I met with Norm Winter on an evening in February 2014 several months after I had recorded a previous conversation of ours. I should say that that conversation—which took place at the Aloha Lounge sometime in the Spring of 2013 during one of Jah Gumby’s Rub-A-Dub all-vinyl reggae sessions, and which gave us an overview of how Jelly’s came to be (and why other records stores in Hawaii failed to stay in business)—I recorded without his knowledge. I’ve since apologized to Norm about publishing our pseudo-interview without his prior permission, and he’s since forgiven me.
If you don’t know Norm, you might think he’s an irritable guy. But take a moment to get to know him and you’ll discover he’s extremely knowledgeable about music, is critical of the world around us (that’s a good thing), a no-bullshit no-filter kind of dude who’s passionate about what he’s doing and likes having a good time while cracking a few jokes.
In his defense, there’s a lot wrong with this world—the music industry, the radio industry—to gripe about. Funny thing is (and it’s probably because of that conversation I published last year) I think he likes to heckle me whenever he gets a chance. It’s hilarious.
We sat down at a late-night restaurant in Kaimuki for the following Norm-approved interview. Norm is something of a regular here, bringing his laptop along to work on his writing (he’s currently putting together a few books, both fiction and non-fiction). When I ordered a Sapporo, the waitress didn’t card me. I remarked: “I guess they didn’t need to card me”. Norm swiftly replied with a slight smirk: “Well, you look suspicious.”
It’s taken me months to finish transcribing this interview, and I’ve seen Norm many times since February. Each time he’s asked me, “How’s that thing going?” and I’ll tell him—somewhat reluctantly since it’s taken so long to complete—“It’s coming along, it’s almost there”. Norm usually says something snappy: “I guess I’ll know when it’s published cause it’ll hit me like the last one did.”
Well, here it is Norm.
Before we get into it, I want readers to know that Norm is the music buyer for Jelly’s. In other words, he is solely responsible for bringing in all those used and new vinyl records that fill the racks at both Jelly’s locations. Norm is also responsible for the affordable price tags and—better yet—the crates and crates of $1 records at Jelly’s monthly sidewalk sale.
Without Jelly’s—without Norm—Oahu wouldn’t have such easy access to an ever-changing selection of affordable vinyl that will surprise you almost every time you walk through the doors. Because of Norm, I’m able to dig up new gems to spin every month at Soul Time In Hawaii (which happens every last Thursday across the street at Bevy Bar). It’s Norm who keeps Honolulu’s digging habit satiated, keeps collectors on our toes, and keeps us wondering throughout the day (every day) what might possibly be passing through his hands at this moment.
Thank you Norm for helping make Jelly’s the institution that it is.
And, as you’ll find out, Norm is also responsible for another local albeit now-defunct institution.
Norm Winter once changed the way we listened to radio. It was called Radio Free Hawaii, and it revolutionized the airwaves by putting listeners in charge with a ballot-counting system that determined what DJs could play on the radio. Without Norm, scores of people in Hawaii wouldn’t had enjoyed the musically rich, community-centered, boundary-pushing station that was Radio Free Hawaii KDEO 102.7FM.
In our interview below, Norm looks back at Radio Free Hawaii and discusses his thoughts on the music industry leading up to today.
*Note: all photos found via the Radio Free Hawaii Facebook group.
Do you wanna just jump into this?
Give me your full name, what you go by, what your occupation is so we can get that all cleared up and out of the way.
My name is Norm Winter, I do the music department at Jelly’s. I manage it, so to speak, I do the buying. I don’t do much managing, actually. I just do it.
And I created the format of Radio Free Hawaii, from 1991 to 1997.
Some people call you Sheriff Norm.
That started at the radio station. The day before we started Radio [Free Hawaii] we did a skit with monkeys. In the skit, the monkeys don’t believe the bosses but they finally, after all this hullabaloo and fighting in the skit—which aired on the radio before we started the radio station—they decided they needed a sheriff to monitor the people. And so I got the job as sheriff.
Sheriff Norm, Chief Monitor Of The Airwaves, Here To Eradicate All Airhogs From Ever Scouring The Airwaves Ever Again.
