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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
Circus, Part 2 of 2

 

See how Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey merged to create a circus of more than 1,100 people and 1,000 animals, only to limp through the Great Depression against competition from radio and movies.

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Augie T

 

Augie Tulba, known to the world as comedian Augie T, understood the value of hard work from a young age growing up in Kalihi Valley Housing. He started working long before his comedy career, and today still juggles his weekday morning radio program, a day job and comedy gigs. After 26 years performing comedy, he has found it to be a source of healing that has helped him make sense of his childhood, his family and his adult life.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Aug. 5, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Augie T Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

When people meet a professional comedian I think they might expect you to be on all the time. Is that a pressure? You know, do they say: Well, that wasn’t funny.

 

Yeah. You know, I get that a lot.

 

And you’re just being a normal guy at that point.

 

Yeah. No; I try to separate the two, because I like performing, but I don’t like performing twenty-four/seven. You know, I used to get that a lot. Like, you know, they see me in the grocery store, you know. Tell me something funny or, How come you look so mad? Because I’m like you. I have a day job, and I gotta go shop, with my wife.

 

Augie Tulba, better known as Augie T, has always had a day job, starting from the time he was old enough to sell newspapers. He’s a funny guy, but he also has a very serious side to him. Augie T next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Born Augusto Emery Tulba, the world has come to know him as Augie T, of ‘Ewa Beach, O‘ahu. He’s been voted Hawai‘i’s Comedian of the Year, he’s won two Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, and he’s sold out the Blaisdell Arena with his shows. He’s also been recognized as one of Hawai‘i’s Top 100 Influential Filipinos. Growing up in Kalihi Valley Housing, Augie T could have taken a very different path. He credits his hardworking parents and the many mentors he’s had throughout his life for opening the right doors for him.

 

I have five brothers, you know, and it was tough, you know. Dad wasn’t the most lovable guy; it was hard for get his attention. You know, Mom was very super, super-caring. But I saw them work; I saw Mom and Dad leave to work every day. And even when they worked, wasn’t making enough. You know. So, you know, my brothers and I, we understood the value of hard work. But was tough; was tough growing up. You know, we never have the things most kids had. You know, my mom and dad did a lot to make sure that we were nicely groomed, you know. But was tough.

 

What do you remember wanting when you were a kid that you couldn’t have?

 

I used to get mad, because I used to see kids’ parents abuse the welfare system. So, you know, like, at some point, I would tell my dad: How come all those guys get nice cars, and we get one ugly car? And my dad was like: Never mind; they cheat, they lie, that’s why, they lie. You know, lying no get you nowhere, cheating no get you nowhere.

 

Well, that was a good lesson.

 

Yeah; it was. But like, at the same time, like, how come they get nice cars, and we no more nice cars. You know, or how come we don’t have, like you know, especially like the latest trends, growing up.

 

When you watch TV and you see all the products being sold to kids; right?

 

You know, and people laugh at the jokes now, but like, I remember, you know, Christmastime. You know, nothing under the Christmas tree, like, weeks before. And you go to friends’ house and get plenty Christmas presents. And you wake up Christmas morning, and there’s a lot of presents under the Christmas tree. But then, you look around your house; no more nothing. Because your mom would take stuff, wrap ‘em.

 

Oh …

 

So get plenty. But like, you know, after a while, we’re like: That’s Dads boots. That was Dad’s boots, Ma. Like, you know, we wanted G.I. Joes and we would open up our gift, and my brother would have the arm, I would have the leg. I was like: What is this? That’s G.I. Joe puzzle. Put ‘em together, you guys share. You know, we was so poor, we only could afford one walkie-talkie, Leslie.

 

We used to share, you know. Ernie?

 

Yeah, Augie?

 

So, you know, it’s fun now, we look back, and you know, I’m thankful for those years. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I never went through that period; yeah? And so, you know, it was tough, but like, I’m very thankful for those times. You know, there’s a handful of people that I really appreciate what they did for my life. Mrs. Murakami, my eighth grade guidance teacher, who knew that I was talkative, knew that I loved the spotlight. And I was flunking English, and she said: You know, you going flunk English, two things going happen. You know, Augie, two things going happen. Either you going pay attention and listen to what I’m gonna tell you, and you going do it, or you can get lickin’s from your dad. Pick. I said: Uh, I pick yours. So, she said: I want you to enter the speech contest. And I went: Speech contest? Only the nerds enter speech contest. I’m a tough guy from Kam IV Housing; I ain’t doing speech contest. But she’s like: You know, you love talking, you love telling jokes. You know, and she spent time with me after school, which I thought was like: Wow, who does that? You know, and she helped me with my speech, and I did Rap Reiplinger, Room Service. My eighth grade speech contest. And it was so awesome, because she taught me how to prepare, how to get focused. You know, and I remember coming in that morning—and I share this story with a lot of kids in the middle schools. I come in, curtains close, I walk backstage, and all the nerdy kids looking at me like: What you doing here? And in my mind, I’m going: You like me punch your face now?

 

 

But because I prepared, I was focused, you know, and there was a confidence that I never felt before. Because yeah, I like talking, and I used that to get out of situations, but I never knew that using that was going, like, take me to the next level and help me see what I always wanted to become. Because in the fourth grade, I saw Andy Bumatai do comedy at the Maui War Memorial. He was opening for Yvonne Elliman. And I went: Wow, who’s this guy? So, I always wanted to be a comic. So, when I did the speech contest, I kinda …

 

Was this at Dole Middle School?

