Putting the 'Broad' in Broadcasting

WNKU remains a crucial musical alternative on the mostly corporate FM dial

Michael Grayson remembers when he was a program director in commercial radio and his national programming boss sent him a tasty new CD. It was the first October Project disc, and Grayson thought it was the best thing he’d heard in years.

“I asked, ‘Can we play it?’ He said, ‘No, it hasn’t tested well,’” Grayson remembers. “I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ Here’s a couple people who know what they are talking about and think this is a great record, but we aren’t allowed to play it because it hasn’t passed the test of the masses.”

And that still is the daily frustration for many program directors in the commercial radio trenches. They’re often at the mercy of the call-out research their corporate bosses use to test new releases.

Whether or not to add an artist can depend on a sample of listeners reacting to 30-second hooks played over the phone to them. It’s a classic cover-your-ass corporate management system where programmers don’t have to stick their necks out and make a creative call.

Grayson was then the program director at Cincinnati’s Wimp-Rock station WRRM-FM (Warm 98). For the last nine years, he’s been the music director and now the program director at public station WNKU (89.7 FM) and has the freedom to choose music based on his artistic instincts aided by a built-in focus group of veteran staff members, some of them musicians themselves.

The station, licensed to Northern Kentucky University, celebrates its 25th anniversary in April, evolving from a Kentucky-centric Folk and Bluegrass station to its current format, known in the radio trade as Triple A (adult/album/alternative).

There’s no hard definition of Triple A. It’s often an evolving work-in-progress driven by musical trends. WNKU General Manager Chuck Miller, a 30-year public radio veteran of 10 news and music stations, simply defines it as “progressive radio.”

For musically curious listeners with varied, sophisticated tastes who don’t mind surprises, WNKU has become the dial spot in the Tristate. It’s the only station playing broadly textured, new and old, adult-oriented Pop, Rock, Folk and Blues, presented in interesting sets constructed by knowledgeable jocks. More than half its playlist is material released within the last year from both established artists and new voices, breaking the cardinal rule of Radio 101, which says listeners don’t like the unfamiliar.

It’s the only high-powered area station committed to regularly playing local original music, with more than a dozen homegrown cuts programmed daily into the format.

Even though commercial FM radio has pretty much been declared irrelevant, if not dead, WNKU reminds us that radio can still be an artistic endeavor offering a creative musical alternative to the chaos of the Internet music world.

“People not familiar with the station will ask me, ‘What kind of music do you play?’ I say, ‘Well, what do you like?’ On any given day I might segue from Alison Krauss to Frank Zappa,” Grayson says. “We’ll take Blues, Rock, AltCountry and Folk and weave that all together so it sounds good.”

As Music Director John Patrick says, “It’s very much a shuffle format for a shuffle generation.”

In some ways WNKU is doing exactly what many national radio consultants have suggested commercial FM should have been doing: experimenting. The digital music delivery revolution, where listeners became their own program directors, quickly rendered FM radio obsolete. To compete with the new media, consultants have said stations should emphasize localism, develop unique talent and invent more musically interesting formats.

Instead, commercial radio did the opposite. With corporate consolidation and the recent investment takeover of many radio companies by equity firms, corporate radio managers played to investors, not listeners.

In the last three years Clear Channel fought bankruptcy by laying off hundreds of talented jocks, marketing and production staff. Playlists stayed as tight as ever, and national syndication and voice tracking (where a DJ in Cincinnati might record a show for a station in Rochester, N.Y.) have often replaced local announcers. In short, FM radio’s creative juices were drained at a time such talent was needed more than ever to reinvent the medium.

As one veteran Cincinnati FM jock has lamented, “I used to work in Rock radio, and now I work in the young men’s department.”

“It’s amazing how commercial radio keeps shooting itself in the foot,” Grayson says. “(At WNKU) we have real live human beings who know the music, know the area and reflect that in the things they say and the music they share. Commercial radio has gone the opposite direction, where it’s homogeneous, pre-recorded.”

If commercial FM has a death wish, that’s fine with Miller.

“The rounds of deregulation that have empowered broadcasters to consolidate ownership with fewer employees and formulated formats just opened up a double garage door of opportunity for independent stations like us,” he says. “Our issue is, how do we find the people? And they have to find us.”

And that’s the rub for WNKU. Depending where you are, its signal can suck.

In 1985, the university started a station that would serve Northern Kentucky, capturing the musical culture of the region with a Folk-based “Mountain Music” format. Its 12,000-watt signal was sort of wedged in, the last available full-power frequency in the market.

The signal is aimed south, coming in loud and clear to Lexington; going north it’s limited because of possible interference with other stations on the frequency. It degrades quickly and can be hard to pick up in the home even within parts of the city of Cincinnati.

Miller says he continues to explore ways to improve the signal. WNKU has added a low-power translator at 94.5 that covers the West Chester area.

At least the station has evolved a format that appeals to the whole region. It expanded its music in the early ’90s from what was called “Kentucky Folk Radio,” picking up on the New Folk Revival, Americana and Alt-Country trends that incorporated Rock and Blues with traditional Appalachian influences. The station today still leans toward that vibe, although it’ll play a trickle of edgier Indie Rock artists.

Earlier this year WNKU took steps to better “define its brand” by dropping National Public Radio’s two-hour Morning Edition and the afternoon Fresh Air, news/talk shows already heard on Cincinnati’s WVXU (91.7 FM). NPR was replaced in the morning by a breezy music-based show heavy on local news features that still include NPR and BBC headlines. The new morning show is hosted by Craig Kopp, a 30-year commercial radio veteran at WEBN and WKRC.

Kopp sums up the feeling of most staffers that the move to an all-music station was long overdue: “I can almost feel the listeners eager to hear music in the morning.”

Miller says WNKU’s long-term goals are to expand its facilities and wean itself from the university, which covers one-fifth of its budget.

“We will always be a part of NKU,” he says, “but we are working for the day when we can be financially independent. I think we can.”

Ultimately, stations like WNKU remind us of the value of public radio. They’re free to take chances and cater to more eclectic tastes out of the mainstream. Sure, they’d like to have a mass audience, but, as nonprofits, they don’t need to cater to the lowest common denominator in musical tastes in order to survive.

WNKU will likely always have a small, if loyal, audience. For example, recent ratings show about 55,000 listeners check the station out in a week compared to 508,000 at WEBN (102.7 FM). WNKU has won the Best of Cincinnati readers poll for Best Radio Station multiple times, most recently from 2005 to 2008, and finished third this year.

For now Miller and his staff relish the freedom to treat radio as a vibrant, creative enterprise.

“We’re in radio heaven,” Miller says. “It’s an amazing place to be.”

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