Story by Dennis Hollier
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.”
At first glance the taciturn Mussell doesn’t seem like a “get it done” kind of guy, let alone the type you’d find shinnying up radio towers in a stiff breeze in the dead of night. He’s a slight man with a delicate build and wry, twinkly eyes. At the station he shuffles around in old, worn slippers, khakis rolled up to his ankles and a faded flannel shirt. He’s contemplative, and like most engineers, his conversation is laconic and laced with jargon. When he speaks he has an ironic, vaguely elfin expression and the kind of composure that makes him seem more like a college professor than a man of action. Even so, if you’re one of HPR’s many devoted fans, you owe a debt of gratitude to Mussell. If you’ve ever tuned in for Morning Edition on your commute from Hale‘iwa, listened to All Things Considered over lunch in Lahaina or sipped a beer in Kealakekua to the syncopated rhythms of Jazz with Don Gordon, it’s largely because of Mussell’s technical skills.
Mussell came to Hawai‘i in 1997 after nearly thirty years as a broadcast engineer on the Mainland to build KKCR, Kaua‘i’s public access station. While he was working on KKCR, he took other assignments on the Mainland. “I was going back and forth, back and forth,” Mussell says. “Then, one day I was sitting there in the KKCR station when Michael Titterton came in. ‘Who are you?’ he said. And I said, ‘I guess I’m the engineer.’ Well, there’s a real shortage of engineers here, so he said, ‘Do you have a card?’” It wasn’t long afterward that Mussell found himself in the vanguard of HPR’s expansion.
That expansion, of course, has depended on the contributions of a lot of people—not least on the vision and commitment of executives like Titterton. But at heart the changes have been technological. As an engineer, Mussell is a jack-of-all-trades. “I think I’ve built about forty radio stations,” he says. “So I do everything.” A quick tour of the studio gives a sense of his eclecticism. The equipment racks, for example, are crammed with gear. Electronic monitors track the power output, the signal and even the temperature of the mountaintop translators. Tuners receive feeds from National Public Radio, untold hours of Fresh Air and Prairie Home Companion. Other devices allow HPR to stream content on the web and monitor how many people are listening. Still another machine allows HPR to talk to other stations around the world. Mussell is responsible for all this equipment. “I selected and installed the wire, I punched it all up, I installed the electronics, made all the connections,” he says. “I even picked the furniture.”
Still, most of Mussell’s work is in the field. FM radio is line-of-sight; mountains and the curvature of the Earth can block its signal. Consequently, HPR relies upon a network of translator stations—boosters, essentially—to ferry its signals around the state. “There are seven in all,” Mussell says. “Three on O‘ahu; on Maui we have one; and on the Big Island we have three.” Much of Mussell’s time is spent visiting and servicing these translators. One of his most important achievements has been the construction of the new KIPO translator up on Tantalus. This location, peeking over the substantial barricades of the Ko‘olau range, gives HPR direct coverage of most of O‘ahu and offers line-of-sight access to the translator on Maui. “On a clear day,” Mussell says, “you can actually see the top of Haleakala.”
This is part of what makes the Tantalus translator the future of HPR. The translator, completed in 2008, seems like a modest structure: a standard tall radio tower for the antenna and a small, windowless building perched on a tiny ridge-top plot of land carved from a bamboo jungle. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. “This tower is designed to withstand 140-mile-per-hour winds,” Mussell points out. “The foundation goes down thirty feet.” And the electronics inside are no less astonishing: The coaxial cable that connects the actual transmitter to the antenna is made of one-inch copper pipe threaded through four-inch copper pipe, a stout configuration that can handle about sixty kilowatts—enough juice to power a whole neighborhood.
Such power, Mussell says, is another part of the mystery of radio. The Tantalus translator operates at twenty-nine kilowatts. But by using the right antenna, Mussell can focus that power to over four hundred kilowatts—or higher. “We could boost that to a thousand kilowatts if we wanted.” Of course, that much energy might raise public concerns about the health effects of high-power electromagnetic fields. The Pu‘u ‘Öhi‘a Trail, a spur trail of the popular Makiki trail system, passes close by the Tantalus translator. “We have to minimize the energy on the ground for hikers,” he says. “Down on the ground, it’s just a small percentage of the federal limit on public exposure.” Up on the tower, though, it’s more intense—up to 340 percent.
All this makes the Tantalus translator HPR’s most sophisticated facility, and it’s the reason even residents of distant Hilo can now tune in to KIPO after suffering decades of public radio silence. While Mussell’s pleased to play a critical if behind-the-scenes role in the thriving world of Hawai‘i community radio, it’s really the magic that’s kept him interested. He’s fond of paraphrasing Einstein: “Wire telegraphy is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York, and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Radio operates exactly the same way: You send the signals here, they receive them there. The only difference,” Mussell says, “is that there is no cat.”