How Cheryl Devall looks to build on ‘beautiful structure’ of KRVS

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Bailey Bourgeois

Cheryl Devall in her office at KRVS.

Kris Wotipka describes KRVS in Lafayette, La., as “a plucky little music station that kicks butt.” 

And it does that, the station’s chief engineer quickly adds, “with popsicle sticks and duct tape.”

An NPR member station licensed to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, KRVS serves the French-speaking southwest portion of the state known as Acadiana. Weekday broadcasts of Morning Edition bookend Bonjour Louisiane, a two-hour show in Louisiana French that combines music, “folkloric” information and daily observances. Cajun and zydeco music pulse over its airwaves, reinforcing and celebrating the unique cultural heritage of southern Louisiana. 

Like many a community radio station, KRVS is powered by volunteers and a skeletal staff. It operates on a minimal budget but possesses a state-of-the-art performance studio where bands routinely perform live music on the air.

It was the music — and the joy it infuses into regional culture — that brought former NPR correspondent Cheryl Devall to KRVS as GM in May 2022. When she relocated from California to take the job, the station hadn’t had a full-time permanent manager since 2012.

“I feel like I’ve inherited something very precious,” Devall told Current. “I see this [station] as a beautiful structure. The subflooring needs a little help, and there’s definitely work to do on the roof, but the bones of the house are good.”

There is quite a bit of rebuilding to do at KRVS, which has struggled with losses in underwriting, depletion of COVID emergency relief funds and staff departures, according to Devall. 

KRVS ran up operating losses of $771,731 in fiscal year 2022–23 — a 52% increase from the previous year, when COVID relief aid buoyed its finances — according to its audited financial report. The university increased its financial support by about 45% that year to help cover the deficit. 

Former Chief Engineer Karl Fontenot, who recently retired after 25 years at KRVS, took on additional duties as GM for about eight years after the 2012 retirement of longtime manager Dave Spizale. “Both jobs kind of suffered because I couldn’t dedicate 100% to either one,” he said. 

The university postponed hiring a new GM so that it could reimagine the position, said Eric Maron, senior communications representative for the university’s Office of Communications and Marketing. The COVID-19 pandemic further delayed recruiting a GM because the university had limited capacity to conduct a search.

Like many stations, KRVS has experienced a downturn in sponsorship income, Devall said. Some underwriters that had supported the station during the pandemic didn’t renew their support. And the university has made it clear that KRVS needs to cover all of its costs and operate at a surplus. 

“We recognize that we can’t and don’t depend on UL for complete support,” Devall said. “That just isn’t in the cards.” 

Devall’s strategies for boosting KRVS’ revenues include seeking funding from foundations and philanthropies that support the arts on a national level. She has hired a part-time grant writer to assist with the effort.

She also hopes to create a new nonprofit friends group to manage fundraising. It would operate independently from the UL at Lafayette Foundation, KRVS’ fiscal agent, bringing more flexibility in fundraising and managing unrestricted revenues. 

KRVS ran on an operating budget of $351,426 in fiscal year 2023, Devall said. Its CPB Community Service Grant, which was less than $153,000 that year, covers stipends paid to KRVS program hosts who aren’t volunteers and who work part-time. Her team of full-time, salaried employees includes Wotipka and marketing director Megan Constantin. 

KRVS staff in November 2023 included Megan Constantin, left, Cheryl Devall, Karl Fontenot and Kris Wotipka.
KRVS staff in November 2023 included Megan Constantin, left, Cheryl Devall, Karl Fontenot and Kris Wotipka. (Photo: Joseph Vidrine)

The station’s membership director retired last year, and Constantin took over responsibility for managing the program. And in November, the underwriting sales director left. Maron said there are no plans to fill either position. 

Wearing multiple hats to keep a small public station like KRVS operating is a common experience. 

Constantin recalled a conversation with a staffer at Allegiance Group, the software company that specializes in marketing and fundraising tools for nonprofits. The staffer assumed that different people were responsible for updating KRVS’ website, producing fundraising spots and creating social media posts. Constantin explained, “That’s all me.”

“It’s not easy to keep everything going as it should,” Constantin told Current.

Coming into the GM job, Devall knew there would be challenges. “I didn’t know as much about the finances as I do now … but part of me really enjoys the challenge,” she said.

‘Find out what you don’t know and go learn it’

Devall said she struggled with the decision to apply for the GM job at KRVS. She sought counsel from Neenah Ellis, a former NPR producer who in 2009 decided to leave Washington, D.C., to manage WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio. 

Ellis believes that KRVS’ integral role in the fabric of the community gives Devall a big advantage in rebuilding the station, she said. “The celebration of culture becomes such a focus, and a public radio station in a community like that can be such an attractive beating heart and connection between people.” 

As Devall builds relationships within the KRVS and broader communities, Ellis said, she’ll come to embody the station in much the same way that previous female GMs were able to do. “Cheryl is so enthusiastic, so smart, so generous, so thoughtful,” said Ellis. “As people get to know her, she becomes the radio station to them.” 

