With its 10th anniversary approaching, homegrown Eunice radio station KBON has defied the odds to become a regional powerhouse.
In the DJ booth at KBON 101.1 FM, owner Paul Marx is ironing out the details of an insurance policy for the station's new mobile broadcasting vehicle with his receptionist. Without a word and no prompting, he swivels his chair around, nearly kisses the microphone and summons his boisterous, south Louisiana disc jockey voice.
Marx begins talking about the late Johnny Adams of New Orleans, whose "Reconsider Me" just finished playing. This time, Marx says he will not use the phrase "the late Johnny Adams."
"Every time I say the late Johnny Adams, someone calls up and says I heard Johnnie Allan died. Johnnie's doing quite well ' well Johnnie Allan is ' Johnny Adams is late; Johnnie is not late, he is always on time," says Marx. "So, forget I said late, let's not talk about late, let's start over â?¦ And that was Johnny Adams from New Orleans, and he's dead, ya know."
Marx kicks off a Kevin Naquin song and spins back around, where his receptionist tells him the phones are going to ring off the hook, as it surely offended someone. Sure enough, a strobe light connected to the phone begins flashing, alerting Marx there is a call on the DJ line.
Marx's phone will ring constantly for the 45 minutes left in his four-hour morning show, but no one calls about the late Adams or the alive Allan. Some listeners try to make two of the hourly requests the station allows, and others want to enter the Mother's Day rocking glider contest. It is a typical morning show for Marx, who turns 60 on July 4. Most mornings, he wakes up before his alarm clock goes off at 4:15 and heads to the station. He gets his music ready for the day, goes over the news and, on days like today, discovers a new artist. At 9 a.m., Marx introduces Crowley's Wendy Hanks and her new song to Acadiana.
On the booth's desk sits a mug, bearing the station's slogan, "Let us, before we die, gather up our heritage and offer it to our children." For Marx, it's more than a marketing motto. For the past 10 years, Marx's KBON has been one of the most ardent supporters of local music. Before they become dance hall favorites, many artists, like Hanks, get their first shots on KBON's airwaves ' the station helped launch Travis Matte and expanded the audience of many more. In return, Acadiana treats the station well ' local businesses made April 2007 KBON's biggest month ever.
Listeners are just as kind, with KBON placing consistently in the top 10 and more recently in the top five of local ratings, peaking at No. 3 last spring. Since then, it has dropped to 6th place but remains the only locally owned FM station in the top 10. Through its online offerings (both a free streaming service and a subscription club), KBON reaches fans across the globe.
For the tireless, hands-on boss who takes graveyard shift usually heaped on the new guy, the ratings and the business are great, but that's not really what makes KBON special.
"It is important to me for the world to hear about us here," says Marx. "When I say us, I don't mean KBON â?¦ I mean about our people, our area. Because they are bombarded so much by corporate radio, which doesn't promote the Louisiana area at all. The message I am trying to get across to the world is come visit us. People want to go to Nashville when it comes to music. They want to go to Branson. But don't forget we have something very special here that you should take part in as well. So come to this area and see the food, the music ' it's so special, it's like a little foreign country. If we don't keep telling the world about us they are gonna forget about us because they won't hear about us on regular radio."
Walking into the KBON offices is like stepping into radio's past. Housed in downtown Eunice on Second Street, which resembles a Main Street of yesteryear, big storefront windows display a collection of antique Americana, festival posters and vintage vinyl. First-time visitors often mistake the station for an antique store. KBON still broadcasts its programming into the streets for passersby to hear. Inside, walls of signatures from local musicians put Grant Street Dancehall's backstage collection to shame.
"It is very down home," says Todd Ortego, who hosts KBON's Swamp & Roll Show and sells ads for the station. "That's pretty much KBON ' everybody gets along great. We are singing in there lots of times â?¦ We don't have our shoes on, but we are getting our work done."
On-air, the programming carries the feel of forgotten radio. Just as KBON's Louisiana-centric and varied playlist sets it apart, so does the instantly recognizable commercials that are an anomaly in modern radio. Sales agents, DJs and Marx cut their own commercials. Local music provides the backing track, and some commercials feature dialogue in both English and French. About 95 percent of KBON's clients are local businesses, and the DJs create folksy promos unheard of in corporate radio:
"A half pound of beef onions and gravy!" exclaimed DJ Pail Daigle recently. "That's what those other burgers want to be when they grow up, but this royal appetite pleaser is the King Burger only at King's Truck Stop and Casino! Every Monday in the casino, there's 15 cash drawings, and while you're there, sign up for the VIP club and get 100 bonus points, get double points for your birthday! Come try King's delicious baby back ribs every Thursday, $6.95 for lunch or $9.95 for a super-sized portion for dinner, and delicious boiled crawfish every Friday. Eat like a king and be treated like a queen at King's Truck Stop and Casino on Highway 190 between Opelousas and Port Barre!"