 

Yeah; was at Dole Middle School. You know, when I saw him make three thousand people laugh, I knew that’s what I wanted to become. So, doing the speech contest helped pave the way to what I really ultimately wanted to become: a standup comic.

 

So, kudos to …

 

Mrs. Murakami.

 

–Mrs. Murakami. And what about somebody else?

 

And at Farrington, Mr. Gary Kau. You know, you have electives, and of course, growing up in public housing, my dad wanted me to do automotive. Couldn’t do automotive because I forget which screw goes where, being dyslexic. Just flunk me; just flunk me. Or I never show up. I said: That’s okay, I flunk. And then they sent me to ROTC. I have ADHD; I cannot even stand at attention. And then, finally, like, I asked Mr. Kau; he was walking down the hallway. I said: Eh, can I come to your drama class? And he was like: Yeah, love you in drama. And I was like one of two boys.

 

And what did your dad say? ‘Cause you know, who can make money from drama class.

 

Oh, my gosh. Really? You really like hear what my dad said? I told: Dad, my elective is drama. He looked at me; he goes: You māhū? I go: No, Dad! I was like: No, drama. He’s like: Drama? Ah!

 

Little did he know it would be a career.

 

Yeah. And you know, my dad and my mom are like my biggest fans. So, you know, if you watch any of my DVDs, they’re in the front row. You know, and it’s so awesome to do the things that I did, and watching Mom and Dad in the front row.

 

The stuff they used to scold you for.

 

Yeah; yeah. So, you know, Gary Kau was a big influence in my life. And you know, my boxing coach, Donald Tsark.

 

Now, how did you get into boxing?

 

I always loved fighting. And we had to. I mean, I grew up in public housing. My mom is White, Leslie. My mom has blond hair, blue eyes, Irish, Portuguese, my dad is Filipino, and we lived in Kam IV Housing. So, we got picked on every day. Either people was teasing my parents, or they was teasing us. So, my dad made me and my brothers go outside and box, so that all the neighborhood kids see that that we could defend ourselves; right?

 

Yeah; ‘cause there must have been some much bigger kids living there.

 

Yeah; yeah.

 

Yeah.

 

So, we did good at boxing. I went to the gym, and you know, I loved the whole aspects of boxing. I love boxing; I love the discipline and how it helped me see the world, really. You know. My coach told me: If you train hard, Augie, you going be the first person in your family to go to the mainland. I went: Oh, yeah. And I worked hard, trained hard, I went to Los Angeles, saw Disneyland. And that was it. Another, you know, awakening for Augie. You know, like, ho, if you work hard and you train, you can see the world.

 

Your world got bigger.

 

Yeah; yeah. So, you know, I’m very thankful for those people.

 

Hawai‘i comedian Augie T started working long before his comedy career began. He learned at an early age that if he wanted money, he would have to work for it.

 

I started working very young. You know, I grew up in public housing, so there was a side of me that, you know, knew that I had to get money; I had to have money in my pocket to get stuff, because we never have anything. So, I sold papers, and I worked at Jack In the Box when I was fifteen years old. And I saw: Kapi‘olani Medical, part-time, with benefits, seven twenty-five. And I went: That’s the same amount of money my dad makes. So, I went, I applied, sixteen years old. And Mrs. Kawamoto at that time, who was the director at Kapi‘olani Medical, was like: How old you? I was like: Sixteen. And I was just like: I need this job, I like this job. And we made a deal. I said: If I sick, I call in sick or I’m late once, you can fire me. And she thought: Oh, that’s a easy bet. And I ended up being there for sixteen years.

 

And how did you get there?

 

I caught the bus.

 

What gave you the confidence to go as a teenager and apply at Kapi‘olani Medical Center?

 

Well, you know, I boxed all my life, and so, boxing gave me a discipline. Like, I know like, in order to make it in life, you have to work hard, you know, and to achieve your dreams, you gotta be dedicated and focused. And you know, I understood all that from boxing. And then, in high school, you know, I made my girlfriend pregnant. That kinda threw a wrench in the machine, and it forced me to work. But I always knew how to work; I always knew that, you know, you needed to do something to get money. And, you know, I was just driven to just work hard, and provide for my family, even at one young age. So, you know, that helped. For most kids, and I tell ‘em, you know: You might not be as lucky as I was. You know, I was just kinda motivated to get on the bus.

 

But you were paying child support as a teenager?

 

At sixteen, I became the Golden Gloves champion. I boxed; I was like PAL champion. At sixteen, I entered the Golden Gloves, I won the Golden Gloves. At one time, I was ranked seventh in the U.S. for boxing at junior flyweight. And then, I made that mistake. You know, I don’t call it a mistake, because I love my son, but like I did, I made a mistake and made my girlfriend pregnant. And with that, came responsibility. So, my dad was like: Eh, boxing; you have to go work, because I’m not supporting your kid. It was tough working at Jack In the Box, you know, knowing that you have to pay for medical. And I wanted my son to carry my name, so it was important for me to work hard, so that I can be a good example for him growing up. But I wasn’t making enough money. So, I applied at Kapi‘olani Medical. I got on the bus, and I wanted one interview that day. I told her my story, and I said: I’m determined, I want to work. And you know, the rest is history. I stayed there for sixteen years. The day I graduated from Farrington High School, I got part-time with benefits. Now, having benefits is like, a lot. You know, they were able to cover my medical expenses, and because I worked at the hospital, the hospital paid for the other half. So, I was able to, you know, take care my son and, you know, provide. So, you know, that for me was big, providing. Because even as a kid growing up in public housing, I never wanted to be part of that vicious circle, and I saw a lot of that happening. And there was a side of me that said: Yeah, Augie, you screwed up, but now you gotta take responsibility, and you gotta work. Yeah? And that’s what I did.

