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The Visitor Channel’s Jim Kartes: A man of three lives

By Staff | Mar 22, 2012

Jim Kartes in the production studio where he stores thousands of Maui videotapes.

LAHAINA – Most of us would be content to have one great career. Paradise Television/Visitor Channel owner and longtime Mauian Jim Kartes has had three.

At CBS News, Kartes worked closely with pioneering news anchor Walter Cronkite. He was clubbed in the neck during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He won six Emmy Awards filming for “60 Minutes” and “CBS Reports.”

In a second career in Indianapolis, Kartes made a fortune as one of the first sellers of movie videotapes in the new VHS format. He made so much money that his wife, Nancy, bought a Kaanapali home without him even knowing it. Kartes retired from the videotape business at 48.

Another of the remarkable people who fell in love with Maui and ended up here after a few visits, the talented cameraman/entrepreneur grew bored with playing golf and walking the beach.

In career three, he bought a fledgling Maui visitor channel and turned it into a winner. Today, the Visitor Channel 7 reaches 200,000 homes and 30,000 hotel rooms.

Brash as they come as a young man, Kartes began his memorable TV career in Minneapolis with a chance encounter in the late 1950s.

“I went to have lunch with a girlfriend at a fashion show,” he remembered. “This guy came walking into the room with a movie camera and he was filming. I went over…”

Kartes asked the cameraman, “Who are you? What are you doing? Well, that is interesting; who is your boss?”

Jim walked outside to a pay phone and called the TV station’s owner.

Kartes asked, “Do you need a cameraman?” The TV station owner, in a response today yearned for by any of today’s unemployed, said, “I need one right now.”

Kartes left the girlfriend behind, went to the station, was hired and within hours was covering spot news. A Navy man who had been a still photographer for the prestigious paper “Stars & Stripes,” Kartes had never held a film camera.

The new cameraman’s next stop after a few years was Indiana. “I decided to get the hell out of the cold weather,” he explained. Driving through Indianapolis, he spotted a TV tower, stopped by and soon was filming for WISH-TV.

When John F. Kennedy was shot in 1962, Kartes learned that presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater was in nearby Muncie. He hustled over, filmed an interview on Goldwater’s reaction to the assassination and saw his report run on CBS TV the next night.

In 1966, Jim was lured to the network at double the union scale. Soon, he was working with Cronkite, who often took him overseas as his sole cameraman.

Commentator Eric Sevareid, one of the famous Edward R. Murrow boys revered in early TV journalism circles, also insisting on Jim coming on all of his assignments.

Kartes covered moon launches at Cape Canaveral, filmed Cronkite in North Vietnam and won six Emmys for his work on “CBS Reports” and later “60 Minutes.” He was also the single TV pool reporter in China when President Richard Nixon visited – and has a picture to prove it.

Since being hit in the neck with a nightstick by a Chicago cop while filming protesters, Kartes has suffered from continuous back pain. Years later, doctors at the Mayo Clinic told him he would die unless four vertebrae were removed. He now has a metal plate in his back, and with other injuries, at 72, Jim has trouble walking.

In 1974, Kartes quit network TV and started a production company. With the invention of the videotape recorder, he became a video king as one of the first marketers of videotaped movies. Video rental racks he invented once were in 150,000 retail stores.

In the last 25 years, Kartes has built Paradise Television’s Channel 7 into perhaps the best, most influential TV visitor channel in the nation. A TV man from Miami recently visited to learn the formula.

Some time back, marketing researchers cited the Lahaina-based Visitor Channel as one of the prime reasons Maui has the most returnees of the Hawaiian Islands.

Visitors were exposed to so many events and places during the popular telecasts that they returned year after year to do the things they didn’t have time for on the last visit, according to Kartes.

One of his longest-running restaurant advertisers has increased sales from $2 million to $20 million during its time on the station, Kartes said.

Until Nancy passed in 2003, one of the channel’s most popular features showed Kartes and his wife sitting down for fine meals and extolling the food. A columnist still remembers the days when he used to say things like, “Nancy had the duck. I enjoyed the lobster.” Over 25 years, Kartes said he has eaten and reviewed virtually every top restaurant on Maui. Many are still here; some are long gone.

“I love restaurants,” he still says. His weight once ballooned to 265 pounds, but he is now down to 220.

His successes have been big – first digital TV channel on Maui, among the first firms to stream TV on the Internet (he holds patents for the software), start of a second HD Channel 1000 featuring spectacular scenic video (some shot by his grandson), and starting Maui Giclee Printing Company.

But life has not been perfect. His wife is gone; there’s been pain and ill health.

As his old buddy Walter Cronkite might have said, as this reaches print, “and that’s the way it is, March 15, 2012.”