Bernadette Lee: The Heart Behind The Voice
Nov 16, 2017 08:22AM ● Published by Marisa Olson
So many different kinds of people tune in every day, and you never know what they’re going through. I laugh a lot, because I think so many people need that. While I take seriously my role as a news journalist, I believe my real job is to show our listeners some kindness, some reassurance, that things are still okay, or, if they’re not okay, to let them know things will work out, no matter what they’re facing.Bernadette Lee,
Acadiana’s Morning News Co-Host
NewsTalk 96.5 KPEL
Every weekday morning at 3:00 a.m., Bernadette Lee begins her day by helping others prepare for theirs. A generation of Acadiana listeners has come to depend on her reporting the events that shape their lives. The familiar, cherished routine they share underscores a love affair spanning over 20 years between the radio talk show co-host and the many thousands who tune into Acadiana’s Morning News on KPEL. Waking to Bernadette’s voice and easy laughter, her signature warmth and good humor, sets an expectant, encouraging tone across south central Louisiana.
Upon entering the dark and quiet studio, Bernadette assiduously gathers and reviews the information we need to navigate and negotiate our myriad, daily decisions, through early morning traffic alerts at KTDY, to coverage of local events and political issues on the Acadiana’s Morning News. A trusted and respected interviewer, she boldly cross-examines local and state politicians regardless of their party affiliation, asking the tough questions, and moving the discussion past political talking points. Embracing her role as a public servant, she makes leadership more accessible and accountable as few others can, or will dare, in today’s media. Acadiana’s Morning News co-host Rob Kirkpatrick observes: “Bernadette gets the real story. She wants to find out who the person is behind the suit, behind the campaign signs. It takes a real journalist to do the research and ask the right questions. It’s not glitz and glamor, it’s hard work.”
Rob and Bernadette are famous for being fair-minded hosts, and giving airtime to a spectrum of viewpoints from their guests and callers. “We welcome anyone who wishes to join the conversation,” says Kirkpatrick. “Occasionally, we have misinformed callers who are so upset by an issue or a candidate’s stance that Bernadette will continue their discussion off the air after the show. She never talks down to anyone, but listens patiently, and will try her best to set the record straight, even for that one person. She often tells me: ‘We’ve done our best to be fair. Now it’s time to stand by what we say.’“
Bernadette’s Start in Broadcasting
Bernadette grew up listening to KPEL radio, and describes her younger self as the quiet, shy “geek” at Acadiana High School who loved reading and researching. She never missed the evening news or her favorite television show, “60 Minutes,” CBS’ Emmy-award winning news program.
The night before first semester orientation at UL, still undecided which studies to pursue, she took her dad’s suggestion to major in mass communications. When Bill Branton from KPEL Radio gave a talk at one of her classes, he inspired Bernadette to apply for a summer internship at the station. She took to the studio like a natural, and, after completing the internship in August 1993, she was hired. One year later, she was promoted to a full-time position.
“Back then, I had no idea how passionate I would become about my job,” Bernadette explains. “Serving the public keeps me here. We’re not just in the news business. We’re in the people business. Our management team is highly supportive of me. Rob, my boss, has a great leadership style, and allows me the freedom and flexibility to do my best. Our Operations Manager, Bruce Mikels, is tremendous. And Mike Grimsley, the VP and General Manager of Townsquare Media, supports not only me, but encourages work-life balance for our entire team. Mike reminds us often that family comes first. For 23 years, I have been blessed to work with the best.”
“I’m Finally Learning How to Play it By Heart”
During the earlier days of her career, Bernadette admits to being ambitious, driven, and convinced of her physical invincibility while taking her good health for granted. She remembers her own mother as an “awesome human being” and a “strong, tough woman.” Bernadette and her family, her three sisters and mother especially, suffered through painful, difficult times. “I don’t know how mom kept her sanity.” Hardship left its mark on Bernadette. She grew up identifying as a “fighter” and “survivor” who could handle anything.
However, a lifetime of chronic, cumulative stress, a heavy smoking habit, and the unexpected death of her mother in 2011, culminated in a life-altering event on the eve of her 38th birthday. That was the day “my health caught up with me.” Bernadette, husband Bret, and a small group of friends celebrated by having a bowling party, which ended with dinner. Even before the party started, Bernadette had not been feeling well, but told no one, and forced herself to bowl. Later during dinner, she experienced a sudden, crushing pain in her chest. Incredibly, she tried ignoring it. “I have too much to do,” she silently told herself, “I can talk myself out of this.” But her body refused to heed any further denial. Her arms went numb. She was in the throes of a major heat attack and was rushed to the hospital. At that moment, Bernadette learned that she was not, and never had been, in control of her life.
There had been warning signs. Bret saw it coming: “Do you see what surrounds your recliner? Look at all the cans of Coke, look at all the cigarette butts. You’re worrying me.” Her doctor also had admonished her: “You women gotta learn to slow down. You can’t continue like this.” 0f course, she hadn’t listened.