 

So, did you marry after you had the baby?

 

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And then, you know, we divorced later on in life, and you know, that was tough, challenging. You know. You’re not expecting that kind stuff to happen, but it does. You know, I worked hard, and I still never stop myself from achieving what I wanted to become ultimately.

 

Augie T embarked on his dream of becoming a standup comic in 1991, after he won an open mic contest at the old Honolulu Comedy Club. It didn’t mean he could leave his day job, but new doors started opening for him.

 

Two weeks into doing comedy, I bumped into Andy Bumatai at Kapi‘olani Medical. You know, the guy that I saw.

 

Where you worked; right?

 

Yeah; the guy that I saw in the fourth grade do comedy. So, I’m pulling my machine out of the elevator, and I go: It’s Andy Bumatai. And I probably passed him like, four or five times, then he went: You like talk to me? Just talk to me. And then, we ended up talking like, the whole night. Guys come up to him always saying: Oh, I like be one comic, how do I become a comic? But I wanted to be a comic. He was my idol; right? And we spent hours talking.

 

He told you: You don’t have to swear.

 

Yeah.

 

You don’t have be profane in your act.

 

M-hm. Yeah; he invited me to do comedy in Waikiki. And I wanted to be the Eddie Murphy of Hawai‘i. I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to be different from all the comics. And he said: You not going make money doing that; you gotta work clean. And that’s the best advice someone gave me, because I’m still working. Twenty-five years later, I’m still working. You know, and so, I’m always going be thankful to Andy. You know, and honestly, soon after that, two weeks later, I bump into Booga Booga.

 

Okay; now, younger people won’t know who Booga Booga is. But fabulous, fabulous comedian troupe.

 

Yeah. Rap Reiplinger, James Grant Benton, and Ed Ka‘ahea. And of course, you know, Rap passed away, but my dad took me to a food product show; Rap was performing. He signed my arm; I never wash my arm for a week. You know, because I loved what he did. And of course, I did Rap Reiplinger at my speech contest in the eighth grade. So, I did comedy. Meet Andy Bumatai; two weeks later, I bump into James Grant Benton and Ed Ka‘ahea. I’m like: Oh, my god; can I be your light boy? So, I was the light boy; they took me on the road, and they realized like: Eh, this kid knows all of Rap’s lines. So, I became the last unknown member of Booga Booga. Did several, you know, performances with James and Ed, and man, they became my mentors. Later on, you know, Frank Delima, we toured together. And Mel Cabang; Mel Cabang gave me an advice. We were on Kauai, and he was like: You’re performing too much; be yourself, be yourself. ‘Cause he saw talent, he said: Just be yourself on stage.

 

Which is not easy to do.

 

Yeah; because I thought I had to be, you know, really you know, um …

 

Amped up.

 

Yeah. I had to draw these huge pictures. Like: Ah, just be yourself.

 

I just wonder how many people who intend to be comedians have any idea of how much hard work it is.

 

Yeah; it’s tough. You know, at the end of the day, you can be funny, but if nobody’s listening to you talk. You know, and like I said, twenty-six years, this year, and people still coming down to the shows, sitting down, they like hear.

 

How has your humor changed over those twenty-six years?

 

Yeah; you can tell. I mean, when I first started, I was like the moke action guy. You know, a little older now, I’m seeing life differently. You know, there’s a lot of observance.

 

You do more social observations.

 

Yeah. I talk about my kids, I talk about my family. You know, that way, you cannot get in trouble.

 

You can get in trouble talking about your family.

 

You can. You can, by your mom. That’s it. You know, you shouldn’t say that, Augie; so stupid, you. You know, but they love it. You know, I have a overachieving daughter that created B.R.A.V.E. Hawai‘i. It’s a anti-bullying foundation. My stepdaughter does my bookings. Bo and Taj, you know, they help Dad look good; they do my hair. They both are hairstylists, and I talk about them. They’re both, you know, openly gay men. You know, twelve, thirteen years ago, talking about your kids being gay was like, almost like, whoa. But now, I get stories on how people say: Aug, because was so easy for watch you accept who your kids are, made it easy for me. So now, I get guys, construction workers, cops: Augie, I like tell you something. What’s that, brah? Eh, my boy māhū too. All right. Yeah!

 

How was that for you? Did you immediately accept when they told you they were gay?

 

Yeah. You know, at the end of the day, that’s your kids. That’s why it’s so hard for me to see parents that, you know, like, disown their children. That’s your kid, that’s your blood, you know. Yeah; I might not agree with everything, but that’s my kid at the end of the day.

 

So, you didn’t have to go ask for advice, or agonize about it.

