1050 KVPI keeps French Cajun language and culture alive in Louisiana

By John Burnett | NPR
Saturday, July 9, 2022

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A Cajun radio station in southern Louisiana has been broadcasting for 69 years. It is to preserve the culture and tradition of broadcasting live music from a bar every Saturday morning.



There is a small radio station in South Louisiana. It has been on the air for almost 70 years, doing everything it can to keep a dying language alive. That’s Cajun French. On Saturday mornings, it streams live French music from inside a venerable bar; Unfortunately, there are no songs from the music of BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. During the week, the radio station opens the phone lines for native French speakers to exchange stories and reminisce. NPR’s John Burnett has the story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It’s Saturday morning at Fred’s Lounge in the town of Mamou, which is nestled among the rice fields and lobster ponds of what’s called the Cajun prairie.


BURNETT: Inside the red brick tavern at 8:30 am, Budweisers and Bloody Marys are already being served as couples dance on the worn linoleum.


BURNETT: A sign says, please don’t stand on the tables, chairs or cigarette machines. Nearby sits a radio host named Mike Perron. He hosts the weekly live broadcasts from Fred’s Lounge on The Legend-1050 KVPI.

MIKE PERRON: (Speaking French). It’s okay? All right, guys, let’s go back to the bandstand.


BURNETT: Perron is a city councilman, retired auto body repairman, and part-time DJ.

PERRON: Today we are at Fred’s Lounge on Sixth Street in Big Mamou. I start at 9 o’clock and then finish it at 11 o’clock. I do my sponsors mainly in English, but I do some in French. But the people here, a lot of them don’t understand all the words in French, so I do it in English too. We call it Franglais, a little French, a little English. That’s what we call it here.

BURNETT: Fred’s live radio broadcasting began in the 1960s with a local educator named Revon Reed. Now his son Seth Reed comes here almost every Saturday morning.

SETH REED: We dance. We drink. We had a good time. And this is the only bar that is still old fashioned, old school. Nothing has changed since it was built. That’s what I love. They still have the same urinal from the 40’s and it’s in the bathroom.


BURNETT: The Acadians or Cajuns are descended from Roman Catholic French Canadians who were expelled from the Nova Scotia region by the British in the mid-18th century. They headed for the swamp country of southern Louisiana, and here they prospered, preserving their culture and customs. But a number of factors worked against the language. Cajuns were punished for speaking French in school. Cajun soldiers left the region to fight in the world wars and learned English. The discovery of oil ushered in more English influences, and television further diluted the language. The radio is part of a broad movement to save Cajun French from extinction.


BURNETT: Eight radio stations in southern Louisiana still broadcast partially in French. KVPI, located in Ville Platte, does more than any other: news, weather, talk, a swap shop, even French obituaries. This year, the station won an award unique to Louisiana.


CHARLIE MANUEL: Very well. (Speaking French).

BURNETT: While Fred’s Lounge’s Saturday morning Cajun music is internationally renowned, the station’s most popular program is a daily call-in show.


MANUEL: (Speaking French).

BURNETT: It’s called “The Coffee Cup” – “La Tasse” for the regulars. Here in Trump’s deeply conservative country, callers don’t talk about abortion or voter fraud or perfidious Democrats. No, they’re talking about where to find the sweetest watermelons, what food to take to the cemetery on Día de los Muertos, how to kill worms under the house, and the best squirrel hunt.


MARK LAYNE: (Speaking French).

MANUEL: (Speaking French). And Happy Squirrel Weekend (speaking French).

BURNETT: The general manager of the station is Mark Layne, born Martel Ardoin. KVPI signed on the air in 1953. Layne started here when he was in high school and has been with the station for 51 years.

LAYNE: We really promote the French language and our French culture. And I want to emphasize Cajun French. There is a little difference. Yes. We have our own little slang and our own dialect here, and we’re proud of it.


ROCKIN’ SIDNEY: (Singing) Don’t mess with my toot toot. Don’t mess with my toot toot. Now, you can have the other woman. But don’t mess with my toot too.

BURNETT: Floyd Soileau, record producer, book publisher, and Cajun personality, is giving a tour of his record store and museum in Ville Platte.

FLOYD SOILEAU: This guy here gave me my biggest worldwide hit – Rockin Sidney, “Don’t Mess With My Toot Toot.” Yes, big, big.


ROCKIN’ SIDNEY: (Singing) You’re going to have a case. I’m going to break your face. Now, don’t mess with my toot toot.

BURNETT: Actually, it was Soileau who came up with the idea for “La Tasse” in the ’60s. He calls in regularly to tell old stories in French. But he is now in the minority. Most academics speak English. In fact, most of the French speakers you hear on KVPI, like him, are older.

SOILEAU: Unfortunately, many of our Cajun French listeners have passed away. And some of the young people are trying to get it. But it doesn’t come fast enough. It’s going to be a thing of the past, unfortunately I guess. As my age group advances, I’m afraid it’s going to be difficult to maintain.

BURNETT: Cajun Patois in Louisiana continues its steep decline. The American Community Survey on the language estimated the number of French speakers at about 77,000 in 2020. That’s less than 136,000 in just a decade. Barry Jean Ancelet is a renowned folklorist and professor emeritus at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. While he acknowledges that native French speakers are dying one by one, he is encouraged that young musicians, for example, are writing songs in French and that Cajun culture in general remains strong.

BARRY JEAN ANCELET: Are you going to tell Danny Benoit, he makes the best gumbo in the world, he loves to hunt and fish, he goes out dancing to Cajun music and zydeco and, you know, he has a big family, everything else, and you know? He doesn’t speak French, are you going to tell him he’s not Cajun? I wouldn’t. And if you do, I’d duck because he still feels deeply Cajun.

BURNETT: In other words, language is just one measure of a culture. If you visit South Louisiana, it still feels deeply Cajun, especially if you set your amp dial to KVPI 1050.



MANUEL: (Speaking French).


BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Ville Platte, Louisiana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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