In 2005, a new band called Travis Matte and the Zydeco Kingpins was having to turn down gigs. The band’s mix of zydeco, rock and pop on suggestive hip shakers, like the songs “Vibrator” and “Booty Call,” were drawing fans by the thousands in the bayou country of southwest Louisiana.
Matte credits the Kingpins’ quick rise to stardom to KBON 101.1 FM, a Eunice, Louisiana radio station that lived by its slogan, “Louisiana Proud.”
“I don’t know if we would have been a band without KBON,” says Matte. “They were playing our album 24/7. People had never heard our style of music in the Cajun, zydeco, and swamp pop genres. But KBON was behind it. They were behind everybody. You had to have a bad album for KBON not to play it.”
Matte is among the mourners remembering KBON founder and owner Paul Marx, who died March 24 following complications after heart surgery. After an all-night wake on March 30 at Vincent Funeral Home in Kaplan, Marx, a 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran, was honored with a military salute. There was no funeral, as Marx chose to be cremated.
A longtime DJ and nightclub owner, Marx achieved his dream of creating a variety music station that emphasized Louisiana artists. Before KBON, few radio stations in the Lafayette, Louisiana market, the cradle of Cajun music, zydeco and swamp pop, played local musicians. The handful that did, pushed the local music to early morning or weekend slots.
But KBON went on the air May 29, 1997, with a 24/7 format that put Cajun legend Belton Richard and zydeco icon Keith Frank right next to Garth Brooks, Loretta Lynn, James Brown, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. The 25,000-watt station quickly became a ratings leader in the Lafayette market.
KBON was a huge, financial gamble. At the age of 50, Marx and his then-45 year-old wife, Rose, sold all their possessions to start the station.
According to his book, Variety with a Louisiana Flavor, Marx paid $40,000 for an FCC permit to build a station in the Mamou, Louisiana area. But Marx still needed a studio, equipment, and a tower.
“We sold everything we had—our house, business, property, everything—to go into a business I really didn’t know anything about,” Marx wrote. “I felt I knew music, but I didn’t know anything about running a radio station.
“At the time, I owned a night club, and there was a rumor going around, ‘He owns a bar. What does he know about a radio station?’ They don’t know how right they were. But I was determined to learn.”
Marx’s family ate bologna sandwiches while he worked 20-hour days and often slept on a cot at the station. But fast forward to 2017, and KBON celebrated its 20th anniversary, playing the same variety format that had found a worldwide audience.
The station’s eclectic lineup includes the “Swamp n Roll Show,” a live, Thursday night broadcast with KBON sales rep Todd Ortego as host. Between songs that stretch from Cajun two-steps, to Otis Redding, to Johnny Cash, Ortego ad-libs commercials for crawfish restaurants, a slaughterhouse, and other mom-and-pop shops.
Each week, a mechanic/accordionist nicknamed “The Human Jack,” comes in to play “The Turner Breakdown,” a spot for a local gas station.
Marx said this offbeat mix made KBON successful.
“The experts said there was no way it would work,” Marx told the Daily Advertiser newspaper in a story on KBON’s 20 years. “They said, ‘You can’t mix genres of music.’ I found that odd because, for years, I was DJing in clubs and at dozens of weddings and anniversary parties. Every DJ that was working was mixing it up. They played everything and went from Conway Twitty to Percy Sledge. It worked fine.
“My thought was, if it was working at the clubs and all these private parties, why wouldn’t it work on radio? There has to be a first time for everything. I’m going to give it a shot.”
Through the years, hundreds of fans have attended the annual KBON Cruise that showcases Louisiana musicians. The station hosts a listener appreciation party, with a three-day music festival in Rayne. All proceeds go to non-profit organizations, such as the Down Syndrome Association of Acadiana.
Dozens of signatures and photos line the walls at KBON, a testament to the station’s open-door policy with Louisiana musicians.
KBON put Marx in the Louisiana Hall of Fame, with a slew of honors that also included a Lifetime Achievement Awards from Governor Mike Foster, and the Golden Mike Award from the Louisiana Association of Broadcasters.
Marx, who was also a Cajun French songwriter, composed “Take Care of My Kids,” and “Every Day is Mother’s Day.” Both were recorded by Grammy winner, Wayne Toups.
Marx required all KBON air personalities to sign off with the slogan, “Let us, before we die, gather up our heritage, and offer it to our children.” Matte said Marx lived up to that message.
“He had a passion for what he did,” attests Matte. “Who else is willing to sell their house, sell everything, uproot his family, to start a radio station?
“If you said something about KBON, even wore another radio station’s T-shirt, it offended him. He took it very personal.
“He was behind all the musicians. That passion is what made him successful with that radio station.”