Life of a Radio Star
We sat down with Benoît, who headed Radio Val d’Isère for over 30 years and grew it into the incredible service it is today.
Have you always lived in the mountains?
No, originally I come from the West of France; Normandy, Brittany and Vendée. After my Graduate studies in Nantes, I became a French teacher, but since I was young I always used to play around with records and would be mixing every day after school. From the age of 11, I decided I wanted to work in radio. One day, during the February holidays, I was in a discotheque with a friend who said that tomorrow, he would leave for Chamonix. Without a second thought, I told him, “I’m coming with you” and I never returned.
In Chamonix, I became a DJ in a disco and also worked as a producer at a national radio station based in Chamonix: FR3. From there, I went to Avoriaz where I was director of Radio Avoriaz for 4 years.
How did you end up in Val d’Isere?
The director of the Val d’Isère Tourist Office had heard about me and, in 1985, came to Avoriaz with a proposition to help get Radio Val d’isère off the ground. Prior to that, it existed but only on a small scale. My response: Of course, but I come with my team! That wasn’t a problem, so we arrived and completely restructured the radio, which even then was based in the Tourist Office. The studio, if I can call it that, was incredibly small. At the beginning, there was no internet, no mobile phones, so if you wanted to get hold of someone, you had to be sure that they were at the other end of the line as communication was all by wired telephone. And of course, everything was vinyl because it was before the advent of CDs. So to ensure we had a 24-hour emission, we recorded tapes to broadcast at night. We had two Revox tape recorders and I had to create an electronic system that would cause the second one to play when the tape on the first one finished. This went wrong a lot! I’d arrive at the radio the next morning, with the tape just spinning, and no radio on.
You can often be found taken some electronic system or gadget apart. Have you always been good with your hands when it comes to technology?
Yes, but I never really had a choice. We didn’t have a lot of funds at the radio in the early days so you had no choice but to figure out how something worked and fix it when it went wrong. Having said that, it is something I’ve always been drawn to since I was very young, so I have a knack for it.
Rumour has it you had long hair and were in a band. Was that around the same time that you were making mixes?
(With a smile) Yes, round about that time, when I was 15 years old, I was in a Rock Band. We had no transistors and didn’t know how to work the amp. But we would go to a friend’s house in the country and play the opening bars to Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” all weekend.
That must have been fun for his parents! Who has been your favourite interviewee over the years?
It’s hard; I’ve interviewed so many people in my life. Peter Gabriel, The Jackson 5, Robert de Niro… It’s hard to choose. Certainly, it was an absolute pleasure to host Val Rock in 1987, 88 and 89, with huge names at the time performing in Val d’Isère and doing acoustic sessions in this very studio. Groups like Scorpion played- they were fabulous and those are cherished memories.
Why didn’t Val Rock continue?
Money! We used a lot of it, broke everything and drank everything.
Understandably not the most successful business model. Has an interview ever gone wrong?
The most catastrophic interview I ever did was with Kim Wilde. I wasn’t prepared, she arrived, and the champagne was warm. Plus, the microphone didn’t work. We must have seemed like such amateurs!
I did notice, in a lot of the old photos of the early days, champagne makes an appearance?
Yes, it was in our contract that we had a bottle of champagne every day.
Times have certainly changed! There’s a great photo of you on what I imagine was a very early iteration of a snowboard. How did snowboarding arrive in Val d’Isere?
A gentleman by the name of Jean-Pierre Raymond starting boarding with wooden planks from his garage. His children are actually still in Val d’Isère. He was very passionate about surfing on snow and he quickly became very popular in the world of snowboarding. Many, many people asked him for snowboards that he constructed out of wood. And that’s how snowboarding started in 1986. Later, a Parisian who was passionate about snowboarding came to Val d’Isère and wanted to test all the types of board. They decided on a shape with a swallow tail at the back.
And did you try it?
Yes of course. It was tough to begin with because we used ski boots and there weren’t proper bindings, just metal plates which we tried to strap ourselves onto. But it was very exciting having a totally new thing to try on the snow.
