On June 26, WRKF lost one of its founders, Lew Carter. He was also a radio personality, with a capital “P”.
Ten days before he died, Lew, at age 92, drove himself in his red car the few blocks from his house to the station to talk about his radio legacy. He came prepared with a 6-page-long narrative he’d emailed in advance.
Around 1975 when the idea for WRKF was first being floated, Lew’s friend Ralph Sims, a banker and former radio program director, looped him in.
“He and I were good friends and we lunched together every now and then. And he called me up and said, I have just come from a meeting where they’re talking about a possible public radio station for Baton Rouge," Lew recalled.
The group behind the idea needed someone with radio management experience. Lew had already been running radio stations for 25 years, and at that point he was the general manager of WXOK — which is a story unto itself.
“WXOK was an all black station, with all black announcers, with all black personnel.” A first for the Baton Rouge airwaves.
Asked if Lew thought what he was doing at WXOK was groundbreaking he said instead he thought what he was doing at WRKF — starting a public radio station — was groundbreaking.
Lew was soon figuring how much money it would take to get the new station on the air, and then got to work securing that $200,000. And he had to find a place to put a transmitter that could broadcast across the four parishes that then made up the Baton Rouge market (a market Lew said he had earlier had a hand in defining with a petition filed with the federal Office of Management and Budget).
Lew asked LSU to put the transmitter on a piece of their vacant land, but couldn’t make a deal.
“I can remember how disappointed I was. We were looking for a place to put a tower. To cover a market our size, the tower had to be about 500 feet. And the most convenient piece of land you that could put it on is one acre. If you could get one acre somewhere, you could put the antenna upright and have three anchors to hold it.”
Despite LSU’s refusal, Richard Kilbourne, who was on staff at the law school, offered a slice of a 70-acre plot his family owned east of the city on Frenchtown Road.
“He said I could let you have 5 acres of that," Lew remembered. "Well, five acres was just fine.”
The rent was a dollar a year. And the station got named for the Richard Kilbourne Family — W-R-K-F. It went on the air January 18, 1980.
Lew, whose voice is now familiar to a generation of WRKF listeners, was supposed to stay behind the scenes. But on day two, the would-be Saturday morning DJ, who had the use of only one arm, declined the help of a volunteer to spin his records, and, according to Lew, that was the end of Jim’s Jam, and the beginning of Music Makers.
“It was four hours, from 8 a.m. until 12-noon on Saturdays, including one hour of Dixieland and three hours of Big Band.”
Lew played selections from the vast collection he’d accumulated at the radio stations he’d managed in Vermont, Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, and in Baton Rouge.
“I had more records than you can believe possible,” Lew said.
In 2002, Lew gave the bulk of his collection — tens of thousands of 78s and LPs — to the Point Coupee historical society. He kept 600 CDs for Sunday Baroque. And he recorded the best of his Dixieland and Big Band collection onto 512 minidiscs he continued to play Saturdays on For Old Time’s Sake until this April.
And that’s what Lew said he was most proud of, supplying the Baton Rouge market with big band music for 35 years.
“I brought programs and music to the community that it would never have heard otherwise," Lew said.
In a statement, WRKF’s current board chair, Bob Mann, said “We’ll miss Lew Carter’s friendly smile and stories — and his unique insight about radio. We’ll find inspiration remembering his legendary work ethic, community service, and kindness.”