Radio Head

by Mary Tutwiler

When the power went out, an AM radio station in New Iberia kept its listeners plugged in. The voice has a round mellow tone. There’s a nice mix of authority and assurance as he dishes out updates on where to get ice, changes in curfew hours and which streets to avoid because of downed utility poles. He listens attentively to callers, many of whom ask him when power will be restored to a specific address — their own home address. For five days straight, he pulled 19-hour shifts in a sweltering sound booth lit by one 60-watt light bulb, catching naps on a futon in his 90-degree, airless office.

Jeff Boggs, the voice of KANE, 1240 AM, normally DJs talk shows and spins songs on the New Iberia radio station. There are regular visits to the studio from elected officials, who are often on the air promoting city and parish programs. Boggs’ 10 a.m.-noon slot, Teche Matters, covers local issues and generates calls from those who praise him and others who call him out. Boggs isn’t shy about voicing his opinions and invites controversy.

But for the fourth time in seven years, last week he and fellow DJ Lee Kleinpeter and intern Genée Bujard fueled up the generator and moved into the office, where they air live interactive hurricane coverage. Once the lights go out, for all practical purposes, they are information central in Iberia Parish. “We know what our job is,” says Boggs. “We have a certain responsibility having a broadcast license. Lafayette’s focus is on Lafayette metro area. Our first responsibility is to New Iberia and Iberia Parish. We serve the local community.”

The same forum that allows anyone to call in and vent on-air in times of calm provides a lifeline when television and the Internet aren’t available. Sitting at home, in the dark, with howling wind and rising water, people get scared. That’s when they turn on the radio and pick up the phone.

Boggs got his start in radio on Aug. 24, 1992. He was driving down to Golden Meadow in an old school bus he had turned into the cheap version of an RV, to start a new job at a radio station where a friend worked. “As I was driving down, I was listening to reports of this hurricane that was approaching Miami. Yep, somebody else’s problem, I’m heading to my new job, I’m real upbeat about the possibilities. I’m used to being a landlocked Midwesterner, don’t know anything about hurricanes.” Boggs got into Golden Meadow on Aug. 25. Hurricane Andrew hit Louisiana on Aug. 26. “Before I knew it I was into the mix of hurricane coverage, 24 hours after I got into the area. It was a pretty good indoctrination of butchering people’s last names. I remember the first time I got a call from the parish president, I thought it was the church parish president. Two weeks later I was the news director there.”

Boggs arrived in New Iberia in 2001, when his boss, Jerry Gisclair, who owns KLEB AM and KLRZ FM in Lafourche Parish, bought KANE from Acadiana LifeStyle publisher Art Suberbielle. During Hurricane Lili in October 2002, people who had not evacuated in advance of what was being described as a Category 5 storm due to slam into Vermilion Bay and push a 20-foot storm surge straight into New Iberia were glued to their radios. Boggs had urged residents to evacuate, and in the days before the storm people called in with tips on which back roads were clear and where motels still had empty rooms. As soon as a need was mentioned on the air, someone with the ability to meet it would call in.

Once the power went out, Boggs and Kleinpeter started getting calls from residents who had stayed home, telling them where they lived, telling him they were frightened. All the DJs could do at that point, when emergency vehicles were grounded, was to encourage calm during the storm. Folks went to bed with their radios that night and heard Boggs at 4 a.m., with relief in his voice, announce that the storm had been downgraded to a Category 2. When the KANE generator went out the following day, people who had been listening nonstop for the first time felt truly isolated, disconnected and alone.

By the time Gustav took aim at south Louisiana, Boggs and Kleinpeter were old hands at directing information traffic for Iberia Parish. The sheriff’s office, Iberia Parish Government and the mayor’s office called into KANE to get their information out. “In the time when the electricity and cable was out, the radio was the heartbeat of the community,” says New Iberia Mayor Pro Temp Freddie DeCourt. Iberia’s new sheriff, Louis Ackal, invited KANE to set up a remote broadcasting site at his command center located at the jail. “I figured that the local radio station could get things out immediately,” says Ackal. “A lot of people had their radios tuned to it. I gave Lee the space, lodging, food and water. I think it worked well, because as things were happening, the media could hear what was going on and put it out to the public. There were several times we had to notify the public that there were wires down, roads were impassable or flooded, we had a lot of problems with looters and curfew violators and we kept reminding people of the hours. I think it worked. KANE did a great job.”

Gustav didn’t hit Iberia as hard as Lili, but listeners of KANE still had just as many questions about the curfew, road closures and power restoration. “My favorite call,” says Boggs, “was someone was actually pissed-off that parish government didn’t have the foresight to be prepared to deliver fuel so people could keep their generators going. I’ve taken a lot of stupid calls in my day, but that one stood out among them all.”

Boggs’ loyalty to home-grown businesses results in lots of attitude. As a handful of local grocery and convenience stores reopened, Boggs went on a tear, reminding his listeners that Wal-Mart had shuttered its doors 36 hours before the storm hit, “abandoning folks” when they most needed supplies. “Local stores like Simoneaud’s and Bi-Lo stayed open until the power went out. Now the local stores are reopening and you need to support them. Wal-Mart isn’t open because they’re having trouble rounding up their employees. No wonder. Until they start paying better wages and reasonable benefits and quit their sexist behavior, who would want to work for them anyway?”

The community’s response is solidly with Boggs. “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” one caller said on air. “It helps.” Others bring in everything from barbecue to ice cream to keep the DJs fed and cool. Or as cool as possible. KANE was one of the last businesses on Main Street to get power restored after four days without it. That didn’t prevent them from carrying on, despite the discomfort. “Making it through hurricane coverage,” Boggs says, “is adrenaline. I feed off the callers. If the phones were dead, I’d spin some records, prerecord some warnings, sit back and wait it out. But the calls come in. The energy. You do it because you love to do it. It’s a neat opportunity, to be able to share your thoughts and opinion and maybe affect change.”