And then I did the sledgehammering on Saturdays where I would crush the record that got voted as the least song that wanted to be heard on the radio.
So, wait, every Saturday you—
We had a Hawaiian Islands news report every Saturday which we—we had a voting system where you voted for the songs you wanted to hear and voted again for the ones you didn’t wanted to hear. A lot of the songs got more negative votes than positive.
The first week the most negative song was Vanilla Ice “Ice, Ice, Baby”. This was in ’91. I think it had over a thousand negative votes. [laughs] So I promptly sledgehammered it to death, physically.
Unfortunately when I sledgehammered it to death, I broke the floor. So the next week, the least-wanted-to-be-heard song was New Kids On The Block “Step By Step”. We would go out onto the steps, we had an old fashioned building with wooden steps outside, so the guy that owned the building decided we better do it outside. So I go outside, and I broke the steps. [laughs]
What happened the next week?
Oh, it went on and on and on. Every week we would sledgehammer another song [that listeners didn’t want to hear on the radio].
So people could positive or negative votes.
You get 10 positives and three negatives.
Any song they wanted?
Anything, I didn’t care what it was. First week, the fourth most-wanted-to-be-heard song in Hawaii was “Fuck The Police” by N.W.A.
In those days, we thought we had to edit it, so we lost a minute of the song with just the “fucks”. But we played it. We played it in high rotation that week.
Let’s go back, because you were in radio before Radio Free Hawaii, right?
I was mostly doing radio commercials for Jelly’s.
Ever since then you’ve been the face of Jelly’s.
Totally, my wife owned it in the beginning and I guess it turned out like that because I did the music department and she did the comics department.
How did you and a group of DJs get together to start Radio Free Hawaii? Was it the monkeys?
No, that was ’91. The format itself, I was out of work in 1977 so I started figuring out a way to, I was kind of obsessed with radio so I was trying to figure out what was wrong with it. Boy did it suck. You think it sucks then, but of course today it’s beyond belief suck.
At that time, it was a great mystery to me. I did this questionnaires where I called people up on the phone. I was a mad man. I was out of work, I wasn’t doing anything, I would just call people up and talk to them about radio and if I had a list of questions I’d just—
—random phone numbers. I just rang the phone numbers. I didn’t even look at the phone number, I just dialed at random. I called a couple thousand people like that. I was trying to get a feel for how the mentality was about radio.
One of the questions was “What kind of music do you like?” and they fought the question. “Oh, I like all kinds of music.” Of course, a 14-year-old doesn’t like country music. The idea was that they wanted to feel like they liked all kinds of music. So they were basically fighting the way radio was at the time. Radio was doing Adult Contemporary, a Jazz station, Easy Listening, Top 40—people were fighting that. The impression in their head was that they liked all kinds of music. And that’s why I wrote up this format using the ballot system and everything like that.
In 1977 I went to Pat Roberts who at that time was at KHEJ. He like the idea so he invited me to go do it. So I went down there and met the program director and he booted me out in half an hour. That was the end of that.
They didn’t like it?
The program director, of course not. “You’re gonna have other people decide what you’re gonna play? Are you crazy?? God knows what would happen if that happened.”
Anyways, I got into the retail/wholesale industry in 1979. We were selling to all the independent record stores in the islands. There was like 20 or 30 of them, and we were selling them records. I worked out a deal with KIKI where we would do the Top 36, it was called the Hawaiian Island Music Report and all we would do is every Saturday we would play it, and they had no reason to play the music outside of that. We did it every Saturday and it became very popular, and in the seventh week they fired the program director, Austin Valley (?), because he didn’t like what I was doing but the general manager did.
So then we went on for another 13 weeks until the owner of the station decided that he should own the name. He wanted to take it around the country because the format went from zero to number one—they were a disco station by the way when I was on there, disco only. every solitary sound was disco. There were five months in radio: January to May of 1979 where all across the country there was a disco station.
It came and went?
It was brutal.
So you had one spot a week on air.
