Cover Story

The Man in the Air Chair

by R. Reese Fuller

Broadcasting from the Avocado Room, from high atop the well-built Hotel Biltwell, it's Lee Kleinpeter, your host for another Friday night edition of Big Band Swings.

It's 10 till 7 on a Friday night, and Lee Kleinpeter is running late. The 56-year-old New Iberia native walks briskly through the front doors of Burke Hall on the UL Lafayette campus to the front door of the KRVS studios. He's wearing a blue jean jacket and khaki pants and totes several bags filled with compact discs and vinyl records. He fumbles for his keys and unlocks the door. He's trying to be polite and make small talk, but it's obvious all he's thinking about is getting in front of the microphone and on the radio airwaves for another edition of Big Band Swings.

Usually on weekday mornings Kleinpeter works the 5 a.m.-10 a.m. shift on KANE 1240 AM in New Iberia, hosting The Breakfast Club, a mix of local and national news, swamp pop, oldies, zydeco and Cajun music, with a focus on community events. (He also produces two other weekly shows on KRVS ' Old Gold and Show Tunes.) But this past week has been a crazy one for Kleinpeter. He's been sitting in for one of his KANE co-workers, in addition to his own show, which has kept him on the air for nine hours a day. He managed to grab a quick nap at home in New Iberia before driving into Lafayette, but he's still a bit frazzled.

Kleinpeter drops his bags in the control room, sheds his jacket, moves some chairs out of his way, and props open a briefcase loaded with CDs. Next to the control board, the computer monitor says there's only two minutes before he's live on the air. After a quick inspection of the recording system that he'll use to tape his show for a rebroadcast on Monday night, he's not convinced it's working properly. He dashes out and returns seconds later with a VHS tape to record the show on another machine, just to be safe.

With only 30 seconds to go before he's on the air, Kleinpeter has the control room set up like he wants it. He puts his headphones on and turns on the microphone. "Good evening," he says. "This is Lee Kleinpeter, inviting you to stay tuned for another edition of Big Band Swings, live on this Friday night." He turns off the microphone, and Woody Herman's big band launches into a rendition of Louis Jordan's "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?"

For the last 16 years, for two hours every Friday night, Kleinpeter has been ' as he calls it ' "the man in the air chair" on the Big Band Swings radio program, an orchestrated blend of big band music from the '30s and '40s, peppered with campy radio commercials from the swing era. It's a reminder of the golden age of radio when Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller ruled the airwaves and Bing Crosby crooned and made pitches for five delicious flavors of Kraft cheese, live from the Kraft Music Hall.

Kleinpeter announces he's broadcasting from the Avocado Room from high atop the well-built Hotel Biltwell.

So where is this happenin' joint, and how do you get there?

Toys Music Center owner and longtime disc jockey Dave Hubbell says Kleinpeter is the reason he got into radio.

In the early '70s, when Hubbell was 12 years old, he paid a visit to the Northgate Mall. At the time, KSMB 94.5 FM was a rock radio station headquartered in the mall. There was a window where passersby could watch the on-air DJ at work, and a small speaker softly played the music from the airwaves. Kleinpeter was manning the control board that day.

"I watched him do this commercial break and change records," Hubbell says, "and in that two minutes I got it in my blood. I decided I wanted to do that." While his mother went off to shop, the young Hubbell stayed behind to watch Kleinpeter, who eventually invited him into the control room.

More than three decades later, Hubbell's weekly radio rock program on KRVS, The Fringe, follows Kleinpeter's Big Band Swings. "We joke about being radio geeks," Hubbell says. "He's another guy, another record collector, with an insanely huge collection and a desire to share it with people."

Despite putting in at least 60 hours a week, Kleinpeter doesn't see radio as his job, or as his hobby. "I consider it as part of my mission," he says. "I feel like I'm on a mission to bring special music to those folks that need special music, to bring sounds to the folks who are going to dig it. It's kind of like people who start up a band so they can make the sounds. I wasn't talented enough or disciplined enough to be a band member. So I said, 'Why don't I just take the best ingredients that I hear, like a chef, and then broadcast them to get that band's message out even further than just the bandstand?'"

In high school, Kleinpeter says he was a class clown, but he had no interest in broadcasting until he helped produce a radio drama of MacBeth for a class project. "It was like theater without having to learn lines," he says. "I'm like an introverted extrovert. I don't like being in crowds having to talk to people, but I don't mind being personable on the radio. It's like the Wizard of Oz, where you're behind the curtain, and you're doing all this big dramatic stuff, and people are like, 'Wow, what's that wizard up to? This guy's something.'"

After graduating from high school in 1967, Kleinpeter landed a job with KSMB, the first FM station in the area. "Broadcasting has pretty much buttered my bread for most of my life," he says. With an easy listening format, he was spinning the soothing sounds of Percy Faith, Andy Williams and The Kingston Trio. "It was mainly aimed at the adult audience, and nobody had FM hardly," he says. Kleinpeter would tell his friends and relatives that he was on the radio, but few of them had radios that could pick up the newer FM band.

His next job, a few months later, was with KANE 1240 AM in New Iberia. Mike Mitchell was also working at KANE as a disc jockey; today, he's the operations manger for the television stations KADN and KLAF. "Lee really took a lot of pride even then in what he was doing," Mitchell says. "He really worked hard to get better. He would aircheck and listen to his shows and try to pick out mistakes, and he would always ask for help. He was very meticulous in just about anything and everything he did."