Corey Deitz, a veteran broadcaster who heads About.com's radio section, says that undeniable local flavor makes a difference. "Radio talents used to strive to eliminate their accents and adapt their enunciation to what was called the Midwestern sound ' which is neutral of all accents. You don't really have to have a radio voice anymore. Regular people are what radio wants these days."
KBON's DJs and the agents know the area. They know the towns. They know how to pronounce local names. They know which meat markets sell the thickest pork chops and who makes the best plate lunches. Above all, they know local music. Marx is committed to keeping this feel, once denying a job to a golden-throated radio man with tons of experience and credentials who did not know swamp pop from swamp gas.
"If you don't know Johnnie Allan I can't hire you," Marx says with one of his trademark belly deep laughs.
In the Lafayette market, heavyweight corporate owned stations out-muscle KBON in terms of wattage. Stations like KSMB 94.5 (capable of reaching from Lake Charles to Baton Rouge), KTDY 99.9 and KXKC 99.1 have strong 100,000 watt signals. Stations KMDL 97.3 The Dawg (38,000 watts), KFTE 96.5 Planet Radio (42,000 watts) and KRRQ 95.5 (50,000 watts) out-power KBON as well. KBON's 25,000 watts is considered a moderate signal, its core coverage area stretching from western Acadia Parish to Opelousas and from Turkey Creek in the north to Crowley and mid-Lafayette Parish in the south. (Its signal reaches farther but is most reliable within this radius.)
Wattage is important in the radio game but doesn't spell instant success or failure. The top rated station in the market, ironically, is Magic KNEK 104.7, an urban adult contemporary station with the same wattage as KBON.
In 2005, KBON gained even more ground when it was allowed to move its tower to Ville Platte. Instead of supplanting the old tower, the station bought a new one with a new transmitter and better equipment. Both the move and the equipment helped KBON grab a greater stake in the local market.
"I am always happy to see good ratings, but I am not going to let that guide me," says Marx of KBON's place in the market. "It is important from an advertising standpoint â?¦ I refuse to let that be my guide ' to change things or alter things to make my ratings better. I think that is faking it. That's doing it too much from a business standpoint instead of as something that is more needed, that needs to be done."
Getting KBON on the air, much less a local favorite, was not an easy task. For nearly two decades Marx tried to bring a local variety music format to the airwaves. The struggle Marx went through ' the doors shut in his face, the experts saying the station's format could never work ' reads like a great American success story.
As a kid, Marx watched a movie featuring performances by Chuck Berry and other rock and roll stars of the day at Crowley's Rice Theater. The young Marx spent the movie dancing in his chair. When he left, the man sitting behind him stopped Marx and predicted he would one day work in the music business. By the age of 9, Marx had penned his first song. "When I was a kid I used to pretend I was a DJ," says Marx. "Here I am 59 years old still pretending to be a DJ!"
Just before starting as a DJ, Marx worked as assistant advertising manager for The Crowley Post-Signal. On the side, he tried to launch his recording career but couldn't afford recording sessions. To raise funds he did product placement in his songs, with local businesses and his clients putting up money. In "Nashville Bound," Marx sang of stealing a car from Shetler-Corley Ford to drive to Music City. When FHA Mobile Homes, a client from the Post-Signal, sponsored another record, he put their name on the 45's label. Two months after it was released, FHA went out of business.
In the early 1970s, Marx realized the classic songs of Warren Storm, Tommy McClain and other swamp pop legends were no longer receiving radio play, and he didn't know of any zydeco programming. However, he knew people still liked the music, still popular in the bars where jukeboxes played classic south Louisiana vinyl.
In Crowley, Marx landed a spot on KAJN 102.9 and began a south Louisiana music program. Two months later, the station went gospel and had no place for songs about drinking, cheating and sorrow. Marx took the program wherever he could; in Jennings a station told him there was no room for him on the schedule until he said he would do it for free. The station gave him its noon to 5 p.m. Saturday spot for two years.
Years went by and the program became popular with musicians visiting Marx and voicing their appreciation. Marx noticed that the specialty hour shows were not only popular but helped their DJs make a name for themselves. Few people remembered the afternoon guy playing hits from the national charts, but people still remember specialty jocks such as Camey Doucet (KBON still plays his "Who Stole the Pies"). This sparked the initial idea for KBON's programming, and Marx shopped a format of mixing music featured on specialty shows ' swamp pop, Cajun, zydeco ' with other genres.