Ellis recalled the advice that another female GM had given her about taking the job at WYSO. As Ellis recalled the exchange, Ellen Rocco, then GM of North Country Public Radio in upstate New York, told her, “You’re a reporter. You know how to find things. You have the basic skills to find out what you don’t know and to go and learn it.”

That’s the gist of what Ellis said to Devall about becoming GM of KRVS. 

Learning to zydeco  

Devall came to love Cajun and zydeco music in the late 1980s, when she worked at NPR’s Chicago bureau. A colleague, engineer Flawn Williams, played her recordings of the music he’d taped at the Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia. Soon Devall began attending performances of the Chicago Cajun Aces, where Williams’ wife, Vicki Moss, taught dancing.

Devall listened to KRVS from afar and had been a regular at Cajun and zydeco dances for many years when she applied for the GM job. At the time, she was working as a freelance podcast and radio editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the cover letter to her application, she warned she had no previous experience managing a radio station. 

When the university offered her the job, Devall was pondering offers for two other journalism positions. But taking the helm of KRVS was a no-brainer, she said: “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” 

“If they were looking for somebody with … a strong emotional belief in the value of the station, they would’ve been hard-pressed to find somebody better than her,” Williams said of KRVS’ decision to hire Devall.

One of the ironies in this digital age is that KRVS’ audience — and support base — extends to California, the Northeast, Canada and France, but many people at the university don’t know the station exists, Devall said. To remedy that, she has started monthly station tours for members of the UL Lafayette Foundation.

While other community radio stations broadcast unique hyperlocal information to their listeners, KRVS may be the only station that does funeralizing on the air. The hosts of Zydeco Est Pas Sale, which airs Saturday mornings, announce the deaths of area residents with details on viewings, funeral services and burials.

Constantin, a musician who performs with a trio that fuses country and Cajun music, hosts Encore, a Saturday-morning show featuring indigenous Louisiana music culled from field recordings. She also teaches Cajun and Creole vocals at the university.

“I love that we don’t sound like any other NPR affiliate,” Devall said.

During the spring membership drive in March, Sean Ardoin came into KRVS’ studio to express his support during Zydeco Stomp, which airs Saturdays at noon. He is a fourth-generation Creole accordionist and direct descendant of Amédé Ardoin, the pioneering musician who wrote several songs that are now standards in the Cajun and zydeco repertoire. Listening to KRVS’ music programs “is a southwest Louisiana tradition on Saturday morning,” he told Current. 

KRVS’ live mix: ‘It’s a blast’

Broadcasts of live music performances are core to KRVS’ identity and audience service. It’s not unusual to see Devall dancing in the control room when a band is performing live in the studio. 

Bands routinely perform on Medicine Ball Caravan, which airs weekday afternoons. Sometimes Tony Daigle, a Grammy-winning, Lafayette-based recording engineer, mixes those shows. He has volunteered at KRVS for the last 30 years.

“It’s a blast,” he said of the live mixing experience.

KRVS celebrated its 60th anniversary in November 2023 with a fais do-do fundraiser. (Photo: Joseph Vidrine)

During Acadiana’s annual music festivals, one of which wrapped up Sunday, live performances by artists from all over the country can be heard on KRVS. 

Devall sees these events as another way to serve and expand KRVS’ audience. The station is upping its involvement in the Festival International de Louisiane and the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, both of which are open to the public for free.  The Festival International de Louisiane, held every April, typically draws crowds of 400,000. In October, the annual Festivals Acadiens et Créoles brings in around 50,000 people.

Prior to the 2024 Festival International de Louisiane, held in April in Lafayette, organizers recorded promotional announcements and testimonials at KRVS. Attendees and those who listened from home could access the KRVS web stream through the festival’s smartphone app.

“We wanted to involve the festival folks a bit more this year so they could tell their story and so the broadcast could sound even more coherent,” said Devall.  

Jesse Guidry, VP of communications for the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, suspects that tourists who come to the festivals learn about KRVS’ live broadcasts and get hooked. Once they discover KRVS’ eight-hour block of Cajun and zydeco music shows on Saturdays, they keep listening from home via the web stream, he speculated. 

“That’s a damn good Saturday!” Guidry said.

Giving people more of what they want

To build KRVS’ reach and support within Acadiana and beyond, Devall and Wotipka see additional paths for audience growth. 

Devall plans to introduce new programs that will help build listenership on KRVS’ main signal and its news-driven HD3 stream. 

Sounding more like a VP for content than an engineer or ops manager, Wotipka said KRVS can survive in the shifting media landscape by focusing on local culture and music. 

“If it wasn’t for us, the world wouldn’t know as much about Cajun and zydeco music as it does now,” he said. “That’s our past, and that’s our future.”

He sees audio streams and video content as essential to expanding audience service. KRVS already maintains a YouTube channel of video recordings of live performances. It needs to become more video-centric, Wotipka said.

“That’s what people want. If today you’re thinking about yourself as a radio station that only delivers audio, then you probably won’t be around in about five or six years,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that KRVS’ CPB Community Service Grant grant pays the salaries of its three, full-time employees. The CSG covers the costs of stipends paid to program hosts who aren’t volunteers and who work part-time. 

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