PBS Hawaii Takes A Stand, And We Agree

We are watching with interest something that is unfolding over at PBS Hawai‘i.

Leslie Wilcox, President and CEO of PBS, first wrote about it in her blog post titled Plowing Thru Hawaiian Words Without a Clue:

Our management team at PBS Hawaii made an easy call today. We decided to tell the producers of a national series that we won’t air a particular episode unless they re-do their narration, to pronounce key Hawaiian words correctly.

… For example, Hualalai is pronounced (twice) as Hula Lolly.

This is a show that came to Hawaii and didn’t do its cultural homework. As a result, the show suffers a loss of credibility.

…We’re not perfect, either. But we believe it’s important to make one’s best effort—to learn phonetic basics rather than plow through Hawaiian words without a clue.

Local stations are the heart of the PBS system, and so is education. Let’s hope this show decides to go back to the audio booth, to backtrack and re-track, and give all of the TV markets in which it airs the authenticity and quality that viewers deserve.

She writes that she thinks it’s otherwise a fine program, and hopes to be able to air it.

Even before I realized that this was a program Richard was interviewed by and appears on – we wrote about it here at the blog – I was really interested in this situation. I agree that it’s a sign of respect for a culture when you try to pronounce its language correctly; and a sign of disrespect when you don’t make any effort at all.

The following day, Leslie Wilcox acknowledged all the hundreds of hits and positive comments her initial blog post received in a post she titled Sticking Up for the Hawaiian Language:

Wow, do we feel the love! The love and respect for the HAWAIIAN LANGUAGE that so many of you have…

Thank you for voicing your support of PBS Hawaii’s decision to insist on authenticity – in the narration of an episode in national TV series. In the show, shot on location on Hawaii Island and prepared for U.S. broadcast next month, the narrator badly mispronounces well-known Hawaiian words, like Mauna Kea (“Mona Kay”).  Keaukaha, the name of the pono-embracing public school on Hawaiian Homestead land in Hilo, is unrecognizable.

My blog entry on this subject last evening received hundreds and hundreds of hits overnight, and kept racking up hits all day. It was Facebooked and Twittered.

Then I read on and realized I knew what program she was talking about.

I’m struck by the reverence for the Hawaiian language and culture—especially as I notice a post on my blog by Hamakua Springs Country Farm owner Richard Ha. He has every reason to push for this TV program to run, no matter what, because he’s a featured interviewee on the show and the exposure would undoubtedly help his business in tough times.

Instead Richard writes after watching an advance copy of the show: “I cringed when I saw it.” He thanks us for “doing the right thing.” Inspiring, huh?

And then I was stunned when I read her next post, titled What if the Narrator Got THEIR Home’s Name Wrong?, which talked about the initial response she got from the program’s production company.

…A representative of the TV production company is in effect dismissing PBS Hawaii’s concerns as a matter of nuance. Here’s a direct quote from an email: “Subtleties and variations in pronunciation are bound to happen with such an old and regionalized language. We understand there are varying opinions and outlooks such as yours…”
This is nonsense.

…Keola Donaghy of UH Hilo says he will provide audio of the correct pronunciation of the place-names or make an expert available to talk with the show’s narrator at no cost.
Too late, too expensive, the production company is saying.
Question: If the narrator identified the producers’ own home base, Annandale, Virginia, by a name unrecognizable to the region’s residents, would it feel compelled to correct the mistake?

Such an interesting position for a production company, which airs its programs on PBS stations across the nation, to take. Defensive. Dismissive. I’m surprised, frankly, at the cavalier attitude.

If I make an error in my work, I am chagrined and count the minutes until I can get back to the computer to correct it. What is the difference here?

Do the producers of this program really view the local regions they go into, and in this case that region’s culture and language, with such contempt?

Richard told me, “Imagine if President Obama, who grew up in Hawai‘i, saw that program. I’m sure he’d cringe.”

In a comment to her most recent post, Leslie Wilcox writes that the wind may be a changin’.

There’s an indication that the production company’s attitude may be changing. I’ll put in a call Monday morning and find out more.

We’ll keep you posted.


One thought on “PBS Hawaii Takes A Stand, And We Agree”

  1. I wish we could have avoided a censure situation and had the time to develop a conversation with the production company to have the issue given some deeper thought. Cultural sensitivity, particularly the use of our native/home language is a pretty raw subject which may not be well understood by a “mainland” production. The issues of our history and colonization are often deemed to have been swept under a rug, or are not very comfortably addressed by some folks. A disrespect for the native tongue and our relationship with natural spaces often is the hot button that brings this out into the open for all. To have to address this with such short notice is unfortunate though.

    Given the sensitivity that many of us feel about these issues, I believe the majority of the people of Hawaii support Mrs. Wilcox’s decision to not show the episode. Mahalo to PBS Hawai’i for taking a stand, and to you Leslie and Richard for your humble reflections on the subject!

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