Airman

Dubonnet left the corn behind when he entered the broadcast booth

by Rosalyn Graham

It can be said that Dan Dubonnet, general manager at Hall Communications in South Burlington, followed in his father's footsteps, but the grocery store business had first dibs.

If it weren't for the creamed corn, Dan Dubonnet might be managing a grocery store instead of a radio station ... and his name might not be Dan Dubonnet.

There weren't many jobs to choose from when Dubonnet was 16 years old and living in Norwich, Conn., and he liked the one he found working the third shift at a ShopRite Supermarket.

He made good money paid his way through college and thought he liked the grocery business enough to make it his career, so even though he graduated from Eastern Connecticut State University with a degree in English and journalism, he went to work as a grocery manager in Norwich. Then fate, some youthful temper and the creamed corn stepped in.

As he recalls, "One day I was being walked around the store by this guy, and he said, 'Do you realize there's no canned creamed corn on the shelf?' And I thought to myself that I really didn't care that there's no canned creamed corn and I knew I had to get out of there."

He went for an interview with a new radio station in town, WFAN, hoping to break into radio sales. That was exactly what his father, who had been chief engineer for a competing station in Norwich for 30 years, had always told him not to do, but when a person is 25, that kind of advice just adds to the appeal. The station manager told him, "We have no opening in sales, but I like your voice. What are you doing at midnight tonight?" Dubonnet was on the air at midnight and his career in radio was launched.

He worked for WFAN about four years, followed by 54 days at a station in Charlottesville, Va. It took less than 54 days in Virginia for Dubonnet to know he wanted to return to New England, and when he heard about an opening at WJOY in Burlington, he applied.

WJOY was owned by Hall Communications, the company for which Dubonnet's dad had worked. It was a chance to "come back to the family."

Dubonnet arrived in 1985 to be mid-day program director for WQCR, the rock station that had succeeded WJOY-FM a few years before. When General Manager Paul Battaini left in 1989, he recommended Dubonnet to take his place, an unusual move at a time when general managers and station managers were ordinarily chosen from the sales department.

If coming "back to the family" and moving to Vermont was one of the best personal decisions he ever made, the move to make WOKO a country music station on April 1, 1990, might have been the best business decision. "In 1990 there were too many rock stations," he says, "so we did research that showed country music would soon take off. WOKO joined WJOY with its softer, easy-listening music, in the Joy Drive headquarters. "We've been number one in every rating book since," he says. In 1995, the company bought WEXP and made it an oldies station called KOOL 105.

Success to Dubonnet is not just about the music and the ratings. It's about community service for the radio station and for him personally. "We had no money to market ourselves," he says, "so we got involved in every popular event we could get our hands on. We entrenched ourselves in the community."

Dubonnet credits the dedicated staff at the radio station for their willingness to dive into projects that benefit the community. "The people who work here love living here, so it's easy to give back to the community. When we ask them to volunteer to work the Children's Miracle Network or the Camp Ta-Kum-Ta radiothon, it's a great experience, because they want to give back to their community."

"Mr. Hall [Bert Hall, who founded Hall Communications in the '60s] was adamant that all people who worked for Hall Radio must be involved in their community, but the manager had to make an extra effort," Dubonnet says. That dictum fit with Dubonnet's natural bent, perhaps from the same gene that sparks his love of promotion and outreach.

Three stations broadcast from Hall Communications' studios: WJOY, WOKO and WKOL-KOOL 105. Rod Hill is KOOL 105's program director; Jen Ellis handles traffic and reception for the company.

Almost immediately after arriving in Burlington, he joined the board of the Downtown Burlington Development Association, and he is still active on the board of its successor, the Burlington Business Association. "It's the way you become part of the fabric of the community," he says.

He also serves on the Vermont Convention Bureau, is president of the Vermont Association of Broadcasters for this year and next, and sits on an advisory council with Dr. Lewis First for Vermont Children's Hospital. "I really enjoy being involved in the Burlington scene. I love living in Vermont. It's neat to do business in this town and in Vermont. You can get things done."

Lots of people who have worked with Dubonnet on community projects think they know the secret of his success. George Rousseau, director of sales and marketing at the Champlain Valley Exposition, works with Dubonnet every year on the Country Club Music Festival and other events at the fairgrounds. "There's an indelible Dan Dubonnet stamp on how those stations operate," says Rousseau. "It's a happy place. The station has personality."

Becky Cassidy, a marketing consultant with Church Street Marketplace and former director of Burlington's First Night, has worked with Dubonnet on promotion and publicity for many years. "When you call him and explain the challenge you're facing, she says, "you never feel that money is the bottom line. It's always, 'How can I help?'"

Hall Communications' personnel are known for their work in the community. Dennis Snyder is chief engineer; Steve Pelkey is operations manager.

Dubonnet is just as involved in Starksboro, where he and his family live on seven acres with three horses, six sheep and a flock of chickens. He and his wife, Alice, knew they wanted to raise their family in the country; they chose Addison County and bought their home in 1987. Besides splitting their own wood and making maple syrup, they are busy in the activities of the five-town area that is centered on Bristol.

Dubonnet runs the town's sports program, coaches baseball and basketball, and is moderator of the town meeting. Alice is a member of the selectboard and a reporter for the county-wide weekly newspaper.

Dubonnet likes to play golf with his 11-year-old son, Andy, and is proud of 14-year-old Katy's knack for picking the next hit single.

"We really have the best of both worlds," Dubonnet says. "We come to Chittenden County to go to a hockey game or a play at the Flynn or First Night and then go home and sit in front of the fire."

What about his name? Well, it wasn't always Dubonnet and it isn't Dubonnet when he goes home to Addison County. Dubonnet grew up with a multi-syllabic name that reflected his Ukranian heritage. "A program director in Mystic, Conn., changed it a minute before I went on the air," he says.

Lots of people in radio change their names to make them sound jazzier, to be more pronounceable or for the sake of privacy, but when that program director announced, "Now you're Dan Dubonnet," he probably didn't foresee the number of conversations in Dubonnet's future explaining his lack of French roots and that he has no connection to those folks who make the aperitif.

Originally published in March 2004 Business People-Vermont