With new award, radio station KVPI celebrates decades of promoting Cajun French on air
Last month, KVPI, a commercial radio station in Ville Platte, Louisiana, was awarded the “Uniquely Louisiana” award from the Louisiana Association of Broadcasters.
The award was due in large part to their Cajun French programming, as the station not only continues to provide Cajun French newscasts and music, but also has a long history of bilingual hosts who code-switch on air.
Louisiana Considered managing producer Alana Schreiber spoke to KVPI’s general manager Mark Layne to learn more about promoting Cajun French through the airwaves.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity
Alana Schreiber: It's my understanding that the “Uniquely Louisiana” award went to Le Tasse De Café, or The Coffee Cup, for its bilingual programming. Tell me a little bit about that specific show and its history.
Mark Layne: The history is pretty interesting. Back in the sixties, probably mid sixties, one of our commercial sponsors, Mr. Floyd Soileau owned a record shop forever. In fact, Floyd is a whole different story. Floyd actually began as a part-time DJ in high school as a French announcer. Floyd suggested to our then manager Jim Soileau to start a call-in show up, but make it bilingual so we can support our Cajun culture. So it began very humbly back in the mid sixties, 15 minutes once a week. And now through the years it has expanded. And right now we're on an hour a day, Monday through Friday. And we have a waiting list of sponsors and we have callers with the help of the internet and streaming.
We're getting calls from all over the country. We've actually gotten calls from people in France, from Australia and even in China once. So it's amazing. It's our most listened to show of the week.
AS: Of course, Jim's Soileau was constantly going back and forth between French and English on the air with callers. I even have some clips of him doing that years ago … I'm wondering why you think it's so important to have a show that isn't just in French, isn't just an English, but as Jim once said to me, Fringlish.
ML: Fringlish, exactly. The term we use down here is “Frang-lay,” which is like a way of saying Fringlish. But basically I think it's a way to entice people who grew up listening to their grandparents speak French, but not knowing themselves how to speak French. Now they're hearing words in English, but hearing a few tasty morsels of French to bring them in and hopefully keep them in. And I think it's worked.
AS: So tell me a little bit about the callers into the show, as you've said, they call from all over, but generally, what do they want to talk about?
ML: We've talked about everything from Mardi Gras, food is probably the most important or the most popular topic of conversation, recipes, foods, that Cajuns liked to cook down here. And Cajun customs things, a bit old businesses that used to be in our area. But I mean, we've talked about a lot of different things.
AS: Even though Cajun French is very much promoted on the airwaves today, it wasn't always that way. Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the original efforts to stop French speaking in Louisiana, and then later the revitalization movement?
ML: From what I remember, going to school and hearing about it, I think it was back in the twenties of that, an act by the state legislature banned speaking in French. And actually the students were actually punished if they spoke French and they had to write lines and so on. So even though they heard it constantly at home, at school, they could only speak English. But it was through the efforts of such groups as Codafil in the sixties and other groups that Cajun and French became popular and became cool again.
And that that's when the efforts began in bringing in teachers from France and Canada to get back into the classroom to teach our kids our beautiful French language.
AS: Really restoring the bilingual roots! Well, let's go back to Jim. He passed away a little bit over a year ago. Can you tell me a little bit more about the legacy that he leaves behind and everything that he brought to the station throughout his very long career?
ML: To me, he's an icon and I think a lot of people respect him. He was a newspaper editor, but as his passion, his love was radio broadcasting. He's the son of a farmer and he’s always was gifted with speaking. He had a fantastic voice and the original first manager of KVPI heard him speak at a Rotary meeting. Jim was still in high school and he had won the Future Farmers of America speech contest. So he was allowed to go give his speech in front of Rotary members. The general manager of the station heard Jim and invited him to come on. And Jim could already speak French, so that was one of his very first duties as a young announcer to speak French. And he's been with the radio station through the rest of his life.
AS: That is so incredible. Even though we no longer have the irreplaceable Jim, La Tasse De Café still goes on. So what does the show look like today? How has it grown and changed over the years?
ML: We've expanded it to a full hour and people still ask us to go an hour and a half or go two hours because they love it so much. We have Charlie Manual who is basically our French announcer, who does all of our French news. And he's a co-host for all of the La Tasse De Café, and myself, along with Mike Peril. We're co-host with him every day of the week and It's a lot of fun.
AS: That sounds really fun. Well Mark, you've been in the radio world for a really long time. What do you think is the role of radio and broadcasting in the efforts to revitalize and boost French speaking in Louisiana? Why is it so important to keep Cajun French on the airwaves?
ML: When I got into radio, I wanted to play rock and roll music. I didn't want to talk French. I didn't want to hear French. I didn't want to hear Louisiana swamp pop music, but I had a conversion a few years after I got into radio. I started listening to these artists that play French music, and our Louisiana swamp pop music. And these guys are just as talented as these guys in New York or Hollywood.
And I got into being an announcer at Fred's Lounge. We do a weekly broadcast from this little bar that people from all over the world come to and they hear a live Cajun band. We do live radio over there. And it was there that I started loving French, loving my heritage and my culture.
And then with the help of Jim Soileau and others, they said, “Keep practicing, Mark, keep practicing!” And I did it, and I'm proud that I was able to obtain a love for our culture. Not only the music – the music is great and our food is great — but our language is so special. And I don't want to lose it.
Finally Mark, I'm wondering if you can tell me a little bit about that award, the title is, “Uniquely Louisiana.” What do you think it means to be uniquely Louisianan? And how does La Tasse De Café really capture that sentiment?
Unfortunately, there aren't too many radio stations like us that still do what we do. I think we're the only radio station in the state that still programs news in French. We do the local news. We even do obituaries all in French. We do that twice on our Am station, once on the FM station. We have the La Tasse De Café, we have our French word of the day, and we even have a swap shop in French. So we just believe in our French language. And we're just proud that the Broadcasters of Louisiana feel like we do is important. That we are trying to keep our culture and our heritage alive.