 

No; I already knew. I always tell people: I knew from the beginning. Leslie, I’ve become the gay expert. Honestly. People ask me: You know, how you know your kids gay? I go: Watch how they run. I was like: My son was—

 

That’s a stereotype.

 

Yeah. I know, but he was flapping his wings when he was running. I was like: Why you gotta flap your wings? Do this. So, you know. But it’s comedy, and it’s healing. You know, and that was my way of dealing with that, you know. And my son tells everybody: You know, my dad, he over-exaggerates. At the end of the day …

 

That’s comedy.

 

Yeah. He loves me, and I’m okay with it, calm down. You know, so …

 

But it takes a while before people feel secure enough to be able to laugh at something or with something.

 

Yeah. You know, after my dad got sick, Mom and Dad moved into the home, and you know, every day, I get to pick on my mom. Just watch my YouTube page, Leslie. You’ll be like: I cannot believe he said that to his mom. You no like use stereotypes, but my mom is Portagee. My mom is—oh! She says the most funniest things. We were up in Makawao at a silent auction, and my mom was like …

 

Trying not bid?

 

I’m like: Ma, how come you get your hand covering your mouth? This one silent auction. No, you can talk, Ma; you can talk. How come they call ‘em one silent auction, if you can talk, Augie? Stupid, yeah, this kind auction. Why don’t just start talking auction; why gotta be silent auction?

 

Comedian Augie T can find humor in almost any situation and make people laugh. But that doesn’t mean he thinks everything is funny, or that he hasn’t wrestled with his own demons.

 

You have a life coach.

 

Yeah.

 

How did that happen and what does that mean?

 

Ooh, man. It was a really dark time in my adult life. You know, I was helping a company. I help him build his company, did really well, and then out of nowhere, he just kinda left.

 

Mm.

 

Left me. You know, like how I going support my family now? Because I have bad memories of growing up poor, that’s like my biggest fear; like, not being able to provide for my family. So, I was talking to somebody, and they referred me to my life coach now. And we talked, and a lot of those fears is because of growing up.

 

It goes way back, doesn’t it?

 

Yeah. And you know, there’s so much good in us, and there’s so much bad. And when we learn how to manage all of that, you know, and I think we don’t ever stop learning. We should be coachable all the time, you know. So, yeah, I have a life coach, but I have other coaches—my wife.

 

And you listen.

 

Yes.

 

You always have, actually.

 

I try, with my wife.

 

So, with the life coach, did you find out anything that was kinda one of those aha moments?

 

Yeah. Oh; you know, you don’t want to ever look back. You know, and I think I learned that you develop a lot of your thinking from age zero eight. And was hard going back, looking at, you know …

 

You developed ideas that you still held many years later.

 

Oh, yeah. And you cannot blame your parents for that. You blame yourself. You know, you drew that pictures.

 

For example? What do you mean?

 

Well, you know, my dad loved to drink, like every local dad. You know, City and County worker. And I remember coming home on Friday, and I would see the blue tarp in the back yard. And I went: Oh, no! They going drink, going get loud, going get fighting. You know, and I used to have nightmares. You know. Not so much the drinking, but the arguments after, you know. And I really blocked it out I think because of that, you know. And a lot of the insecurities of like, why I wasn’t, you know, cuddled by my dad. You know. So, it’s kinda weird how you block that off, but you made this really bad picture of life. You know. Because you know, you saw bad examples, and … you know.

 

Did you consciously change that with your sons?

 

I did. You know, luckily, I have a very understanding wife that goes: Augie … ‘cause was tough. I’m not gonna lie to you, and I talk about that in the act. Because you know, it is. You know, I say in my act: Parents don’t go to bed at night; please let my son be a ballerina. You know, and that’s funny, but you know, we want the best for our children. And was tough, and you know, yeah, of course, you going block ‘em out, because you heard all the negative, you heard the bad things, you know. And it’s so weird, because as my dad got older, he became more accepting. ‘Cause you know, we had five brothers. If we, you know, ate one certain way; Eh, how come you eating that way? What, you māhū? Everything was like that; really harsh. You know, so of course, you drew pictures of that, and you never like be that. But you saw a lot of that in you. So, was tough, you know. But you know, like I said, at the end of the day, because my dad never love the way I wanted him to love, of course, you going love your children differently.

 

And adversity really provides some of the best stories.

 

Yeah.

 

They’re probably some of the best humor you could have.

 

Yeah. Yeah; that’s why it’s getting harder, because you know, my kids successful. They’re overachievers.

 

If you were sitting now in Kalihi Valley Housing with the young Augie …

 

M-hm.

 

If you could talk to your young self, what would you say, and how would you say it?

 

Get ready for a ride. It’s going be an amazing ride. It’s gonna take you through ups and downs, but you going be okay.

 

Comedian Augie T continues to work as hard as he has since he was a multitasking teenager, starting with his radio program every weekday morning before going on to his day job. And on top of that, he has television spots, and weekend performance gigs. Yet, I don’t think he’d have it any other way. Mahalo to Augie T Augie Tulba, of ‘Ewa Beach, O‘ahu, for taking time out of your busy schedule to share your life stories with us. And mahalo to you, for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

Have you evolved very much as a comedian, do you think?

 

No, I think I’m still that innocent local guy.