Did you prefer monoskiing or snowboarding?
Monoskiing, without a doubt! I used to go monoskiing every day with a young man named Luc who worked with me at the radio. As soon as the morning show was over, we went monoskiing. Good weather, bad weather, it didn’t matter. One day, after a dump of snow, we got to the top of The Face and Luc turned his monoski down the hill and straightlined it. Suddenly I heard a yell and said to myself, that’s it, he’s dead, as I’d seen him go straight over a rocky outcrop. To my relief, he got back up, but the monoski, had turned into duoskis- it had split right down the middle!
But monoskiing was fabulous for off-piste skiing. In fact I monoskied the whole way from Val d’Isère to La Plagne. Now that was a lot of poling! My arms were double the size by the time I got there.
That’s incredible! Have you ever entered the Monoski World Championships?
No… I’d be too good.
What’s been the biggest change to the Radio since you started out here?
When I started, the size of the studio was literally arms width. It was just the space where the old ski lift chairs now are and that was it. So I think one of the biggest changes is the sheer size of the radio. And then of course, technological changes have made a big difference. As I mentioned before, we had two tape recorders that were supposed to switch over when one finished. But when it failed, we would have to spend hours winding the tape back up, which was incredibly frustrating. And working with vinyl records, the turntables were 40kg. Nowadays, all the adverts run automatically, but back in the day, we would have to take one tape off and put another bobbin in with 5 or 6 ads on it. Everything had to be done by hand. And without computers, the Piste report was very time intensive. You were on the phone for 20 minutes filling in the sheet from each pisteur.
And presumably, the snow and ski report from the radio was even more important for people back then as they had no other way of getting that information?
Exactly! There was no internet, or twitter feed, or any means of knowing what was going on except the radio. I remember one night when we had a very heavy snowstorm, I just had to stay at the radio all night so that every hour we could broadcast and tell people “Don’t leave your homes. The avalanche risk is too high. The roads are inaccessible”.
What is your favourite gadget at the moment?
That would definitely be my Bose noise-cancelling headphones. It’s such an incredible breakthrough in technology and a real revolution for me. I put them on and enter a totally silent world, which I love. In contrast, I do not like social media. I have great fear about the future of the human race with regards to its social networks. It is not something that brings about happiness and I find the interactions to be very false.
Do you prefer summer or winter here?
I prefer summer. The scenery is more varied with many more colours in the summer. The flowers are beautiful and all the animals come out. Also you can move much more easily - half an hour’s walk in any direction and you emerge in a totally untouched world.
The bearded vulture has given its name to the WIFI in the radio and is always top of the news bulletin. What do you love about them?
Often it’s not so much the animals themselves, magnificent as they are, but the shadow of them soaring over the mountains. In a sky with few birds, you look up and ask yourself what is this mysterious huge shape up above? They are utterly majestic. I have spent many days observing them up in the hills in the summer and know all their habits. They are beautiful birds- I prefer the bearded vulture to the eagle.
I also love to watch the marmottes in the summer. I have spent whole days in front of a burrow to film them, getting just 50 centimeters away. One thing I noticed is that these marmottes got used to my presence. When I first arrived they were very shy but at the end of three or four days with them, they were no longer afraid and I could film them easily. It takes time though, and a lot of patience. Eventually I could recognise individual marmottes because they have different character traits and different faces, with specific scars (as they fight a lot). I knew if the marmotte I observed on a certain day was the same one I was watching yesterday.
Final question: how did you come to use words so beautifully (Benoit’s daily weather report is always the most poetic description of a sky you could ever hope to read)?
Because I love the French language. And because I was a French teacher. In French, we can say so many beautiful things. For example, if we say, “it is good weather”, that’s fine. But If we say, “our solar star that warms the skin is shining bright in a cerulean heaven”, it is much more beautiful. I love the music that the French language makes. Everyone is talking the same way. And I don’t want to talk in the same way as everyone else. I want to speak differently to say the same things.