Roy K. Amemiya Jr., 56, has spent most of his professional life in banking and finance, so it was a significant career change when he joined ‘Olelo Community Media a year and a half ago.
‘Olelo is the $5.5 million nonprofit that was created in 1989 to run Oahu’s four public access channels — FOCUS 49, OAHU 52, NATV 53 and VIEWS 54 — which are forums for members of the public to air video programming about whatever they choose. Individuals and groups can produce the shows themselves or utilize the production facilities provided by ‘Olelo, which is funded mostly by fees from Oahu’s cable TV subscribers and run by 63 employees and hundreds of volunteers.
Amemiya initially joined ‘Olelo as its chief operating officer. Not long afterward, he replaced Keali‘i López in the top job, after she was named director of the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.
Amemiya said working at ‘Olelo has been educational as well as "a whole lot of fun," especially because of the dedication and passion of the people he works with.
Before ‘Olelo, Amemiya had been a senior vice president at City Bank, later acquired by Central Pacific Bank. After the acquisition, his duties included lobbying at the Legislature. Before joining City Bank, he had been the city’s director of budget and fiscal services, under Mayor Jeremy Harris. From 1977 to 1996, he rose to vice president at Bank of Hawaii, where he had started as a management trainee.
Born and raised in the Wahiawa area — Dole Pineapple’s Whitmore Village, to be exact — Amemiya is a graduate of Leileihua High School. He then earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial management from Purdue University, in Indiana, and a master’s degree in business from the University of Hawaii. He also graduated with honors from the Pacific Coast Banking School, in Seattle.
A member of the State Tax Review Commission and involved with several community organizations as well, Amemiya lives in Mililani with his wife, Marilyn, with whom he has two adult children, a son and a daughter.
QUESTION: How does one go from being a banker to head of the state’s largest public access channels organization?
ANSWER: Well, of course, it was quite a learning curve for me. It helped that I had served on the board of directors.
Q: Why did Gov. Neil Abercrombie select you for the job?
A: This is not an appointed position. We’re a private, nonprofit 501(c)(3). So it’s the board that selects the chief executive officer.
Q: And you applied for it?
A: Well, actually, the way it worked out was, I was making a career change from banking, and the chief operating officer position was open here, so that’s the job I applied for. And a few months later, the CEO got a position elsewhere, and that’s why I was elevated to interim CEO and then CEO.
Q: How would you describe the mission of ‘Olelo?
A: Our mission, basically, is to strengthen our island voices and advance community engagement through innovative media. We have such a special place here in Hawaii. We have such a diverse group of neighborhoods, from many places, and they all have stories to tell. Our mission is to make sure that they’re allowed to produce and show those stories, using the magic of television.
Q: What is ‘Olelo’s annual budget?
A: It’s $5.5 million; $4.7 is just from the cable fees. What you need to understand is that of that $4.7 million, 25 percent of that goes right out the door to the Hawaii Educational Network Consortium, which is composed of the University of Hawaii, the state Department of Education and a number of private institutions.
Q: What do they do with the money?
A: They use it to produce programs for the two public-access channels that have been assigned to them: 355 and 356.
Q: You recently emerged in the news to oppose a bill in the state Legislature that would place a cap on the amount of money ‘Olelo receives from the cable companies, so it can fund laptops for students.
A: It would be a second cap. It would cap us at the 2011 level and not allow us to get inflation-rate increases. We think the intent of the bill is admirable, but it’s more the funding that we’re opposed to.
What happened is that a first cap on our fees was placed by our regulator a number of years ago. Starting in 2001 — I believe that’s the year it started — we could only increase our fees by the amount of the inflation rate. At the same time, cable was continuing to have its revenues increase quite a bit faster than that rate. That’s where the (first) cap came into play.
Q: You mean cable subscribers have been paying a 3 percent fee all of this time and not all of it has been going to the purpose for which it was intended?
A: That’s what I’m saying, yes. The excess now — the difference between our cap and the actual 3 percent that’s being collected — it’s about $1.8 million annually.
Q: What have they (the state Cable Television Division) been doing with that money?
A: They’ve been using it for things like iNet, which is to connect our schools to the Internet, and I think more recently some of the money went to the Broadband Initiative.
Q: Why was the first cap imposed?
A: There was a time, I guess, when the regulators felt a cap needed to be imposed because of the amount of money ‘Olelo was receiving.
Q: They thought you guys were rolling in dough or something?
A: Yes. There was a time when cable revenues were just increasing tremendously.
Q: So it was proportional, the 3 percent?
Q: Have you lobbied to change that?
A: Yes, but that’s not something we would lobby the Legislature. It’s the regulator that imposed the cap — the cable administrator in the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.
Q: Do you usually go over to Legislature?
A: Yes, I do.
A: Because of these types of bills. This is not unique to this session.
Q: They’re always trying to raid your funds?
Q: With ‘Olelo’s income being derived mostly from the fees collected by the cable company, does that mean your income comes mostly from Oceanic?