 

You’re not that innocent, but you …

 

Well, I play that on stage, only because I do see life like that. When I say innocent, you know, I like the stereotype, I like talking to a lot of my cousins. Really don’t take things, you know, serious, they don’t see the world the way we see it. They don’t watch news, so when you ask them a question, you know, you always get that local guy. Eh … You friends with Guy Hagi, you guys do the Cheap Eats. You know. That’s the guy I love doing, because you know, I’m so familiar with that guy. And when I play that guy on stage, people love it, because everybody has an uncle like that. So like, I like looking at the world that way. That very innocent local guy, you know, that when you guys did the news—remember doing the news, and you guys interviewed that one local guy, and you know going be funny, because he’s like: Yeah, uh … He don’t know how look at the camera. That’s the funniest for me, you know. Yeah, it’s a stereotype, yes, but it’s innocent, and it’s fun. You know, so I like playing that role.

 

 

NOVA
The Great Math Mystery

 

NOVA leads viewers on a mathematical mystery tour – a provocative exploration of math’s astonishing power across the centuries. We discover math’s signature in the swirl of a nautilus shell, the whirlpool of a galaxy and the spiral in the center of a sunflower. Math was essential to everything from the first wireless radio transmissions to the prediction and discovery of the Higgs boson and the successful landing of rovers on Mars. But where does math get its power? Astrophysicist and writer Mario Livio, along with a colorful cast of mathematicians, physicists and engineers, follows math from Pythagoras to Einstein and beyond, all leading to the riddle: Is math an invention or a discovery?

 

 

AMERICAN MASTERS
Bob Hope

 

During his eight-decade career, Bob Hope (1903-2003) was the only performer to achieve top-rated success in every form of mass entertainment: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, popular song and personal appearances, including his annual USO Christmas military tours and hosting the Academy Awards more times than anyone else.

 

A comedy innovator, Hope invented the topical monologue that later became a late-night TV staple and comedy tropes like talking while backing up. He refined a spontaneous, conversational, improvisational style of comedy as a vaudeville master of ceremonies that created a blueprint for acerbic standup comics.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Michael Titterton

 

Born into a struggling family in the east end of London, books and radio offered young Michael Titterton a glimpse into a different life. His insatiable curiosity led him to travel around the world, eventually landing him in Hawai‘i, where he took on the challenge of turning around a faltering Hawai‘i Public Radio. Under his leadership as President and General Manager, HPR has grown into the vital and trusted radio network it is today, serving the entire state. This month, Hawai‘i Arts Alliance will be recognizing Titterton as their 2016 Alfred Preis Honoree for his lifetime support of the arts.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Sept. 6, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Sept. 10, at 4:00 pm.

 

Michael Titterton Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

There are very few human behaviors that go back further than storytelling. It’s the quintessential social act. Any time we pass knowledge from generation to generation, you know, if we don’t have a written language or anything, which we haven’t for most of the history … and it’s how we bond. It’s a wonderful vehicle for healing, for illumination, for understanding, for being civilized. That’s what life is; it’s the stories we get to tell.

 

Michael Titterton has been in the business of storytelling most of his life. Yet, it’s only one of the many skills that he needed to transform Hawaii Public Radio from a small faltering station into a robust statewide network. Michael Titterton, distinguished 2016 Alfred Preiss Honoree, next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Michael Andrew Titterton moved to Hawai‘i in 1999 to take over as president and general manager of Hawaii Public Radio. Under his leadership, HPR expanded its reach as a vital community resource, broadcasting on every island, and serving the entire state. He stepped down in June of 2016. This conversation took place six months later, after he did some traveling with his wife, artist Madeleine McKay. Travel and moving on have always been Michael Titterton’s passion. In fact, his time in Hawaii was to be just another stop in his roaming life journey. But after ending seventeen years at Hawaii Public Radio, he’s still living happily in Honolulu. Michael Titterton started out life in postwar London. He’s restrained in that very English way, in the way he describes tough times.

 

At the time I was growing up, the part of the east end that I grew up in was the most populated, most densely populated urban area in the world, with the exception of Calcutta. I was born immediately after World War II. And the east end of London being industrial, was an area that was a focus of attention for the German air force during World War II and so, a great deal of bomb damage. Every block, you know, for as far as I can remember had houses that were missing or that were just walls. You know, earliest memories is walking around the block and looking at houses, and into rooms that had two walls left, and the other two walls were gone, so you could look in and see pictures still hanging on the wall, and wallpaper, and looking into people’s intimate lives. And it was a routine, very routine occurrence. Never thought it was odd.

 

Did you feel unsafe?

 

No, not at all. Not at all.

 

So, it was kind of a homogenous diverse neighborhood?

 

Not that diverse; it was mostly Irish.

 

And your family is, by background, Irish as well?

 

No; not at all. My father is English, my mother is Welsh. So, you know, yeah, we were outliers, I suppose. But it never really seemed that way. Life was sufficiently challenging that you didn’t give any thought to social standing, or any of that. It was later in life, I became acutely aware of it, and acutely aware that I was motivated to leave. I didn’t want to stay there. Once I became aware that everybody didn’t live this way, then I began to form the idea of a wall that I had to sort of scale and get over, and I tried all sorts of ways to do that.

 

Did you feel deprived of anything as you were growing up?

 

Only books. My my father was not an unintelligent man, but he was very uneducated and was quite defensive about that. And he wouldn’t have books in the house.

 

Oh … and you loved books?

