Behind the scenes with a trio of Acadiana Open Channel hosts
It doesn't have star-driven sitcoms and is non-existent in the Nielsen ratings. But Acadiana Open Channel has been must-see TV for Acadiana since 1981. The community public-access channel remains one of the most diverse and accurate reflections of the people and opinions of Lafayette, enabling anyone with an opinion and willingness to go on camera a forum to express their views.
Current AOC programming continues that tradition. Shows like Community Defender and Servico Espanol give AOC a multi-cultural dimension, while wide-ranging religious programming such as Institute of Divine Metaphysical Research and Eckankar:All Has Meaning represent the freedom-of-speech principles that are AOC's foundation.
While turnover is inevitable in a volunteer-driven organization like AOC, it still nurtures programming that gains a foothold and devoted viewing audiences ' amateur production values be damned. The Independent Weekly caught up with the hosts of three such programs to find out what drives them to go on camera.
Tom Parker sits at a desk in front of an upside down American flag. It's hung that way deliberately. "This country is in dire distress," he says.
Parker wears a camouflage jacket and reads out loud from The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. His desk is covered in piles of papers, books, newspaper clippings, a telephone and a display that depicts stone tables inscribed with the Ten Commandments and reads: "WE BELIEVE IN GOD'S LAWS!" His King James version of the Bible stands next to the placard; a small American flag is affixed to the cover, with a reference to 2 Chronicles 7:14 and the words "America Bless God." On the television on the other side of the room, the American flag waves in the wind, and in the background a man sings "The Star-Spangled Banner." It's the beginning of Parker's two-hour weekly television program, Freedom Forum.
Parker's worldview can't be pigeonholed as either Democrat or Republican. Off camera, he says, "I don't equate any difference between the two. We don't have a two-party system. We have two wings of the same party. I call them the Welfare-Fascist party."
Parker says it's his duty to act as the people's watchman, as set forth in the Old Testament words of Ezekiel 33:6: "But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand."
Cameraman Hartwell Broussard sheds further light on the show's primary objective. "It's because we've turned away from God that we're losing all of our rights from God," he says. To illustrate his point, he cites Internet pornography, Jerry Springer and beer drinking at sporting events. People don't read the Constitution or the Bible anymore, he adds. Parker chimes in, "The Constitution won't work unless we're both moral and educated."
Parker's two-man crew consists of Broussard and producer Richard Phelps. Broussard has a hard time hearing, and Phelps is legally blind. "We have the only physically-impaired crew ' a producer who can't see and a cameraman who can't hear. That's what AOC stands for ' Amateurs on Camera," Parker says with a laugh.
But when Parker is on camera, live on the air, the jokes stop. He welcomes his viewers to the program and leads the show off with a prayer.
Parker began airing his show on AOC after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. "When they started calling militia-types right-wing racists and swine, I got incensed," he says. The show's mission, he says, is to inform viewers about issues distorted by the media or ignored completely. "But the overall goal is to restore the constitutional government to this country."
Every week, live on Wednesday nights from 9 p.m.-11 p.m., Parker ticks off a list of reasons why the United States of America is headed to hell in a hand basket ' including abortion, Lafayette city-parish government and council, judges as "federal dictators in black robes," 501c3 non-profit corporations, faith-based initiatives, no-bid federal contracts and "so-called evangelical Christians." He also believes that on Sept. 11, 2001, a cruise missile, not an airplane, struck the Pentagon, and two Air Force tanker planes, not passenger planes, collided with the World Trade Center.
As he does with all of his shows, Parker spends a good deal of this program making his worldview known. He then takes calls from viewers, most of whom agree with him. He eventually turns his attention to Lafayette Utilities System's proposed fiber optics plan. "That rankles my libertarian bones to the marrow," he says. And when viewer "Emile" calls in, arguing with Parker and claiming that he's distorting the truth about the fiber plan, the discussion becomes heated, and Parker makes his basic opposition known. "The point is that government has no business in business â?¦ I don't trust government. I don't trust them at any level."
As the first hour of the show winds down and then goes off the air, Emile and the watchman continue their heated phone conversation off-camera. ' R. Reese Fuller
NO CILANTRO IN HIS GUMBO
"Around here, you're a wimp if you're a guy and you can't cook," says Karl Breaux, host of Cajun Karl's Cook'N Adventures on AOC. "It's extra bragging rights if you go to the camp, and someone says, 'You make the best â?¦'" Since filming his first show in April 2004, Cajun Karl has been a familiar sight in the kitchens of Acadiana's camps, lounges and restaurants and even traveled to Canada, cooking up authentic Cajun food.
Alligator sauce piquante, fried frog legs, his mom's chicken fricassee and potato salad, corn macque choux, rice and gravy ' Breaux cooks it all. And he doesn't just stay in the kitchen. "We always do an adventure tagged along with [the show]," he says. After a day of alligator hunting, Breaux resembles Crocodile Dundee, dressed in khaki cargo pants, his favorite brown leather hat and rubber boots, as he heads back to the camp to cook up alligator and shrimp sauce piquante with a side of fried alligator.
The idea for Breaux's show originated at the camp on Bayou Courtableau, while sitting around with friends watching The Food Network. "They were making gumbo using a can of tomato sauce and some cilantro," he says. His friends told him he could do it better. For his first episode, he traveled to Boy's Lounge on Highway 31, where a group of old Cajuns hang out for Wednesday night suppers, playing cards and swapping Cajun jokes and recipes. Breaux served deer hind quarters cooked in blackberry wine with pears and onions, sweet potatoes wrapped in bacon with Steen's Syrup and mustard greens with smoked ham hocks. He's also traveled to Nova Scotia for the show, cooking during the Breaux family reunion at the Congrès Mondial. Next week, he'll make white beans and ham for a fundraiser at the Acadian Memorial in St. Martinville.
