In 1989 the National Association of Broadcasters ran a nationwide promotion to remind Americans of that marvel of communications, the radio.
The promotion required every voluntarily participating station in the United States going silent for approximately one minute, all at the exact same time. I was working at Franklinís KFMV/KFRA at the time as program and news director, and we participated in the promotion. It was heralded by a series of public service announcements, many voiced by James Earl Jones and all concluding with Jones querying the listener, "The radio. What would life be without it?"
Though I grew up here and have in more than four decades of existence been unflinchingly proud of this area and its people, the solitary blemish on that record is the day the radio really did go silent. Two days, actually. The first was in 1994, the second was just a few weeks ago.
KFRA-AM went on the air in 1961 and KFRA-FM followed in 1974. To suggest that KFRA was not a cornerstone of this community would be ludicrous. Oh, sure, like all things in a small town there were the faux pas, those embarrassingly hilarious small-market radio moments that no one ever forgets. Who could forget, though, that buy, sell or trade phenomenon, Tradio? The gospel shows on Sunday morning, the news casts, the remote broadcasts, all the things that Franklin never failed to tune in for. KFRA AM/FM was a broadcasting institution that was as much a part of this community as the newspaper, the civic clubs, the people.
In 1985 the station was sold to three gentlemen from New Iberia who renamed the FM only to KFMV, while the AM remained KFRA. It was 1986 before I came along as a button-pusher because the station was completely automated by then. Unfortunately, the new owners purchased the station practically the day the oil industry fell out, and yes, there were some bad decisions on their parts along the way. There were also some very good decisions they donít get a lot of credit for. Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20. It is a credit to the staff and management nonetheless that KFMV/KFRA stayed on the air as long as it did.
Eventually I rose from button-pusher to news director and then news and program director. Things never really kicked off though, and I guess Iím just an arrogant old curmudgeon who would, if I could go back in time, keep the big-box retailers the hell out of Franklin so we could have back a thriving downtown, four home-owned supermarkets and so forth.
Of course there was the oil bust, so there were fewer businesses in town, and yes, many of them were faithful advertisers. Those were tough times, and many of our friends and family lost businesses and lost homes and moved away. Yet Iíll always recall that the community served by the 3,000-watt coverage area of KFMV/KFRA largely abandoned it to wither on the vine.
We had a great sense of humor about it. Sometimes, when some of us wouldnít get a paycheck for a weekÖor twoÖor three, weíd have fun with never-broadcast program "liners", the slogans you hear between songs identifying the station with a catch phrase. Ours were along the lines of:
"Magic 105 FM! We donít make no money, but we have a damn good time!"
Then there was, "KFMV-FM and KFRA-AM, serving you, and two others!"
Or, "Youíre listening to Magic 105 FM, reaching Ricohoc with a good east wind!"
Sometimes, you gotta laugh to keep from crying, you know? We did laugh a lot and I have so many fond memories of those days. But we just never got the support we needed and, in time, it wore us down.
In 1989, we participated in the NAB promo and at precisely noon, we turned off all audio inputs and let the transmitters broadcast dead-air for one minute. Then James Earl Jones came on with the incredible voice of his, saying
"The radio. What would life be without it?"
We did remote broadcasts of football games, festivals. We covered local news and weather and sports. We played some pretty good music, too, a custom-made format of adult contemporary rock that wasnít too hard but wouldnít put you to sleep, either. We were, in short, good members of this community up to the very end.
That end came in 1994 when at long last management gave up the ghost. We had fought the good fight, won many battles but lost the war. They asked me to turn off the transmitters after signoff at midnight. It wasnít my shift but I took it anyway and the night guy and I had a bittersweet time with that last show. We pulled out the stops and played anything we dadgum-well felt like playing, and near the end of the show we went through the spot rack and thanked every single advertiser who was currently on the air with us, those who have been in the past and reminded the rest that come the morning, you get what you pay for. At midnight, we signed off, but I didnít have the heart to turn off the transmitters. Not then. I left them on all night.
The Banner even reported on our demise in a front-page news story that quoted American Pie, Don MacLeanís rock anthem that laments "the day the music died."
That next morning, after I got up with a hangover from too much eulogizing KFMV/KFRA, I went to the transmitter shack. I dialed up the codes. My finger hovered over the switch for a long, long time, and I guess my eyes teared up a little. The two transmitters hummed and whistled around me, but I hit the switch and both fell silent.
Of course the station picked up later and the gentleman who owns it now then fought long and hard to fully resurrect that faded old cornerstone, but the community failed it yet again.
And so by necessity he has moved the FM license with FCC approval to Addis, La., just outside of Baton Rouge.
Donít gasp. Donít shudder or give a sad shake of your head.
This community had its chance. Radio station licenses are worth their weight in gold. We in west St. Mary lost ours because we just didnít care enough. Itís sad. The current owner tried his best, but could rally no support behind it and did what he had to do to remain viable.
Well, easy come, easy go, eh?
Pardon me if I sound a little bitter. Itís because I am, you see. Iím a little ashamed, too, that this community let it happen. Little by little, pieces of us slip away and all of us are diminished by it whether we are even aware of it or not.
Iíll never forget James Earl Jonesí booming voice asking what life would be like without the radio. Sadly, most people wonít even realize it isnít there anymore. And therein lies the greatest shame of all.