Throughout the years, nine different local radio stations have employed Kleinpeter. "In radio, you kind of bounce around a lot," he says. But he's come full circle, landing back at KANE, with a honed style that's personable and inviting. Listeners to his weekly morning show call in to tell him about traffic wrecks, to warn him that there's fog on Loreauville Road, or to tell him that their electricity is out and to ask if he's heard anything about it. Following Hurricane Rita, Kleinpeter went on the air at KANE at noon and stayed there for 13 hours. The phones rang the entire time, with listeners looking for ice and gas and complaining about politicians.

"If you look at the two broadcast entities where he's working," Mitchell says, "he's got a lot of flexibility and a lot of freedom. He's got a format, but he can basically do what he wants to do and put a lot of that personality into his show. He can still be a human being. He's able to put a lot of personal touch into both of those radio stations."

Hubbell says that by working at KANE on a daily basis, Kleinpeter has mastered radio as a tool for personal communication. "He's talking to people that live a few blocks away," he says, "as opposed to large radio stations that get phone calls and e-mails from people that you're never going to meet. Lee interacts with his listeners on a daily basis, and he brings that kind of charm to the table at KRVS as well. It's kind of hard to put your finger on it, but he's got kind of a magic that matches the shows that he hosts."

Although Big Band Swings isn't as community-driven as The Breakfast Club, KRVS General Manager Dave Spizale says Kleinpeter still brings the same inviting charm. "He brings to the table an entire package of things that you don't normally find," he says. "You might find Joe DJ out there who considers himself a personality, but who's light on content. But Lee has the background information, and he also brings a tremendous sense of humor and a sense of irony. He's also an actor who's been in a lot of plays, so he has a totally theatrical mindset. In fact, when he first started saying that he was originating from the Avocado Room, we had callers believing that there was an Avocado Room."

Spizale notes that in the 16 years Big Band Swings has been on the air, Kleinpeter has never missed a show.

"He does not take himself seriously at all," Hubbell says, "but he takes the show seriously. He chooses carefully what songs he's going to play. On the Big Band Swings show, I love the way he has morphed so he begins at 7 o'clock with really old time music with stuff from the '20s through the '40s, and by the time his show is done he's playing Lou Rawls and Nancy Sinatra. All of it falls into the same bag of things that are no longer available on the commercial broadcast spectrum, and he manages to make it work."

There are no hard and fast rules Kleinpeter follows for preparing each week for Big Band Swings. There is no script or playlist. But all day, every day, Kleinpeter is surrounded by music ' both at home and at work ' and he's constantly making small piles of music for that week's broadcast. And despite his zany one-liners and quirky commercials sandwiched between songs, Kleinpeter says the driving force behind the show is his affinity for the music of a bygone era. "I can't tell you exactly what drew me to it," he says. "I still like Jefferson Airplane and The Stones and The Beatles. But then I also like to hear Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. So I try to bring some elements into the show so people say, 'That's not so bad. That's not wheelchair music after all. That's kind of a cool song.'"

When he's not on the radio, Kleinpeter is on the lookout for new material. Collecting records has become an occupational hazard for him. He buys everything he can find ' from CDs to vinyl albums and singles to 78 RPM records. He estimates that he has more than 50,000 titles. A fourth of his garage is filled with crates of records. "My house is full of records," he says. "I don't think I'd let anybody in the house right now because it just looks like some kind of mental case [lives there]. I have multiple copies of this and that, but it's like [the records] need somebody to watch over them."

Hubbell says, "It's so ironic that he's fascinated by the big band music and the older music because his delivery of it and his voice match so beautifully. He obviously has listened to a lot of old time broadcasting, and he spends a tremendous amount of time in preproduction recording those old commercials and prerecorded radio bits that make it sound like an old time radio show."

If it sounds like Kleinpeter is a bit old-fashioned, it's because he probably is. When he first began broadcasting Big Band Swings, the CD player bewildered him. He couldn't figure out how to operate it, and he wouldn't ask anyone for help. Instead, every Friday night for the first six months, he hauled his own vinyl records from New Iberia for each broadcast.

Despite rapidly evolving technologies and the increasingly popularity of new media, Kleinpeter says it's not the medium that's important, it's the message. "It's kind of like [KLFY TV 10's morning show] Passe Partout will never be replaced by Katie Couric or the CBS morning news," he says. "I would rather watch Gary Arnold stumbling around and say, 'Goddamn, he's still no better than he was 15 years ago.' I would rather see that and see Mr. Joe Bourgeois with a trail ride this Saturday, and then we're going to have the little Girl Scouts come out and tell you about their dance revue. Maybe the next generation will not be so accepting, and they'll want to be watching more of The View. They talk about the iPod threat and the satellite radio threat, but it's content. If you have something, especially local, and you engage people, you can draw a nice audience."

There's only one rule of thumb for Kleinpeter. "You want to engage your audience," he says. "Television, to me, is more of voyeurism, like you're sneaking up on somebody and watching them. Whereas when you're in your car especially, that's the beauty of radio, when you're driving to work and you listen to the radio, you kind of feel like I'm talking to you and only you. I don't think that's ever changed. It's like my little parade. I'm parading all of this stuff in front of you but without pictures, and it's up to you to paint whatever pictures you want to supply with it."

And he plans to keep on producing his little parade, every Friday night, live from the Avocado Room, from high atop the well-built Hotel Biltwell.

Tune into Lee Kleinpeter

KRVS 88.7 FM

Big Band Swings
Friday, 7 p.m. ' 9 p.m.
Monday, 7 p.m. ' 9 p.m. (rebroadcast)

Show Tunes
Monday, 9 p.m. ' 10 p.m.

Old Gold
Thursday, Noon ' 1 p.m.
Saturday, 1 a.m.' 2 a.m. (rebroadcast)

KANE 1240 AM

The Breakfast Club
weekdays, 5 a.m. - 10 a.m.