Saturdays I did the countdown, I did the voting system. I used to go down to Woolworth’s where they had the voting system [setup] at Ala Moana, there were lines of people lining up to fill a ballot. They were excited about it!
But in those days people voted for all the common pop stuff, not too much diversion. The DJ that I did it with, his name was Ron Woods, and one Saturday The Clash made it to the countdown. And of course in those days nobody played The Clash. This is 1979, the song is called “London’s Burning”. So it’s on [air] and the program director Austin Valley rushes in and takes it off the [air] as if the world is going to fall apart with another note of “London’s Burning” by The Clash. It was voted onto the report by the people! That’s when he got fired the next morning.
I was lucky to have a general manager, his name was Jeff Coelho, and he stood behind what we were doing, he thought it was a good idea.
Right after that, they started playing the [voted on] music during the week, and then boom! it became the number one station. That’s when the station just boomed, but it only lasted 20 weeks because the owner of the station wanted to corral it to himself and take it around the country. I wouldn’t give him the name [Hawaiian Island Music Report] because I didn’t trust that he would do it right. His name was Jim Gabbard. So, I told him ‘no’ and then he fired me and changed the name to The Official Hawaiian Music Report. They tried to maintain it but couldn’t because they cheated and it became like any other radio station. They didn’t really come up with the votes.
That was 1979.
I had this memory of how good it worked, and I’m at Jelly’s and we’re huge then—we’re doing like a million a month in sales, really popular—and all the music we were selling wasn’t on the radio. I said, “Well, shit, let’s do it.” Why, that’s the biggest fence: you had to convince a radio station to do it. Of course no one would do it, so I had to buy time on a radio station, on a country radio station.
I paid them, uh, $30,000 a month and I took over the station, that’s how we did it. I wouldn’t have done it but the guy [who owned the country radio station] was ready to go belly-up so he had to do it.
This was 1991. KDEO.
So you bought him out?
I didn’t buy him out, he still owned the station but I signed the lease to do the radio.
So he gave you full—
Basically I was running the station, he had a few things he’d say but nothing to do with the format. Things about the building, like busting the floor steps [laughs].
I moved to Hawaii in 1995 but I didn’t really start listening to music consciously until maybe 2000. So for me, I don’t know too much about Radio Free Hawaii.
It was so popular you have no idea. I’ll tell you how fast it was popular: the very first week—we were on the radio for two days, Saturday Sunday—on Monday morning the guy from Pink Garage comes down to the station and says I want to do a remote on Friday and Saturday nights from his nightclub. The very first week we had two thousand people there. That’s how fast that thing hit—the first week we’re on the air!
And of course we were playing things nobody else ever heard—that would ever play [on air], I should say.
Here? Or nationally?
Anywhere! On the first report we had a lot of Cure, we had the Smiths—never been played on the radio—we had Bob Marley, we had N.W.A. [laughs], we had a flock of music that had never been played on the radio.
The first week “I Wanna Sex You Up” by Color Me Badd got to number one, the next week it got so many negative votes it was off the chart.
We got 4,000 votes the first week because we went on TV and we said what we were doing and that there were ballot locations across the islands. Two hundred ballot locations. We had a computer system and eight or nine people who punched in the ballots every week. The first printouts were 4,000 different songs got votes.
Those songs lasted through the entire week?
We did it every week, we would vote every week.
And you guys only played what the listeners voted? That’s hard to fathom, but yet it makes so much sense. That’s incredible.
We played all the oddball stuff. Like, we’d pull a ballot at random and play a song we don’t normally play. I used the library from Jelly’s, so we could play pretty much everything. There were very things we couldn’t play.
And then we had a Song Discovery where you would vote for the positive and the negative, and then you could vote for a song you thought might be a hit if we played it. On Saturday, I would pull at random—literally at random, the only thing I did was have somebody check for language—and we’d play five songs [from the Song Discovery ballot section] and whichever got the most votes would be our high rotation song of the week.
Five random songs. But that was only on your show, on Saturdays?
Well, we’d play the Song Discovery Of The Week on high rotation. It was called Golden Ear Tin Ear. You know, do you have a golden ear or a tin ear? And the song that gets the most golden ears would be the Song Discover Of The Week.