 

Yes, perversely, as one does, you know, forbidden fruit.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And … yeah. I developed a relationship with the local library, and smuggled books into the house. And I’ve had a romance with books ever since. And that was how I found out, ultimately. That, and radio. That, and radio.

 

That’s how you found out that you were living a life that many people did not live.

 

Yes, yes, yes. It was my first glimpse over the wall. And it was an intoxicating one, and it’s one from which I’ve never sobered up, at all.

 

So, how did you scale that wall to get out of the east end?

 

Oh, well, I left school at fifteen, as everyone did. Moved out on my own. I did an apprenticeship as a tool and die maker. Factories, you know, was the thing. You went on the line, or you learned a trade.

 

Was it expected that that’s pretty much what you would do?

 

M-hm; that, or become a criminal, which was quite popular option. But that was the skill that I had early on, and I parlayed that into a little business which I ran for a while, making specialty parts for racing engines. Very long story; we don’t have time for that.

 

Because you love autos, too; right?

 

Well, it was an automobile environment. Dagenham was the principal factory area where I grew up. And that’s the Ford Motor Company. And it was all about automobiles, and you know, this was the 50s. And yeah, I have gasoline in my veins, I think.

 

So, you did build a business.

 

I built a little business. Just a very modest thing, but it was quite successful in a surprisingly short amount of time. But I had no judgement; I was very young.   And I took in a partner who brought in a little capital which I desperately needed. And he developed a romantic association with another one of the employees, and they disappeared to Australia with all the fluid assets of the company. And that got me quite vexed. [CHUCKLE] And actually exhausted the last of my patience, and I liquidated everything. Sold off machinery and whatnot to make payroll, couple other people working for me. And I was reduced to a minivan and a couple of sleeping bags, and I took off to Europe. I just wanted to be anywhere other than England at that point. I was just really quite over it.

 

Without much more than the clothes on his back, Michael Titterton left home. He had no plan, other than to see the world. Now, he didn’t have to mention to us his stint in a foreign jail over an incident involving the concentrated form of marijuana, known as hashish, but he did. Because that’s part of his story, and he is a storyteller.

 

I just took the ferry across to France, to Callet. And spent little over two years, I think, going from place to place. North Africa, Middle East, and Europe, Western Europe, doing odd jobs.

 

What were some of your odd jobs?

 

Oh, working in garages. I could always pick that up. A a job in Marseilles for a while, cleaning boats, you know. I had a job on a trawler in the North Sea, and some disgusting adventures.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

That you don’t want to hear about. Just things like that. And then, every now and again, I’d go back to Dagenham and I’d get a job on the line at the Ford Motor Company.

 

And essentially, you were always making a living with your hands.

 

Oh, yeah; yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

 

And what did you aspire to? Were you happy with that? Were you …

 

I was thoroughly occupied with that. It was wonderful. I was getting to see the world, or at least a part of it. And I remember a moment when I was still an apprentice toolmaker, and we’d clock in, you know. And the clock was at this counter outside where you could see up. And I was coming in for a night shift, and I looked up and I saw the moon. You know, regular old moon. But I had this moment when it occurred to me that this moon could be seen just like this by people who weren’t in Dagenham, but were all over the world. And they must have thoughts just like that. And I knew I wanted to meet some of them. I couldn’t meet all of them, but I’d like to meet some of them. And that we had this experience in common. And that moment has just always haunted me. I think that might have been a propellant. But I’ve always had this real need. It is a need to travel, and see different things. And I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to gratify it in all sorts of ways, some more comfortable than others.

 

Well, when you approach a new city, or a new region, how do you decide you’re going to see it? There are so many vantage points.

 

Well, in those days, it was simply a matter of how am in gonna manage breakfast, and how am I gonna make the money to, you know, buy the next tank of gas. Or after a while, actually, I sold the van, and so, it was, you know, little more survival oriented even than that. So, it was how do I get by, especially when you don’t speak the language anywhere.

 

Were you all on your own?

 

M-hm; for most of the time. I mean, I had the occasional traveling companion. But no, pretty much on my own.

 

So, you were just living day-to-day.

 

Absolutely; yeah, moment-to-moment, really.

 

That’s a great formative—

 

It was the best time of my life.

 

Was it? Even though you must have been anxious, too.

 

I was anxious, I was uncomfortable, I was wet. A lot of the time it was too hot, a lot of the time I had rocks in my shoes. I mean, it was horrible by any rational measure, but it was a joyful, wonderful time.

 

Because everything was new?

 

Yes; yes. And there was no safety net, but at the same time, there were no barriers.

 

Did you ever fall into a hole that you thought you couldn’t get out of?

 

Oh, yes. It happened in Morocco, and it went on for about three months. And I really didn’t think I was gonna get out of that one, but ultimately did. It had to do with a camel saddle that I had, I thought, quite skillfully repackaged. Took the stuffing—you know what a camel saddle is; yeah?

 

What is it?

 

What is it? Well, [CHUCKLE] I’m not sure I’ll ever go near a camel. But it’s shaped like a saddle on the camel, and it has a cushion on the top, and it’s used as a piece of furniture. And tourists like to take them home and call them camel saddles. So, I replaced the stuffing in the top of this camel saddle with a quantity of very pure white hashish. You’ve heard of hashish?

 

Yes, yes.