A: Yes, because they have the largest number of subscribers. But Hawaiian Telcom now is also in the cable business, and their subscribers also have a portion of their bill that comes not to just ourselves but also to PBS Hawaii.
Q: Besides the cable fees, what other sources of income does ‘Olelo have?
A: We get some rent on the building we own here in Mapunapuna.
Q: Is that it?
A: We get some donations …
Q: Corporate kind, or what?
A: Well, not really. We are trying to diversify our income sources, but to date no corporate sponsorship, although we do have one project that the business community gets behind. We call it Youth Exchange. It’s a video competition that we hold annually for students. It’s the largest video competition in the state.
Q: What is the status of your equipment at ‘Olelo? Is it all fairly new and modern?
A: Oh, not at all. The majority of our equipment has been fully depreciated, and we’re currently negotiating with Oceanic Time Warner to help us through this digital transition that we started a year ago, because much of our technology was analog. And manufacturers don’t support that kind of equipment anymore.
Q: So are you digital now?
A: We could be. We’re still analog on three of our four channels.
Q: Is upgrading the equipment going to require a big capital investment?
A: Yes. About $6 million over three years.
Q: If you couldn’t get that all from Oceanic, would this be an opportunity for corporate donors?
A: It could be, but we can’t say too much because we are in arbitration with Oceanic.
Q: About what?
A: About the amount of capital funding that they will be providing us.
Q: That’s something they have to pony up, like part of their condition of operating?
A: Yes, absolutely. The way it works is, they use public rights of way …
Q: You mean like on the utility poles?
A: Yeah. I’m talking about the sidewalks and everything underground. They don’t pay rent in terms of dollars, but they pay rent in terms of public benefits, and one of those is to provide the funding for community television.
Q: Will Hawaiian Telcom have to pony up something, too?
Q: Why should cable TV customers have to be paying for ‘Olelo?
A: Oh, I think that it’s very clear that they believe there’s a big public benefit.
Q: “They,” meaning who?
A: The people that we’re serving. That comes out loud and clear. They believe in the First Amendment right that’s in our Constitution. Then if you look at what happened in the Arab spring and what’s going on in Syria, you can see what happens when you censor your citizenry. It’s not a good thing.
Q: How are you guys keeping up with the social media phenomena?
A: A year ago we created a position specifically to take advantage of some of the new technology, like social media. And I think it’s worked quite well, not just for us but also for our producers. I think it’s helped increase our viewership, because producers now can send messages to their followings.
Q: How do you know that anybody is watching the four ‘Olelo channels?
A: From time to time we do surveys, of households, professional surveys.
Q: Are you getting a decent viewership?
A: Yes, but you have to understand that viewership is not the main measurement of our success. What the commercial broadcast stations try to do is to get as many people as possible to watch their programs. Our mission, if you will, is to try to find stories that perhaps would never be broadcast but are narrowcast instead.
For example, we have a group that covers Okinawan events in the community. It doesn’t necessarily appeal to everyone. But we have that for a number of groups — Vietnamese, Samoan, Tongan — they all have their own viewerships. So we call that narrowcast.
Q: That traffic channel is pretty well watched, yeah?
A: Yeah, we know when it’s not on the air. (Laughs)
Q: What are some of your favorite programs on the various channels?
A: I like the student productions. Of course, being a former lobbyist, I do watch some of the government coverage. We also have a fair amount of Hawaiian coverage, and I’ve learned a lot about their issues, much more so than before I got involved with ‘Olelo.
Q: I read that ‘Olelo will broadcast anything considered to be protected by the First Amendment. How broad of programming does that allow? Have you ever had to pull the plug on anything?
A: Not during my tenure here. There are times of the evening that there’s adult content. It’s self-proclaimed by the producer. And we’ll air it at later times, actually in the wee hours of the morning.
Q: Are you ever aware of politicians or other state officials ever trying to use ‘Olelo for partisan purposes?
A: Sure. That’s all right. It’s free speech. We have coverage of the tea party; we also had coverage of Occupy Honolulu; that’s who we are. We call it an electronic soapbox.
Q: So there’s not much opportunity to manipulate the system for nefarious purposes, like maybe restrict the coverage or make sure that certain viewpoints don’t get on there?
A: We would never do that. We don’t even preview programs. You asked earlier about if we’ve ever had to pull programming: It would only be because we had had complaints, complaints that we would research to see if the content should be pulled. But no, we don’t preview the content in advance. We get, like, 13 hours of new programming every single day, 365. So we can’t have people going through everything.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: You know, technology is changing so much, we need to be prepared to take advantage of it. Today we’re talking about social media like Facebook and Twitter, but in the future it’s going to be something different, and I’d like to make sure we remain nimble enough that we can take advantage of it, both for our producers and our viewers.
And there’s another focus: We need to let people know what we do. A lot of people know our name, our brand, but we do a lot of things that people don’t realize.