So a listener could have fifteen minutes of fame.
For example, Rage Against The Machine didn’t even have a record out but somebody had brought a tape back from New York that they had recorded live. It sounded pretty funky, but we pulled it at random so we played it and it became the Song Discovery Of The Week. Of course, Rage Against The Machine became huge [soon after].
You had already done something like this in the 70s, so with Radio Free Hawaii you knew this was revolutionary. It was different.
Well, it was so different the second time around compared to the first. The first time around, not too many songs got voted and people just picked songs that were basically around [on the air] already with a few exceptions.
It wasn’t what happened in ’91. In ’91, it was like rage: “We don’t wanna hear anything that’s ever been on the radio, ever” [laughs].
Why was that?
I figured it out, it’s a long story, but I figured it out. But it was shocking at the time, I mean we didn’t expect 4,000 different songs being voted for in the first week.
What was the average? Did it grow from there?
No, because the first week was actually about a month and a half’s worth of votes. After the first week we had on average about 1,000 songs voted on. It got to maybe 2,00 or 3,000 every week, but then later people got lazy and stopped voting every week. But we had enough votes to maintain the chart.
Do you ever think about what Radio Free would be like today with the power of the Internet?
It would work wonderfully. I did a speech at UH and the kids who had never heard of Radio Free Hawaii were like, “Oh god… oh yeah!” [laughs] That was about two years ago, three years ago.
Sites like Pandora or Spotify are considered revolutionary in their own ways. But those services are centered around personal preferences rather than a community’s.
You have no idea what radio is: it is so powerful it is unbelievable. It makes you feel a part of the world.
You hear all this music you’ve never heard before. You hear Frank Sinatra followed by Metallica followed by—we had a classical piece that was a Song Discovery Of The Week, it stayed at number one for seven weeks after that. I just pulled it out of the hat, played it, and we sold 500 copies at Jelly’s, of this classical piece. Tower Records was trying to get more.
Seven weeks. We only had one song that beat that, it was a Sublime song.
Good example: all these bands that got popular in the nineties, we played them first. A year or two ahead. Rage Against The Machine. Sublime was in Maui on vacation, they didn’t know they were getting airtime on the radio. They heard the first few notes of “Waiting For My Ruca” and the first thing they thought was, “Who’s ripping off our song?!” And then they realized we were playing it. They DJ announced afterward that that was the Song Discovery Of The Week, “Waiting For My Ruca” by Sublime.
When we had our Big Mele’s, which we probably had about 15 to 20,000 people there at every concert.
An annual festival?
Yeah. Bands would come out and give away their CDs for free to anyone who walked through the door because they wanted votes to get on the radio. Reel Big Fish came out in 2000 and, it took six months but they finally got on the radio—because we used to accumulate votes. If you just got one vote, we wouldn’t lose it. But once you made it on the air you had to start from scratch. Eventually Reel Big Fish made it and got to number one with a song called “Beer”.
A lot of bands from the eighties who never got played [on air] in the eighties finally got played in ’91 because they got votes. Nine Inch Nails, al the reggae bands—there was no reggae on the radio [before then]. There was no Gregory Isaacs on the radio. Actually, I had pushed KCCN to play reggae so there was a little bit of reggae on the radio in ’90 because I was promoting concerts, like for Alpha Blondy.
Knowing what you know now, do you think something like Radio Free Hawaii could thrive today as much as it did in the nineties?
Yeah, but you can’t make money from it, that’s the problem. They block you from getting advertising dollars. They have this service called Arbitron. Great name for it. [According to Arbitron] we didn’t have any listeners.
We were black balled, we couldn’t even get a promo record because we were a renegade station.
I couldn’t pull the plug myself, I just had to wait until it happened. It was like a living thing, you just don’t pull the plug on a living thing. I went down with it, I lost every cent. Fortunately somebody stole my car and I got $5,000 which saved me for Christmas that year.
Then the business got taken over another company.
Wait, you still had Jelly’s to fall back on, right?
No, I just said. Jelly’s got taken over by another company. We got it back, I don’t know how we did it. We got it back by accident.
