, on a ridge overlooking the Honolulu skyline, Don Mussell practices the occult art of radio. As the broadcast engineer for Hawai‘i Public Radio, Mussell installs and maintains all its equipment. Today he’s come up the mountain to check on HPR’s new powerhouse: the KIPO FM 89.3 translator. This station—a radio tower bristling with antennas and a small cinderblock building to house the electronics that go with them—is essentially a powerful booster capturing the KIPO signal from HPR’s Honolulu studio and relaying that signal throughout O‘ahu and far out over the Pacific to translators on Maui and the Big Island.
Hawai‘i, with its mountain ranges and its vast distances between islands, is an inhospitable place for radio. The Tantalus translator, designed and built by Mussell, is the linchpin in HPR’s ambitious scheme to extend its two broadcast streams—KHPR for classical music and KIPO for jazz and public affairs—to every part of the state. In almost every other market of similar size, public radio has forsaken one of these streams; HPR clings to both religiously. And if this is its creed, Don Mussell is its high priest.
Radio, Mussell says, is mysterious. From his point of view, the atmosphere is a pulsing matrix of radio waves both invisible and substantial, vibrating at various frequencies and wavelengths. “Microwaves are about this long,” Mussell says, holding his hands a few inches apart, “but FM is about ten feet, TV is about forty-five feet and AM can be miles long.” He pauses for a moment while I envision all these radio signals vibrating over the ridges and valleys of the Ko‘olau. This tissue of energy is no abstraction for Mussell, and understanding its ebb and flow is the key to figuring out how and where to build facilities like the Tantalus translator.
“That’s the way this magical stuff works,” Mussell says. “The layers of complexity are pretty astounding.”
But if the physics of radio is arcane, its bureaucracy is even more inscrutable. Here, too, HRP depends on Mussell. General manager Michael Titterton explains that for many years the FCC imposed a freeze on new public radio licenses. About six years ago this became a serious, potentially insurmountable impediment to HPR’s ambition to bring public radio to the entire state. “Then, just at the right moment, Don Mussell showed up,” Titterton says. Besides being a technical wiz, Mussell, as it turns out, is also a master navigator of the Byzantine world of FCC regulation. “Don has almost a Renaissance approach to radio,” Titterton says, “in part because he’s good engineer, in part because he’s a good strategist and in part because he has the patience to go through all the FCC hoops.”