The evolution of WNKU over 30 years


Matt Spaulding

WNKU’s general manager, Sean O’Mealy.

Matt Spaulding , Arts and Life Editor

WNKU is celebrating the 30th anniversary of their first broadcast on April 29,1985. At 5:30 in the morning, Maryanne Zeleznik was the first voice on the air in front of a room of staff members and a technician rewiring the board underneath her feet to ensure everything was going to work properly.

Since those early days the station has gone through several changes and will continue to change with the addition of a new General Manager who came in late March, Sean O’Mealy. The station is currently exploring new options for moving forward for another 30 years.

“What WNKU has always been about and what we want WNKU to continue to be about for the next 30 years is we want to be the radio station that is about discovering music,” O’Mealy said.

He hopes the listener will be able to discover new bands like the War on Drugs or an old blues song.

“The spirit of who we are isn’t changing. That’s the number one thing that really needs to be understood, that the spirit of what WNKU is… you know we’re about mirroring and reflecting life as we know it in the Cincinnati metro market,” O’Mealy said.

Humble Beginnings

Zeleznik was hired two weeks before they went on the air. During this time there wasn’t any radio equipment and empty offices. Zeleznik worked at the station for 20 years as the news director, she said.

At that time, Rick Pender was the first general manager of WNKU and had been working to put a staff together.

“When I was hired they had a license to put the station on the air. No studio and no staff, other than I. That was a year and a half before we started broadcasting,” Pender said.

The idea for the station was started by former chair of the communications department Edd Miller and Dr. Boothe, Pender said. Miller was near retirement and returning to teaching after being a president for several other universities. Pender said Miller championed the idea and felt having a public radio station at NKU would be a good way to expand the reputation of the college.

The station was originally called Kentucky Folk Radio, Zeleznik said.

“It was very much a bluegrass and sort of a folky station,” Zeleznik said. “We did nothing but Kentucky news. We didn’t even give a Red’s score. We gave the Louisville Redbirds score.”

Zeleznik said they found that they couldn’t stop airwaves going across the river and began adding news for Cincinnati and Ohio.

“It really was a very exciting time,” Zeleznik said. “I have never done anything before or since that was as exciting and groundbreaking as helping to put that radio station on the air.”

Changes in Format

During 1992 and 1993 the station morphed into a style similar to what current listeners would recognize, John McGue said. He goes by John Patrick on the air and has been working there for 12 years. The format they started to follow is called the Triple-A format.

“At the time there was… some stations in public radio that were playing what was called, back in the day, Triple-A radio, which was adult acoustic alternative. Well, acoustic lasted for while, but it changed to adult album alternative,” Grady Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick worked as operations manager and in programming from 1997 to 2007.

“So it’s not by any means all acoustic,” Kirkpatrick said. “It was a style and format that wasn’t really part of the mainstream at all and people gravitated to it.”

WNKU has been going with adult album alternative for over 20 years and still plays a lot of singer-songwriters, John Patrick said.

Zeleznik said during this transition some listeners were upset that they weren’t playing bluegrass and celtic music as frequently. Others were happy to have the chance to hear new artists. Some that were angry at first came to like the new style, Zeleznik said.

One big transition came in 2005 when Xavier’s radio station, WVXU, was sold and started an all news format.

“In 2005, WGUC, which is the classical public radio station in town in Cincinnati, bought WVXU and was turning it into an all news station,” Zeleznik said. “And I sort of saw the writing on the wall that.. I really felt if there really was an all news public radio station in Cincinnati that WNKU probably would not be doing as much news anymore.”

This left WNKU the chance to focus on music.

“If you want news there’s a great radio station that does news, WVXU. They’re really good at it,” O’Mealy said. “They run NPR, All Things Considered, Terry Grosse, all that kind of stuff. That’s where I go if I want that and I do go there when I want it.”

The Future

“What we’re going to be doing is there will be a more consistent sound to WNKU,” O’Mealy said. “We’ve got some really great specialty programming that happens on the weekend. So we’ve got a bluegrass show that’s probably the best bluegrass show in the country. We’ve got a blues show. We’ve got a guy that does rhythm and blues. We’ve got a really good folk/singer songwriter show. So now think about what that is. Those are like four or five different genres of music all within a 48-hour period.”

O’Mealy said their goal moving forward will be to not lean on having specialized shows, but to come up with a really good formula which will sound more consistent.

“We’ve made some staff changes that after careful consideration… we, you know, are looking at all of our team and asking, you know, where we need to go. Are we equipped to get there with our current staff in place? And by in large we are,” O’Mealy said. “I think we’ve got a really strong passionate staff of people who have one common goal and that’s for WNKU to be relevant and successful.”

O’Mealy added that he is unsure of the specific changes that will be happening. They are in an exploratory phase and currently doing research to get a big picture view of where they want to go in the next five years, he said.

“You know we’re beholden to two people, members and listeners, and we need to ask ourselves what it is that they want from us? Identify their core values and mirror who they are and how they live their lives,” O’Mealy said.

Listeners will be hearing more indie artists such as The Decemberists, Arcade Fire and The Shins he added. New artists including Father John Misty, Saint Motel and Borns will be heard as part of the station’s musical discovery approach.

O’Mealy feels the station hasn’t really explored the digital world and hopes to change that in the future as well. He is hoping to bring bands such as Wilco, Spoon or the War on Drugs to WNKU’s studio to perform, broadcast on air and then post the video on the station’s website.

WNKU will further their commitment to supporting local artists like Wussy, Heartless Bastards and Bad Veins.

“What WNKU has always been about and what we want WNKU to continue to be about for the next 30 years is we want to be the radio station that is about discovering music,” O’Mealy said. “It’s about musical discovery. That’s really where the focus is.”

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