You lost both Radio Free and Jelly’s at the same time?
Let’s see, we lost Jelly’s in ’93 and the station in ’97. [How we got Jelly’s back] is another story. We won’t get into that. I just walked in it, I guess God wanted me to have it. My wife was very religious.
So what about now, do you want to get back on the air? Because you’ve had shows off and on, right?
Well, I do the Oldies show to help Jelly’s but I don’t like to be on the air. i really do not like it at all. It’s not my style. I feel very uncomfortable on the air and I’m a lousy DJ at the booth. But to promote the store I do it.
OK, so when is your show on air now?
I got kicked off the air like everything else in my life, you know. The lady was so rampaged she doesn’t want me to talk to the DJs, she doesn’t want me to talk to the new manager at the station. I’m destroying their things.
But really you’re trying to do the opposite, no?
When I go on the radio I play all kinds of stuff that’s never on the radio. It’s oldies, you know. Probably half of my listeners are over 60. I do have a lot of young listeners who listen because you know why? There’s nothing on the radio. When I was on the air at least you could hear something different! Stuff the older people haven’t heard in, 40, 50 or 60 years; the younger people, “Hey, I haven’t heard this.” [laughs]
Radio is so terrible that if you play anything different, people will listen. [laughs]
Do you listen to the radio still?
I have my—it’s still on there—I lost my show about a year ago. I had a website called the Long Lost Oldies Radio Show.
What really happened to radio was, when I did this format it was because when I was growing up radio was fantastic.
In what ways?
Number one, they didn’t have “sounds” or “formats”, they just had the music of the day and that was it. So you would hear Frank Sinatra followed by Chuck Berry followed by Little Richard followed by a surf song instrumental. They don’t play instrumentals anymore, you know why? You know what their rule is? We don’t play instrumentals, we don’t play foreign music, because the listeners don’t understand it. And we don’t play songs that don’t have meaning, like “Papa Oom Mow Mow”.
They block off everything.
You know, in 1958 “Nel blu dip into di blu” buy Dominco Modugno—all Italian, not a single word of English in it—was the biggest selling record of the fifties. In those days, radio didn’t care. If it was popular, they would play it. They played Dave Brubeck, they played jazz—
—they catered to the people—
—naturally. No one was too stupid to realized that “We have to make a sound, we have to have a sound.” So, that’s the radio I remember. And they used to do voting, too! That’s what gave me the idea. It wasn’t the way I did it but they did have a voting system. What was popular was on the radio.
It’s not just radio, is it also the music that’s changed?
No, radio changed. Not the popular music. They played all kinds of genres in Pop format. If it was popular, they played it. If it was jazz, they played it. If it was country western. No matter what it was, it was that simple. [laughs]
That’s what I remember. That’s why I brought back Radio Free because music had been so suppressed that by the time I brought it back the response was just crazy.
In the fifties all the music that was played on the air was by independent record companies.
In the late sixties, the major record companies said “We better get into this.” First they thought rock and roll was gonna die. They started buying out all these guys. They had a better distribution system, everything like that.
What happened was they wanted to control the market. For example, there was a Billboard magazine. Billboard would call a lot of the record stores and get theirs lists of the top songs of the week. And everybody was very dutiful, we counted out how much we sold of each song and tracked every week so we could give an accurate report of what sold. That was the chart, that was it. The chart was truth, a fundamental truth across the country.
Of course in those days, every market had their own songs they liked and didn’t like. So you wouldn’t see every market playing the same damn song like they do today. No. Down in New Orleans the songs were entirely different than Los Angeles.
In Hawaii, a third of the songs that were popular in Hawaii never ever made it to the charts on the mainland. Every area had its sound and the radio of that day reflected what was popular in that particular world.
Anything could happen on the radio in the sixties. Only when the major record companies tried to control the charts did things get ugly.
For example, MCA would call up and say, “Could you give me a number one for this song?” And the record stores would start to say “Oh, no, I already gave the number one to Columbia. I can give you a number six, can you give me some ad money and free goods”. That’s the way the charts started getting ugly.