 

Yeah. And attempted to mail it back to myself in London, and enlisted the help of a young man to do this. And he agreed, ‘cause you know, you can get anybody to do anything in Morocco. And he took it into a post office with this. And I thought that would be the sensible thing for me to do. And he did, and he disappeared. Oh, he didn’t disappear, he just didn’t come back for a long time. And I got curious and a little antsy after a while, and I poked my head in the door and this was another moment that I shan’t forget, the tableaux, this young is standing up against a counter. And as I poked my head in, I see him and the camel saddle, which has been ripped apart. And there’s two or three officials behind the counter there, and the child is in the process of turning around, you know. [INDISTINCT]. And you know, That’s the man. And that was that, really. I was the center of attention for a little while. And three months later, I find myself hitchhiking away from Tangier.

 

It sounds like you were lucky to get off with three months.

 

Oh, yes. I had one visitor, the young man that I’d been rooming with. And he sold my van and he got for me a lawyer, or at least some sort of representation. And I’m sure a portion of the money went to the legal representation, and another portion went to whatever happens to money that flies around in Tangier at that time. And to my immense surprise, I was in a room with uh, with a number of other people. Suddenly, I had a visit from the attorney type, and I had no confidence in this at all, but a week or two later, I was summoned into a court, with no preparation, no fanfare at all. The proceedings went on that I didn’t understand a word of, and within half an hour so, I found myself back on the street. And that was that.

 

You could have been left there a long time, and …

 

It was the one point at which I’ve ever considered suicide as a rational alternative. And in that sense, it’s been extremely useful. Because, you know, life has had its bumps, as life does, but it’s a wonderful thing to know, or at least believe that you know what your limits are, how bad things really have to get.

 

You could have ended up locked up and wasted away.

 

I could have. Yeah.

 

Wow.

 

Instead of in management.

 

Michael Titterton next went to Greece, where he met a young American woman who traveled with him to Israel, where they both worked in a kibbutz. She returned to the United States to attend college, and he later followed.

 

So, love brought you to America.

 

Yeah; yeah, pretty much. Well, I knew I wanted to come to America anyway, ‘cause I just hadn’t been there yet. But yeah, it was very romantic. And this young lady hitchhiked out from Oregon and met me in New York, and we spent a little while there, and I bought a car from a junkyard in New Jersey for, I think, ninety dollars; 1962 Tempest.

 

But you could fix it.

 

Yes, I could. Yes; I’m a very capable fellow. And fixed this thing up, and we drove it back to Ann Arbor, which was where her family was. I worked at odd jobs in Ann Arbor for a little while, and then got convinced that I really needed to investigate higher education. So, that’s what I did. And it was a little dodgy, because I hadn’t finished high school in any technical sense, but found that I could go to school in Canada, which wasn’t far away.

 

I notice you got your master’s degree in public speaking and rhetoric.

 

Rhetoric; yes.

 

Why did you choose that?

 

Bear in mind, this is the very, very early 70s. It’s 1971, actually, and coming into ’72. And I knew the US was … I mean, this was … social mobility was here, and that’s what I was really after. I didn’t know it at that time, ‘cause I didn’t know the words. But social mobility, and meritocracy. You know, if you work hard, you can get places. And it’s really what everybody dreams about, when they dream about America when they’re not from here. If I was going to understand this place, the quickest way to do it might be to study the media, because that seemed to be the bottleneck through which everything passed. And it was a very busy bottleneck at that point. Watergate, for example, Vietnam War, all the unrest on college campuses. Glorious time. And all of it was being fed through a media, which was under suspicion, as much of it is now. And so, I specialized in that. Wayne State had a particularly strong rhetoric department, and that was where I found myself, with a lot of wonderfully eccentric people.

 

And you’d already had experienced storytelling, because you had stories to tell along the way.

 

Well, everybody does. Yeah. But I did. Just because of the basic courses that I had to then take as part of being in the rhetoric program, I began to learn something about the mechanics of storytelling, if you like, the idea of a narrative. And I was very quickly drafted into teaching public speaking. So yeah, I hadn’t really thought about it, actually, as being part of the whole storytelling business, but I seem to keep coming back to that. But that’s what it is. That’s what life is, it’s the stories we get to tell.

 

And sometimes, you do things without having a name for it; right? And then, you find out—

 

Oh, yes; most of the time, actually.

 

Your real self keeps popping up in the form of what you do.

 

[CHUCKLE] Yes; that is true. That is true. But storytelling, I guess that’s a lot of the attraction that I have, or that radio has for me, because it’s a storytelling medium, and storytelling is … there are few human behaviors that go back further than storytelling. It’s the quintessential social act. It’s a wonderful vehicle for healing, for illumination, for understanding, for being civilized.

 

And radio has that intimate quality.

 

Mm. It’s a one-to-one medium, and it’s frighteningly intimate. And the best of radio is indistinguishable from pillow talk. It’s that intimate. And that’s what I love about it. I mean, what’s not to love?

 

Michael Titterton started his career in radio by volunteering at his campus radio station, which he helped to become one of the first national public radio stations. From this valuable experience, he went on to spend the next twenty years building, managing, and consulting for public radio stations across the United States. He was thinking of moving on to a new career, when an unexpected opportunity arose.