The addition of a camera and film crew in the kitchen doesn't bother him. (Breaux rounded up his friends to help with the show ' photographer Blane Faul does some filming, and Tom Boudreaux serves as producer.) Breaux was accustomed to talking to people about cooking and demonstrating techniques working in his family supermarket, Breaux's Mart on Moss Street, so transitioning from just cooking a meal to filming a cooking show wasn't difficult.
But Breaux wants the show to represent something more than just food and often throws in life lessons learned from his father and grandfather, like the importance of knowing your roots. "This is a gift, cooking, that transcends gender, race, cultural lines," he says. "I'm glad to be Cajun. I'm glad I go ride out on the levee for fun." He says the mission of the show is teaching people all over the world to make real Cajun food, without holding back any secrets.
As president of AOC's board of directors, Breaux also is an advocate for the channel and is working on getting a kitchen built in the studio. Plans for future series of Cajun Karl's Cook'N Adventures involve interviews and cooking demonstrations with some of Breaux's Mart's Creole cooks and shows filmed in cabins at state parks. The show airs about four times a week, at 8 p.m. or 10 p.m. on Mondays, 4 a.m. on Wednesdays, 10 a.m. on Thursdays or Fridays and 4 p.m. during the weekend. With the help of corporate sponsors, Breaux was able to buy his own camera equipment and is working on airing the show in other cities, like Houston, Atlanta and Mobile, Ala., as well as in Canada. With Justin Wilson gone, Breaux's poised to join John Folse as one of the authentic Cajun cooks to take Acadiana cuisine to the rest of the world. ' Erin Zaunbrecher
CATHOLIC TO THE BONE
Two years ago, AOC's Sunday night talk show Don's News & Comments appeared as if it was going off the air. After co-producer James Miguez cited creative differences with host Don Bernard and left the show, Bernard desperately prayed for another camera operator so he could continue broadcasting his religious message. Bernard's prayers were answered one day by AOC's executive director.
"God spoke through Ed Bowie," Bernard says. Bowie had been listening to Bernard grieve over the show's dilemma and wondered aloud why he didn't just get his kids to work the cameras. The show has become a Bernard family tradition ever since. Every Sunday afternoon, two of Bernard's sons, youngest Don Jr. ("Tee Don") and his 16-year-old brother Michael ride with their dad down to AOC to tape his show. Michael splits time in front of the cameras with his dad and behind them with his younger brother in the control room. But most often when Bernard sits behind the studio desk he has lined with figurines of Catholic saints, it's young Tee Don deciding which camera angle to go to from an adjoining room. "You have an 11-year-old back there directing the show," says Bernard, acknowledging that he sometimes coaches his son along during the show to get the preferred camera angle. "They're back there playing cards or some game half the time."
Don's wife, Lisa, even worked at AOC, cleaning the building on Saturdays, in order to waive the fee for her two sons to take the editing classes required to use the station's equipment. "It's strictly a family affair," Bernard says.
Broadcasting live is an important element of Bernard's show, which is built around his ability to riff extensively on political affairs, theology and the history of the Catholic Church. From time to time, Bernard will plan a show, such as the episode he did in early 2003 on the pending invasion of Iraq or the show Tee Don co-hosted to discuss the Catholic symbolism in the The Lord of the Rings. However, Bernard usually faces the studio cameras at showtime not knowing what he's going to say.
"All I do to prepare for the show is put my pants on and go down there," Bernard says. "I do zero preparation. It's all impromptu."
Increasingly, the issue of the day is about being a pure Catholic, or "Catholic to the bone," as Bernard says. "Fanatical in the sense of very devoted," explains Bernard, who tries to attend mass at Our Lady of Fatima every day. "That's what Catholic to the bone means." Bernard even writes religious messages he says point out fallacies of Protestantism that Tee Don will post on the bottom of the screen during a show. Tee Don often takes the liberty of flashing the bulletins in different colors, resembling a video billboard.
"These are some hard things for people to hear," Bernard acknowledges. "My show, it's out there."
Bernard says material for Don's News & Comments comes naturally to him. For 22 years, he worked both as a substitute teacher and as a recreational center supervisor for the city ' jobs with a lot of down time. "What the other recreation center supervisors would do, typically they would play basketball or chess or ping pong on their shift, and I would read," he says. "I'm a voracious reader." During this time, Bernard says he got in 12 to 16 hours of reading a day, mainly books on history, politics and religion. His job with the Department of Parks and Recreation also required him to occasionally go on AOC to give community updates about the Thomas Park rec center ' an opportunity he relished. "It meant I was on TV instead of at the recreation center which I thought was great," he says.
These days, Bernard's TV appearances come from a higher calling. He says being in tune with God and the Catholic church has opened Bernard's eyes to daily revelations, such as the way his two sons stepped in as the producers of his show. Around the same time, he says Tee Don's prayers to be able to go to Catholic school were answered by Hurricane Lili, which brought a $50,000 insurance claim when a tree fell on the Bernard's home. Bernard did most of the repairs himself and used the remaining insurance money to pay Tee Don's St. Pius tuition through eighth grade. "He's praying for another miracle to go to STM," Bernard says. Bernard home-schooled his middle son, David, in order to give him a good Catholic education and his eldest son, Michael, plans to finish at Comeaux High School. Now retired at age 60, Bernard is solely focused on his faith, his family and his weekly show.
"Often times I'll go into the show without any clear idea of exactly what I'm going to do," he says. "It's not my show, it's God's show. And basically sometimes I don't know exactly what he wants until it starts coming out of my mouth." ' Nathan Stubbs