And radio only played what was on the charts, and the charts were controlled by the major record companies. All the exciting music of the ay from the independent record companies was gradually being sifted away or not getting as high in the charts because of all this manipulation.
Are they still doing that?
There’s no more radio. I don’t know where you’ve been. [laughs] I’m talking about when there was radio!
So in the seventies it got worse and worse and worse. Then came the eighties and that was the end.
Without The Beatles, the world wouldn’t have changed. They really changed the mentality of the whole world with their music. And when you get to the eighties who are the super stars who are kind of like The Beatles? Bob Marley, to a lesser extent Cure and The Smiths. But they were never on the radio? Why? Because they were on independent record companies, and the Smiths were in Europe. They weren’t on the radio, period.
Bob Marley was so popular, I mean, kids would come to my store—I had a little store on the North Shore at the time in the late seventies through ’81, called Space and Lace—they would come to my store with a list of which Bob Marley records they didn’t have. They had to have them all—of course in those days it was cassettes, but nonetheless, because I was the only one to carry those people would come from all over the island to get this stuff. I was the only one who had it. But it wasn’t on the radio.
What happened in the eighties was radio was suppressed. And what happened to the kids in the eighties? They went off the rockers. They started writing necrophilia poetry, hanging out in dingy coffee shops and wore all black in hoods and just sit there and mope. [laughs]
I mean, all the boisterous and happy youth of the fifties was gone. They were just totally shut off from the market, musically. So when Radio Free Hawaii hit the air and that music came up, the excitement was phenomenal.
You guys were getting a lot of attention nationwide?
We were voted either number one, two, three or four in the Rolling Stone readership poll for best radio station in the country. By the readers, the readership poll. But guess what, we couldn’t get any money cause we “didn’t have any listeners”.
BBC came down, did all these specials on us. An Australian guy wanted to take the three big radio stations in Australia and do the same format. Of course, they abused it so I had to go down there and sue ‘em.
It was huge. And yet if I sent a word in to the trade magazines that we were playing Pearl Jam “Yell Better”, they would not mention it. And then three years later when “Yell Better” became number one in the nation, they would mention all these other stations were the first to discover it. They always black balled us from even existing. We did not even exist.
It was easy for them to ignore you because?
They have a rating service called Arbitron. The ad agencies basically use the rating service, if a retailer says they wanna go with Radio Free they couldn’t find it if they’re looking at the rating service.
You know how the sound thing came about? How radio stations started playing certain kinds of sounds? The record companies wanted to have a sound on the radio so that they could get the bands to produce that sound so they could get airplay. So stations would have a sound: R&B, Pop, Rock, Adult Contemporary, et cetera. They even had Jazz stations. The record companies encouraged this, they wanted to control the radio, not because people really wanted to hear just one sound. I didn’t find that out until ’91.
Back in ’79 people only voted for 50 or 60 songs [in my format]. In ’91, it was 4,000 songs. The rage was out there. Radio was so suppressed for so many years. And now the stations today are thinking they need to play stuff from the eighties for the “oldies” because people are getting older, so they’re playing stuff from the charts that nobody listened to.
I was in the retail business and I could tell you, they didn’t listen to that music, they didn’t buy that music.
Here’s what happened: First they manipulated the charts. They weren’t happy with that, so they wanted to just count radio play instead of counting sales, so Billboard agreed to count half sales and half radio play. Then in ’92, Metallica made a ridiculous poppy song called “One”. You know the Casey Kasem show? Every station in the country would play the Casey Kasem show on Sunday, and Casey played would always play the Top 40 on the Billboard. in 1992 on one bizarre morning, Casey Kasem played a Metallica song.
Even though the radio didn’t play it, “One” still got enough sales to make it on the Top 40 chart. He played the song. The programmers found out that they played a Metallica song—they didn’t even listen to it, that song is pus, it’s not even Metallica, it’s a pop hit!—but they heard the word Metallica was on the radio and they tried to cancel the show!
So Billboard made an agreement that said they’ll forget about sales and just count radio play. And then it was over.
That’s where we are now. Radio’s gone.