Recent Mamou High School graduate Lauren Soileau (left) stands over her great-grandfather Jim Soileau (right) in the AM control room of KVPI. Lauren is a third generation Soileau to work at the radio station. (Gazette photo by Tony Marks)
With Classic Country music playing in the background making it sound more like an old honky tonk, a man in his 80s sits in the AM control room of the local radio station sharing stories and advice with one of the station’s newest employees who just graduated high school. This scene is not foreign to many small market stations across the country, but what makes this scene unique is the fact this elder statesman of the radio dial is the girl’s great-grandfather.
“It’s really awesome to have that generational kind of thing,” said Lauren Soileau. “I always grew up listening to the radio and liking all different kinds of music.”
Soileau, a recent graduate of Mamou High School, also had her grandparents, Nick and Rita Soileau, work at the radio station.
“It feels wonderful,” said Lauren’s great-grandfather, Jim, who is the former general manager of the station. “I’m so proud of her, and she’s been doing such a good job.”
The generational similarities between Lauren and Jim are not only confined to the radio station. Lauren is a third generation member of Future Farmers of America (FFA), and she and Jim both served as FFA president of their respective programs.
Lauren was slated to begin working at the station earlier in the year, but COVID-19 threw a wrench in the plans.
“I was actually supposed to start working before the pandemic hit,” Lauren said. “I had done a couple trainings with Kenny (Ken Johnson), but, then, I had to stay away for about two months. So, I only have been working here a couple weeks.”
“It’s been great so far,” she continued. “I really enjoy talking on the radio and picking out music. One thing I really enjoy is trying to find out something cool about the songs to say on air because a lot of people like to know that. They will call me and say they didn’t know that about the song.”
As for Jim, his time beginning at KVPI came not long after the station first hit the airwaves in 1953.
“I started off in the spring of 1954,” he said. “I was still in high school at the time. The station needed someone who could speak French because, on the weekends, we had live Cajun bands playing music on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.”
He continued, “I was a public speaker at Ville Platte High School, and J.D. “Prof” LaFleur, who was the principal at the time, brought me to the Rotary Club to make my speech. I was a public speaker for FFA and for American Legion Oratory. I made my speech, and that’s when Lionel Deville and Chris Duplechain from the radio station were there. After I made my speech, they asked me if I would like to work at the radio station. I didn’t have to hesitate to say yes. I was so happy to get offered the job.”
Working at KVPI meant a bump in pay and better working conditions from that of his previous job. “I had been working at my first job at the cotton gin for 50 cents an hour,” he said. “That was very hard work. I can promise you that. Then, I came work at the radio station. It was a big raise to 75 cents an hour and working in the cool comfort. I felt like I had really gone up in the world.”
Jim recalled how it was during his early days at the station. “In those days,” he explained, “the music was recorded on discs, whether it was the 78 RPM discs or the little 45s. We had turntables to play the music, and we had reel-to-reel tape recorders to play the commercials. I can remember around Christmas and Easter when there were a lot of commercials. You had to use two tape recorders and have one person just to cue them up to have ready to go on the air.”
The music played on those discs programmed in blocks when the station first started. Jim said, “We started off with Country and Western music in the early mornings. Then, from 7 to 8 a.m. was the news block. We had all the news and les nouvelles en français at 7:30 a.m. since way back in the very beginning. Then, we had one hour of Country, and, in the middle of the morning, we had some what was then Pop music like Doris Day and Bing Crosby.”
He continued, “Then, again at noon, we had the regular news. Chris Duplechain would do ‘The News Between the Lines.’ Then, at 1 p.m., it was ‘Juke Junction.’ That was so popular that right there in Lafayette you could walk down the street at SLI to the dormitories and hear KVPI’s ‘Juke Junction’ because they had those radios real loud.”
Jim was also responsible for hosting the live Cajun music shows on the weekends at the station location at the time in the old Evangeline Bank location.
As he explained, “On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, bands would come and play. They would line up in the hall on the second floor. We had one band that was playing live, and the other band was lined up in the hall ready to go on.”
“At the end of the half-hour or hour,” he continued, “there were five minutes of news at the top of the hour. One band would hurry to pack up and get out of there, and the other one waiting in the hall would come in. They had five minutes to set up, and we had one big microphone in the room to pick up the music and the songs.”
Lauren shared how it feels for her to be a part of this history. “It’s definitely humbling to know how much has gone on here over the years and how much experience I haven’t had yet,” she expressed. “It’s super cool to see all the signed posters to KVPI, and it’s just awesome to be a part of such a long history of music.”
As for having a first-hand account of the history, she added, “It’s amazing to have that first-hand account of everything that’s happened because you can read about it and research it, but there’s nothing like talking to someone who’s been through everything in person.”
Lauren, like Jim, has started out doing the weekend shifts beginning with reading the news at noon. About reading the news, she said it was a cool experience even though it is a lot to read.
She said, “I’m used to doing speeches in high school, but it’s a different thing to get used to having never seen it before.”
Having sage advice on how to read the news is Jim who shared, “You should read the news over and over before you go on the air. As many times as I’ve been doing it, I still sit down and go over all that news before I ever go on the air with it so I’m very familiar with it.”
Lauren plans on working with Jim at KVPI until the fall when she moves on to LSU where she hopes to join the staff of the campus radio station KLSU to keep radio going in her family.
Before going on to Baton Rouge, there is a dream scenario for both her and Jim. That dream scenario is the two of them co-hosting the popular morning talk show “La Tasse de Cafe.”
Lauren said, “That would be amazing. I would love that.”
“That would be wonderful,” Jim said. “I would love that to have her as a co-hostess on ‘La Tasse de Cafe.’ We could try to do that one day.”
“I’d have to start learning some more French,” added Lauren. I took it in high school, but I can read it better than I can speak it.”
Jim quipped, “We can do it in franglais!”