Eight years on, Bernadette is far wiser than her younger, “smarter” self. Life is sweeter, too. Despite struggles with chronic pain and fatigue, she finally quit smoking nearly two years ago, and started a basic exercise routine. “I used to see myself as smart, now I seek out wisdom, and from all places.” While she still views herself as a strong woman, her idea of strength has changed. “I’m now strong enough to say: I’m not doing that anymore. I respect my physical and emotional limits. I want to live ‘til I’m 90. But first, I have to take care of me.” Bernadette urges every woman reading this story, who recognizes herself, to change course and put herself first in her life.
2018: The Year of the Acadiana Woman
“Women need to know they can do anything they want, but,” Bernadette cautions, “they also need to know they have limits. There’s nothing wrong with having boundaries, in showing weakness, or admitting we can suffer from mental and emotional distress. We have nothing to be ashamed of, and need to reject the stigma. We can be so competent, so giving and supportive of others, but we never give to ourselves. We need to find balance, and offer each other support. I want 2018 to be a turning point for female empowerment. I hope it can be The Year of the Acadiana Woman."
Bernadette puts her money where her talk is through active community engagement. Louisiana ranks second in the nation for women’s mortality due to breast cancer, because many women across the state cannot afford annual screenings for early detection. In hopes of lowering this grim statistic, every October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, mammography centers across Louisiana run specials on mammogram services, providing them at reduced cost. NewsTalk 96.5 KPEL has joined with the American Cancer Society in urging its female listeners to get regular mammograms.
The “Mammosine” promotion was brilliantly conceived by KTDY as a fun way to raise breast cancer awareness while also encouraging Acadiana women to schedule their annual mammograms. Every October, KTDY and its sister station KPEL, in cooperation with Breast Cancer Center of Acadiana, provide free mammograms to lucky listeners who call in for this special “boobie” prize.
On the day of their cancer screening, the winners, accompanied by KTDY's Debbie Ray and Bernadette, are chauffeured in style to Breast Cancer Center of Acadiana in the “Mammosine” (a limousine service, provided courtesy of Limousines LTD) to get their “mammies.” Afterward, the ladies are driven to a local hotspot for mimosas, wine and lunch.
“KTDY deserves so much credit for raising awareness about this terrible disease that cuts short the lives of so many women, and they are so nice to let me tag along!” Bernadette says.
In 2015, Komen Acadiana launched Big Wigs, a 4-6 week campaign that engages local corporate and community leaders as representatives in the fight against breast cancer. To accomplish their vital mission as “Big Wigs,” campaign representatives must wear large, ridiculous pink wigs, and either raise or donate a minimum of $1,000 toward the cause. The proceeds are applied toward ensuring local access to breast health services and education programs, and to fund research for breast cancer cures. Bernadette was among the inaugural “Big Wigs” chosen for the 2015 campaign.
When she isn’t raising awareness for breast cancer, Bernadette is a powerful voice for Acadiana’s abused and neglected children. She works closely with “Court Appointed Special Advocates,” or CASA, a program dedicated to children who are removed from abusive homes. CASA trains volunteers as representatives to advocate on behalf of the children’s interests, wishes, and needs. After training, each representative is assigned to a child who participates in the CASA program.
Each year, the Go Blue for Kids Awards honors outstanding members of the community who advocate on behalf of abused and neglected children through CASA. Earlier this year, CASA of South Louisiana awarded Bernadette as Media Professional of the Year. "You are our CASA superhero," said Kelsey Mason of CASA of SOLA.
“You Are Still The One”
Bernadette remains among the longest-serving and most beloved radio personalities in the region. In the world of talk radio, such longevity is rare. According to Rob Kirkpatrick: “In an era of social and digital media when things are always in flux, a radio talk show host can expect at any moment to become obsolete. In opposition to this trend, Bernadette has become only more relevant and popular over the years. Usually, a radio personality is best known to their particular demographic, and the average talk radio listener is 35 and older. But when Bernadette and I visit the UL campus, the students immediately recognize her. I can in fact go anywhere with Bernadette, and everyone knows who she is, and is so excited to meet her.”
“My Authentic Crazy Self”
Outside of work, Bernadette enjoys dining at Mexican restaurants, and spending time at home with husband Bret, relaxing with their fur babies, and watching “anything on the History Channel.” She also cares for her dad, Chuck, who shares their home.
Despite major upheaval, or perhaps because of it, Bernadette has emerged transformed, imbued with a renewed sense of self and purpose that includes a deeper appreciation for simpler living, and a heartfelt desire to help women seek greater balance and self-acceptance. She still has her “crazy” side, joyful spirit, and youthful, “geekish” curiosity. Now that she has struck a more harmonious work-life balance, Bernadette intends to lead a long life dedicated to those she loves and the pursuit of her many passions.