"I heard every excuse in the world why it couldn't work," Marx says. Local music is only weekend music, station managers told him. As they turned him down, he grew fearful local music might vanish from local radio. He kept himself afloat with two nightclubs in the 1990s. "I used to literally cry â?¦ God, get me out of this! I know I have a better purpose than this," says Marx.
But his time as a bar owner proved useful as he figured out what kinds of music people liked. The same patrons might request Bob Seger and Warren Storm, the crowd dancing to both. Marx realized he wanted to start a station of his own and would do anything to get it. He worked with a media broker who couldn't understand why he only wanted a station in Acadiana.
"I don't think somebody who has never been here, never eaten a link of boudin, never sucked the head of a crawfish, can come down here and say what our people want to hear," says Marx. Likewise, Marx turned down overtures for stations in Texas, Mississippi and north Louisiana.
Finally, Marx got a building permit from Charles Ellis, the engineer at KSIG in Crowley, which also allowed him to apply for an FCC license. He sold the house he and his wife lived in, along with three acres of land and his two bars. They relocated to Mamou.
Marx hit the streets of Mamou in his tennis shoes and jeans, talking to the mayor and local businesses. No one took him seriously. He had no income and no experience in the business end of radio. At home, it was a diet of bologna sandwiches as the couple went without a paycheck while he set up the station. He promised his wife that if KBON failed, he would work offshore. Looking back, he can't believe this pledge, as he jokes he gets seasick in the bathtub.
Despite the long odds, Marx never lost sleep. "I had to do this â?¦ I just had to," Marx says. During the application process, every call letter ' such as KMOU for Mamou ' Marx tried to register came back taken. Ellis had him look over a list of all the available ones. His daughter spotted KBON and they scrambled to get it, thinking ' with its French translation of good ' it was the perfect fit for the station.
Leading up to their first broadcast, word of mouth spread as people who knew him talked up the station and Marx ran newspaper ads to herald KBON's arrival.
"They knew I was doing it for the right reasons," says Marx. "They were behind me 100 percent since they knew there was no catch, no faking it, they knew who I was."
At 7 a.m., May 29, 1997, KBON went live on the air with Marx helming its premiere broadcast. To kick it off, Marx played a song by Leroy "Happy Fats" LeBlanc and Joe Turner, since fellow DJ LeBlanc had supported Marx's efforts as a young musician. Next, Marx spun "Wind Beneath my Wings" by Lou Rawls, in honor of his supportive wife.
Though on the air, KBON struggled. Marx did his 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. spot, followed by Gumbo Phil Daigle, there from day one, who manned the booth until 6 p.m. Evenings saw Marx back on for another four hours on top of his business duties. On Fridays, Marx did his morning show, then a request show from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. On Saturdays, he manned the Louisiana Music Show from noon until 6 p.m., took his shoes off and did another 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. request program. He worked Sundays, too.
When he wasn't working, Marx never stayed far from a radio tuned to KBON, like a new parent grasping a baby monitor. At night, he slept a few hours, always with the radio on and tuned to the station. If the signal went out in the middle of the night, Marx had his pants on before he was even awake. He also kept a cot at the station for when he absolutely had to have a nap. The second month, Marx was forced to take out a loan to pay his employees' salaries.
Quickly, things began to turn around. Four to six weeks into the station, musicians gave KBON an appreciation day at Gilton's Club, selling out the 1,200 capacity club. In the first ratings report, KBON surprised him with a No. 16 spot in the market. In a matter of months, the station went from red to black.
"Good memories now, but it was rough," says Marx.
Initially, KBON's demographic primarily consisted of the 65 and older range. To keep young people interested in local music, Marx wanted the station to reach a younger demographic. So he tweaked the playlist and added newer country music. Today, the 12,000-song playlist reflects a variety of music. Foremost, it is a Louisiana music station with 80 to 90 percent of the material coming from Louisiana artists. Both traditional and contemporary songs within south Louisiana's musical genres are often played back to back. The late legend Nathan Abshire gets airtime with the newcomers The Pine Leaf Boys. Along with Cajun, zydeco, swamp pop, country (produced in both Louisiana and elsewhere), KBON plays early rock, classic soul and blues.
"I've been there, I've been in the clubs, I've been on the barstool listening to the jukebox. I've been on the stage playing the songs people ask for," says Marx. "I feel like I pretty much know the audience that I want to cater to."