 

Hawaii advertised this job at Public Radio for someone to take a very troubled station and make something of it, and you said, That’s for me. [CHUCKLE]

 

Oh; yes. And actually, it was funny the way it came about. Because I’d been consulting for a couple years, going around fixing broken stations. And that was great fun. But I’d reached a point where I thought, this Public Radio thing has been wonderful. And it really has. I mean, I’ve never regretted a moment I’ve spent with it. But I’ve done everything I really want to do. You know, I’ve been an operations manager, I’ve been a reporter, I’ve been a producer, I’ve been, you know, pretty much every position, and I’ve been building stations and running them. Time for me to go back to Europe now and reinvent myself again, and see what happens next. And I was in the process of doing that. I had my house on the market. I was winding up all my little business things. I hadn’t known about the situation in Hawaii, and I had three phone calls in the space of a few days from different people that I knew. And essentially, the message was, If you like broken stations, have I got a broken station for you. Anyway, I wrote to the folks here. In all honesty, I thought, you know, this will be one more fix-it job, and then—you know. But I came out and met with the board, and they were all very interesting people. They were clearly all agents of change. That’s why they were doing what they were doing and were so committed to it. There was a real will, there was a real spirit about the organization, [INDISTINCT]. It just felt right. And we reached an agreement, and I came out and went with them.

 

There was a real will, there was a real spirit about the organization, [INDISTINCT]. It just felt right. And we reached an agreement, and I came out and went with them. Uh, as I say, Honolulu was a big surprise. I—uh, you know, you have this idea of a tropical paradise, and Honolulu is anything but. You know, it’s a—it’s an intense, very densely populated city with a lot of uh, um … issues of its own. Uh, it’s uh, multiethnic beyond imagination. It’s uh, like all those planets that shows up in Star Wars Trilogy, you know. Um, everybody’s from somewhere else. And HPR was that way. I—when I met uh, the crew, everyone was from somewhere else. It was like taking over the Enterprise. You know, there were people from different planets. Um … and, yeah, grateful, jump in, and uh …

 

How did you get it to rise, when it was definitely in the hole in the ground?

 

[CHUCKLE] I think probably the … the lever that had the most benefit to it was the one of taking on the challenge of convincing a community that had begun to really give up on this. You know, this is a good idea, but it’s just not gonna happen. And convince them that it was a success. That it was a success. Not that it could be a success, but that it was a success. And in that first year, we did three fundraisers, and we’ve been doing two a year ever since.

 

And were you on the desk for HPR? You were handling the pledge interviews and appeals?

 

Oh, sure. Oh, yeah.

 

Okay.

 

Yeah, yeah; yeah. I’ve always enjoyed pledge drives. I get a lot of credit for being a fundraiser. I’m really not, but I love this business, and the pledge drives are a means to an end. You’ve got to have the money. The money is a means to an end. It’s not about the money itself. And I believe in the thing sufficiently, that getting on air and begging and pleading doesn’t bother me that much, because I believe in what we’re raising it for. And it was successful, and it seemed to turn around the consciousness somehow. And if people believe you are a success, then they’re gonna get behind you.

 

And there was always another problem after the one you solved; right? Because you were facing a situation that was layered, upon layered, upon layered with, you know, obstacles, which is exactly what brought you here.

 

Well, [CHUCKLE] yeah. I mean, I just thought it was gonna be, you know, another quick gig in this exotic circumstance. But then, you know, the idea got hatched of, Well, we seemed to have stabilized this, now there are a number of things technically wrong with the thing. You know, the old KIPO transmitter, and the fact that we weren’t heard in a great part of Oahu, much less the rest of the State. And we built the station in Hilo just because we happened to have a license that was about to expire. We were very motivated to build that station, which we did. And that got us to the point where, Well, you know—

 

Let’s go statewide.

 

Let’s go statewide; we’re Hawaii Public Radio, after all, and let’s try and make it so. And that was the narrative for the next two years.

 

Do you reach farther than for-profit radio stations with your broadcast signal?

 

Oh, absolutely; yeah. Yeah, we’re the only radio station with statewide reach. Yeah; absolutely. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished here in Hawaii with the industry that I love so much. I like to think that Hawaii is an even better place now, than it was before we developed our Public Radio the way it is. It’s grown up now, it can stand on its own however many feet it has.

 

Hawaii Public Radio has received national recognition as a nonprofit organization for its achievements in news programming, fundraising, and fiscal responsibility. Michael Titterton, now HPR’s former president and general manager, was awarded the 2016 Alfred Preiss Honor by the Hawaii Arts Alliance for his lifetime support of the arts and community building. Mahalo to Michael Titterton of Makiki, Honolulu, for putting his skills and service to work for our community, and for delightfully sharing some of his many stories with us. And thank you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

Looking back at how much physical ground you’ve traveled, and then of course, how much emotional and social ground you’ve traveled, you’ve had a chance to reflect a little bit on your life, and how you were gonna be a tool die guy.

 

Yeah.

 

And then, with a business, and all of a sudden, you’re getting a master’s degree and getting into public media, and being a turnaround expert.

 

Well, yeah. I never expected any of it. In terms of reflection, I’m still coming to terms with all of that. I feel enormously grateful. I mean, I don’t want to be too sloppy about it, but not everybody has the breaks that I’ve had. And I’ve been fortunate. I used to think it was a rotten break, but I was fortunate enough not to be born wealthy. Life is good; life is good. It’s been a fascinating journey, and it doesn’t seem to be quite done yet.

 

[END]

 


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