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TELEVISION & RADIO

New Orleans DJ puts hope in heavy rotation

Weeknights, the city's dispossessed turn to 'The Big Chief' for a soothing touch of home.

November 28, 2005|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — From Houston's residential motels to an RV camped outside an Arkansas big box store to crammed apartments all around the Southeast, Hurricane Katrina evacuees wait for the sun to go down.

They know that when night falls the signal from WWL-AM in New Orleans will stretch farther and stronger. Mighty at 50,000 watts, "The Big 870" is said at night to reach about 30 states, all the way to Ohio.

For many of the city's dispossessed, WWL has become a nightly ritual, a symbolic trip back home -- presided over most weeknights by their host, advisor, therapist and friend, Deke "The Big Chief" Bellavia.

Once renowned mostly for his knowledge of southeastern Louisiana's fervent high school football scene, the 34-year-old Bellavia welcomes listeners to talk about everything from FEMA and Mardi Gras to the NFL's Saints and the state's flood insurance pool.

What he lacks in specific answers he makes up for in empathy and humor -- goodwill enhanced by a voice so sweetly native it fairly reeks of chicory coffee and warm beignets.

Cyril Dumaine of New Orleans' inundated Lakeview area said WWL and, particularly, Bellavia, have been a balm for his cares -- which include the loss of his home and a longing to be reunited with his 4-year-old daughter, sent to live with relatives during the rebuilding.

"That Big Deke," Dumaine said, "he tells it straight."

"Deke is a young man with a lot of depth of character and a lot of depth of soul," added Diane Newman, WWL operations manager who expanded Bellavia's role after Katrina.

"He gives people comfort, and he understands the need for comfort right now."

Anguish and answers

The rest of the country may have stopped worrying about the aftermath of the flood, but in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast the daily reality of thousands of homes destroyed and jobs disappeared has not abated.

WWL is a prime place for survivors to vent their anguish and to get a few answers. The size of the audience may not become clear until spring, since the Arbitron rating service temporarily has suspended audience surveys here. But if the steady stream of calls and e-mails is any measure, the station's audience (also listening live on the Internet at www.wwl.com) has expanded hugely since the storm.

In the afternoons, onetime local television news icon Garland Robinette has been a tough inquisitor of officials, including Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin.

From 5 to 9 p.m., Bellavia takes over with his alternating partners -- onetime oldies DJ Tommy Tucker and "Pal Al" Nassar. His mike mates tend to distribute the facts, while Bellavia doles out the lovin'.

After Tucker offered an earnest explanation of FEMA funding delays one recent day, suggesting that Congress simply had not gotten around to supplemental appropriations, Bellavia begged to differ.

"They've all gone skiing," he said. ("Dey all gone skeen," is actually the way Bellavia pronounced it, followed by a cackle.)

When a Saint fan called with a plan to prevent the struggling NFL franchise from leaving the city -- 100,000 fans each contributing $500 -- Bellavia offered: "Dat would sho buy some chin straps."

Empathizing with a man bedeviled by a slow insurance adjuster, the Big Chief offered an old bromide: "Patience is like money and milk. You can hold on to it, but eventually ... it's going to expire" -- the last phrase spilled out as one long word: "iss-gone-ta-espiyah."

In Bellavia's mouth, consonants are merely servants of vowels, which reign supreme. "New Oh-lee-uhns," he says, clinging to every syllable.

Program boss Newman (Bellavia calls her "Mama D") occasionally tells her budding star to pep up a sometimes laconic delivery. But she urges him never to lose his homespun accent. She calls him her "Elvis-Ali," hearing strains of the singer and the boxer in his satiny voice.

Gone, thankfully, are the desperate calls that followed just after the storm, when Bellavia and his co-workers talked to listeners who had lost power and clung to the voices coming over their battery-charged radios. Some pleaded for advice as water reached to their necks.

"I wondered if I was the last person some of those people talked to," Tucker said.

Now, the psychic losses have grown more chronic and entrenched, as evidenced by the woman who called recently from the city's Uptown neighborhood. Margaret Smith, 50, reported that she had no water or heat and that she was living alone more than two months after the storm.

A school secretary, she told Bellavia and Tucker that she had become so desperate for repairs that she was ready to trade in a treasured playing-card collection, gathered over 25 years. Bursting into tears, she pleaded: "Where do you go when you just want your basics?"

Bellavia and Tucker urged her not to give up her collection. "I know it's tough, but it's going to be all right," Bellavia said. "You keep the faith, and we're goin' to pray for you."

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