KBON's mixture ' going from Warren Storm to George Strait to Otis Redding to Steve Riley ' gives listeners the impression the genres are on the same playing field. "After some time, and we do this every day, it becomes normal. You don't feel the separation of it. It is all music," says Marx. "We've accomplished that wonderful thing of getting the young people to recognize it as music not separately as maw-maw and paw-paw music. It can be maw-maw and paw-paw music. It can be mom and dad music, but it can be your music too."
Nonetheless, some artists criticize KBON, saying it does not live up to its "Louisiana Proud" motto. Marx counters that the playlist is not an open door that blindly plays any and all Louisiana music.
"We went on very loose, very loose, but I had to gradually tighten [the playlist] up a bit," says Marx. "If there are six bad songs in a row picked by the computer, it will turn listeners off to Louisiana music and KBON."
Marx admits that not all music recorded locally is high quality. He's quick to point out that some of his own songs are not on the play list and didn't receive airtime elsewhere, for very good reasons. One musician and advertiser who did business with KBON wanted his new CD on the air, but Marx denied it, saying it didn't measure up in terms of production value and quality. When the musician dangled more money at him, Marx told him it would not matter if he spent $10,000 monthly with KBON ' the CD wasn't going to get any airplay.
Says Marx, "You have to, at some point, say this is for the betterment of what we do, not only for the radio station but the industry."
Off the list, the station keeps some 4,000-5,000 songs that are played by request only. Marx is wary of adding a song to regular rotation just because it spikes calls to the request line. Himself a musician, he knows that when an artist releases a record, his family bombards local radio with calls. But requests for non-Louisiana music are occasionally obliged, with DJs spinning The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Gap Band's "You Dropped A Bomb on Me," Midnight Star's "No Parking on the Dance Floor," and Rick James' "Super Freak."
Right now, Marx could be at home, getting in his wife's way as she tries to enjoy her yard work and hobbies. Interested parties have made handsome offers for KBON that would have provided them an easy retirement. The largest bid came from a group out of Austin, Texas, which had its lawyer dangle a lot of zeroes in front of Marx. For the man who put his family on a bologna diet to start the station, it's not about the money.
"I felt good to be able to say that, 'cause I will retire when I die. This is my life. I can't imagine living without this," says Marx.
The only time money is a factor is when Marx talks about his other baby, the streaming online radio offered via kbon.com. Here, money matters as looming national copyright legislation threatens to pull the plug on both the free streaming and the KBON Club, a subscription service offering six channels of genre specific content.
Previously, Marx tried to break into satellite radio, offering KBON's signal at no cost to both XM and Sirius before their merger. Neither was interested. "How can somebody like me compete?" asks Marx. "Where I can compete is the Internet. I have a worldwide audience, and I can get a worldwide audience just as easy as [corporate radio] can. But, they don't want people like me to compete with them."
Marx thought he had the remedy in online radio streaming. For two years, KBON's Web site provided free streaming of the station's programming. After two years of trying to offset the high cost of streaming ' music association fees, tech support and the actual cost of streaming ' by soliciting $15 quarterly donations, the station introduced the KBON Club, a subscription service. By paying a $6 monthly fee, listeners could stream a network of genre-specific channels, such as Cajun, zydeco and swamp pop channels. In May, the club debuted its seventh channel ' one Marx references as a party station including disco, hip-hop, rap, pop, rock and R&B.
A lingering ruling threatens to end the Club. On March 2, The Copyright Royalty Board issued a decision that would raise the per song rate for streaming from $.0007 to $.0008. The rate would be retrograded, leaving stations like KBON paying the higher rate for all of its 2006 streaming. By 2010, the rate is scheduled to rise to $.0019. With the new rates, the decision includes a $500-per-station fee and will eliminate fee schedules that based pricing on a percentage of revenue. The decision could translate to a 300 percent increase for large operations and upwards of 1,200 percent for smaller operations. The decision was set to take effect May 15 but has been pushed back to July 15. Two U.S. representatives, Illinois Republican Don Manzullo and Washington Democrat Jay Inslee, have introduced a bill to overturn the decision. Called The Internet Radio Equality Act, it could save streaming radio for the estimated 70 million Americans listening to online music stations every month.
"We're doing what we can do as for as to get this out to the world that it's very important," says Marx. "It scares the heck out of me that we could lose that and all of a sudden our signal is confined to this area."
But Marx'll always have the radio station and feels that KBON is in good hands. One of Marx's daughters, Paula Marx Guidry, is business manager at the station. She was a casual music fan when she started working at KBON but changed her tune after seeing the reaction and the appreciation it garners. Her sister Angela is a fervent music fan; her father says she can listen to Nathan Asbhire, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Tupac in one setting.
"That was probably the biggest worry I had about the business," says Marx. "What's going to happen when I'm gone? Now I feel very confident the station will go on."