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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 8, 2010

Media pioneer left mark in political arena

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Cecil L. "Cec" Heftel

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In this age of countless cable channels competing for viewer attention with a vast array of Internet distractions, it's hard to imagine a simpler time when a single broadcast tycoon could dominate a local market.

Yet that is the Hawai'i of Cecil L. "Cec" Heftel, who dominated the local airwaves like no other before or since. People such as news anchor Bob Sevey may have been the public face of top-rated KGMB-TV, but Heftel, who died Thursday, was the driving force behind it.

Those who worked for him remember a taskmaster with a hard edge. That trait was key to his success in boosting his star material to the front ranks of Hawai'i's entertainment icons, from TV's "Checkers and Pogo Show" to Hal "Aku" Lewis of local radio fame to Sevey.

Heftel made his mark in Island political circles as well, representing the state's 1st Congressional District for nine and a half years.

Although he had been active in party politics, he was more of a lone wolf than part of the Democratic power structure.

His unsuccessful 1986 run for the Democratic nomination for governor was shamefully brutal, with Heftel's lead in the polls whittled down by a late-season "whisper" smear campaign.

Despite a return to politics briefly as a school board member in 2004, broadcasting by then had resumed its place as Heftel's first love, said radio personality Michael W. Perry, who joined KGMB Radio (now KSSK) when, like KGMB-TV, it was still a Heftel family property.

Many of those who worked for him say he believed in hiring the best talent he could find, whether he liked them (Sevey) or not (Aku). But it was more than bankrolling a strong operation.

Perry put his finger on his greatest behind-the-scenes contribution: a well-honed instinct for entertaining people, something for which Heftel deserves more credit than he's received.

"The guy was a serious showman," he said. "He understood how to deal with talent.

"He was a promoter; he understood contests," he added. "Radio is about pleasing the consumer. That came naturally to him, which is why he was so far ahead of the curve."

Heftel's company later moved its base to California, where he was a pioneer in the Spanish-language broadcasting boom.

But he left behind a unique legacy for the generation that grew up in his heydey.

Using canny business and entertainment instincts, Heftel authored a pivotal chapter in Hawai'i's broadcast history. Isle popular culture couldn't have been the same without him.