Daniel French: Riding the Radio Waves
When it happened on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, it ranked right up there with the most egregious of sacrileges in New Orleans history such as the closing of K&B, D.H. Holmes and Schwegman’s.
WTIX-AM Radio, the “Mighty 690,” the rock ‘n’ roll giant that sponsored “WTIX Appreciation Night at the Beach,” gave away an endless string of copies of Frankie Ford’s one mega hit “Sea Cruise” and the radio station that kept a world changing controversy going throughout the summer of 1961 from its studio in the now dilapidated Cigali Building at Canal and Camp streets: “Did Jimmy Clanton ever meet Pat Boone?” changed its call letters to WIST-AM. Pass the smelling salts, please.
With his toddler son, Jacob Asher (named after WIST personality, Eric Asher) on his knee, Daniel French ponders the makeover of the once iconic Top 40s giant, WTIX into WIST-AM, talk format with guys behind the mic whose politics range from aggressively conservative – like the local veteran Kaare Johnson – to the ever-angry – such as the syndicated Michael Savage.
Mostly, French tries to figure out his role in all of this from the most unlikely of viewing stands: his talk show, “French Evolution” that runs from 5 to 5:30 a.m. Monday through Friday.
“I’m from Newnan, Georgia, a little town just south of Atlanta,” French says. “I grew up listening to Neal Boortz (a WIST-AM regular from 9 a.m. to noon). When I went to Ole Miss, a couple of guys and I had a brief radio show that was called ‘The British Invasion.’ We did 12, maybe 18 installments of that show. I wasn’t involved to any extent with Rebel Radio, just that show. That show… and Boortz led me to something. I knew I wanted to do something involving my mouth and my brain; something creative. And, it’s got to be fun.”
Which is exactly what French’s first few sales-type jobs out of Ole Miss were not – fun.
After a trip to China with his dad, French bounced around from River Ridge to “six months of the couch of his best friend in Mandeville, to Madisonville, before taking a job a few months after Katrina at WTIX then located in a dingy, run down building behind the Clearview Shopping Center.
“I had done the sales thing and I was horrible at it. Some people can do it. Some can’t. I was one of those who couldn’t. I told them here at the station that I wanted to be in radio. I told them I had done a little radio and this is what I wanted to do. I figured if I could make a coupla bucks, enough to pay the bills, I could make it. I told them I’d do anything they wanted. Just let me get a paycheck and let me work at the radio station. I told them I’d sweep the place out and I’d push buttons.
Anything. That’s just what I did for about six months or so. I started punching the buttons during Zephyrs games, Tulane games, board operations. It doesn’t sound like much, but I was here. I was in radio! Then one day I realized we didn’t have traffic in the afternoons. I told my boss, ‘that’s crazy… we need to do traffic. I think I have to do that.’ So I started doing that. Then I started doing the news.
“Doing the news” in a market devastated by a monster hurricane changed Daniel French from the inside out.
“It was eerie, strange,” French remembers. “To be on this roof of this building and see everything out there pitch black except for the fires. I’d look out from the building into all the darkness. I’d see the flashing lights of the police cars and ambulances and fire trucks going across the Huey P. Long Bridge. I couldn’t see the bridge but I could see the flashing lights. They were almost continuous. You don’t forget something like that. It leaves a lasting impression. It was a painful time, but it was also an exciting time and here I was part of it. I think I matured a lot in those days. I began focusing. I knew then that there was no way I wanted to live anywhere but New Orleans.”
A WTIX-AM sitting side-by-side with WTIX-FM admittedly caused some confusion out there in radioland. Add to that the fact that Katrina had blown down the stations’ transmitting towers and it wasn’t long before somebody decided to bury WTIX-AM. From those ashes came WIST-AM and a new format.
“It wasn’t easy,” French recalls. “WTIX was legendary in the business. But it was done. The change was made and now, from everything I can deduce, we’re making a lot of strides and we’ve noticed an uptick with the new format. It’s going places.”
The place Daniel French went with a little self promotion and chutzpah (“I just went in and asked for the show”) was into what most consider an oddball at best, horrendous at worst, time slot – 5 to 5:30 a.m. – to fill a hole leading into the station’s enormously popular “Mancow Show,” a mild shock jock show which leans to the right. The French Evolution was off and running with a growing cast of late night callers highlighted by “The Sarge” an ex-Marine who has two Purple Hearts and whose “Hooo-Raaahs” keep French’s hand on the cut off button.
“Man, he came at me fast with that one,” French recalls one of The Sarge’s baritone harangues of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that mentioned her ancestors in an unbecoming light. “You didn’t hear any of that, did you? Whew! Man, I thought he got me with that one.”
French gets in as many callers as he can in his limited half-hour slot, but it’s clear the “libertarian, fiscally conservative” views he expresses passionately is the stuff that keeps French Evolution mainliners setting their clocks to tune him in. Those views attack and praise, answer and question and can run the gamut from local and national politics, garbage pickup, the Saints, LSU football, President-elect Barack Obama, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jihad, the Metropolitan Opera, the auto industry bailout and just about anything else out there.
Some who listen to the show look on French as a more polished Larry Reagan, the late midnight to 5 a.m. WSMB-AM talker who came on and departed to the theme song of “Night Train” and in between fielded calls from insomniacs ranging including “Railbird Harry who’s eight years behind in his alimony payments” and “Johnny who keeps track of the doughnut holes at McKenzie’s bakery.”
“I love it when people call,” French says. “My goal is to have as many callers as I can get if I can stay on the radio long enough to build up that following. Some folks out there think all of the people who call late night or early morning talk shows are goofy, ya know, real nutcases. Hey, I love these people. They’re for real! They’re what the real America is all about. I’ll do whatever it takes to reach as many people as I can.”
French admits one-half hour just about gives him time to get warmed up before its time to move over the Mancow. And while he never deludes himself, he never gets discouraged.
“I know that in the grand scheme of things, my show really doesn’t matter all that much. After I do the show I immediately start working on stuff for the station, producing Eric [Asher] or Kaare [Johnson]’s shows. That’s all fine by me. These are the guys who are paying the freight right now; the guys who are more experienced. They’re the ones known in the community. My job is making sure the station has what it needs so it can grow. I love doing that.”
WIST-AM has moved out of that weather beaten building off Interstate 10 and Clearview Parkway, and into gleaming new quarters on Decatur Street across from the newly rebuilt French Market. At around 4:15 a.m. each weekday, when the farmers are unloading their fruits and vegetables from the orchards of Plaquemines Parish into the stalls of the market, Daniel French will be turning on the lights and the copy machine, making a pot of coffee, looking over notes and jiggling his memory over what he heard on the radio on the way in. He has a lot to jam into a one-half hour slot. But deep inside he knows the day will come when he too will be up on that big board and will be on a first name basis with his listeners all across the community. And he’ll do whatever it takes to get there.