Reset and refresh: New leadership breathing life into Big Island’s public access Nā Leo TV
Turn to Channels 53, 54 and 55 or video on demand, and you can watch a variety of locally produced shows on the Big Island, including “The Art of Painting with Rockwood,” “Audrey Wilson’s Cooking Show,” “Aloha Infusion with Chef Justin,” “Kupuna Fit,” government meetings and lots and lots of high school and community sports.
The free programs are all on Nā Leo TV, Hawai‘i Island’s public access television station — and one of four nonprofit PEG (public, education, government) entities with State of Hawaiʻi contracts.
But over the past few years, Nā Leo TV has been struggling. Nearly half of its community producers were lost during the COVID-19 pandemic and there’s been the lingering effects of a 2021 embezzlement scandal.
While the struggle continues, there is one big reason for hope. In May, the station’s nine-member board of directors selected new president and CEO Ashley Kierkiewicz, a native of Hawaiʻi Island who brings to the job many ideas, energy, commitment to the community and track record for getting things done.
Kierkiewicz, who also represents Puna residents on the Hawai‘i County Council, started at Nā Leo TV on June 12 armed with a plan to “reset and refresh” the vision of the public station.
“Nā Leo, in my mind, has always been a diamond in the rough,” Kierkiewicz said. “I think there’s incredible potential for it to be a place to not just tell the diverse stories that exist in our community, but to get folks working in creative media.”
Nā Leo, meaning The Voice, has a 10-person production crew, but most of its content is created by individuals in the community who sign up to be certified external producers with the nonprofit.
The position is unpaid, but after going through the class, producers have free access to Nā Leo’s equipment and facilities to produce their programming. Click here to learn more about the program.
While she’s excited for the opportunities with Nā Leo, Kierkiewicz also will be helping to repair community belief in the station. In 2020, the FBI conducted a raid at its 91 Mohouli St. location. Former CEO Stacy Higa ultimately was charged and pled guilty in October 2022 to embezzling $38,000 from AmeriCorps and offering a bribe in return for grants under the pandemic-relief CARES Act.
Paul W. Horner replaced Higa as president and CEO in February 2022. But he didn’t even last a year before quietly resigning last year.
“There’s a lot of tension in the community about the abuse of public resources and taking advantage of public resources that are meant to be for community partners,” Kierkiewicz said.
She said she is committed to transparency in the organization and ensuring internal controls are in place to prevent that sort of abuse from happening again. She commended the board for the work they did to put those controls in place and plans to build on that where she sees gaps.
She also is blunt about another problem: providing consistent content. During the COVID-19 pandemic about 50 certified producers left the station, leaving only 57 certified producers to provide content for three 24/7 channels.
Now, only two producers submit weekly 30-minute programs. And, according to the station’s latest annual report to the state, hours of content created by certified producers dropped from 16,038 hours in 2021 to 14,390 in 2022.
To keep a certified status, producers are required to submit just one 30-minute program annually. But even with that low bar, Kierkiewicz said: “Folks are not meeting that goal.”
She thinks producing a 30-minute show may be too much for many producers, and is considering 15-minute shows.
Kierkiewicz also is evaluating the entire production system to see how it can be improved, how people can feel better engaged, supported and appreciated so producers are turning out content regularly.
Nā Leo has 24 hours to fill on three channels and not enough content, making repeat programming a common occurance, said Ann Toledo, the station’s client services specialist.
“We lost the excitement and fire for our job here,” Toledo said. “Now, with Ash, it’s a breath of fresh air.”
External producers cover anything that is community-minded like concerts or parades. Recently, an external producer covered a Hoike event at Waiakea High School where the late Kumu Hula Johnny Lum Ho’s group Hālau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua performed.
“One thing we’re lacking on is the educational content,” Toledo said.
According to the report, only four hours of the total 26,269 that ran in 2022 were for the education segment.
Toledo said Kierkiewicz wants to make a connection with the community again through nonprofit organizations and schools. She wants to grow the external producers program and create a space that allows them to collaborate with each other.
With Kierkiewicz at the helm, Nā Leo board member Mel Ventura said Kierkiewicz stood “head and shoulders above everyone” with her vision to create greater outreach and engagement with the communities outside of Hilo and Kona.
A new certified producer, Jason Armstrong, already is working on an educational program to expand community outreach for Hawai‘i County Department of Water Supply.
As the information and education specialist for the department, Armstrong is putting together a 30-minute segment about the county’s water supply system, how it operates, its history and providing reinforcement that the water is safe to drink.
As a former journalist, Armstrong said the most exciting part about utilizing this new medium is being able to get their message to a larger audience.
Lugging around a camera, tripod and other equipment has given him a new appreciation for the photographers he’s worked with in the past. “A pen and notepad are relatively easy,” Armstrong said.
Richard Gonzalez, West Hawai‘i Facilities Supervisor/production specialist, has been creating and producing shows on Nā Leo for 8 1/2 years and currently is behind: “The Art of Painting with Rockwood.”
“It’s kind of like a Bob Ross thing where he shows you what he’s doing,” Gonzalez said. “I love being able to create and produce shows I think the public wants to watch.”
Both Hilo and Kona studios have full kitchens where they host cooking shows.
“We do town hall meetings, county council meetings, sports. Just about anything the community is doing, we’re there to show the community there’s other things happening other than what’s in their little world,” Gonzalez said.
Ventura, who has been on the board for about a year and half, said the more he learns about Nā Leo, the more he believes in the public access station movement: “It’s giving access to people, increasing public participation in telling stories and being part of political discourse.”
Channel 55 carries all Nā Leo’s governmental coverage while channels 53 and 54 share content provided by the external producers.
Kierkiewicz also sees opportunities to hold youth film festivals, contests for public service announcements and working with schools and nonprofit organizations to tell stories. She’s interested in seeing how Nā Leo can showcase the arts and culture in communities through potentially a youth film festival, hosting local musicians on set, capturing the stories of the kūpuna so they’re not lost.
The new CEO also is hoping to work with current or retired journalists to teach community members the art of objective journalism so it’s not lost. They would work with certified producers on identifying an issue, how to research and interview the topic in order to tell a balanced story.
Kierkiewicz said there are a variety of stories Nā Leo could be telling that it is not. She also said there is opportunity to tell them through different mediums like podcasts.
Kierkiewicz said: “I would love for Nā Leo to be a story-telling agency where we’re able to give folks jobs and meaningful work experience that allows them to hone their craft, their skillset so they can get paid more money.”
For more information about Nā Leo TV, go to https://naleo.tv/.