Middletown's FM 105.9 – the "Country Rebel" when bought by Northern Kentucky University in 2011 – returns to its country roots today as "Southwest Ohio's Classic Country Giant."
Jeff Ziesmann's Grant County Broadcasters, which operates Classic Country WNKR-FM (106.7) in Northern Kentucky, will duplicate the classic country music on the powerful Middletown station that reaches from north of Dayton International Airport to south of CVG. The station will start broadcasting sometime Monday, Oct. 2.
WNKR-FM DJs Larry B, Gina Matthews, Peter Z (Zolnowski), Tim Closson (former WUBE-FM operations director), Tomcat Michaels and Jay Anthony will do separate simultaneous shows with the same music for the I-75 corridor in Butler-Warren counties, and for the Covington-Dry Ridge I-75 corridor, Ziesmann says.
"It will be the biggest single format coverage of any Cincinnati (FM) station," Ziesmann says. "It will be a seamless ride up I-75 from Dry Ridge to Piqua. The two stations fit together like a glove."
NKU sold Middletown's WNKN-FM (old WPFB-FM) to Ziesmann in July for $4 million cash and $1.3 million in advertising time. The university ceased broadcasting on FM 105.9 at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 28.
In an industry dominated by large corporate chains, Ziesmann says "it's neat to be able to grow. These days it's rare to see an independent company growing."
In a far-ranging conversation last week, Ziesmann laid out his plan for Middletown's WNKN-FM (105.9):
FORMAT: Ziesmann will keep the WNKN call letters – a perfect fit with his WNKR in Dry Ridge -- but not WNKU-FM's Triple-A (Adult Album Alternative) format.
"We took a good look at keeping it Triple-A. But the niche appears to be too small, and it's too fragmented," he says. Four Greater Cincinnati stations have a Triple-A format: iHeartMedia's "The Project" (FM 100.7 and FM 106.3); Hubbard's "The Sound," a HD2 channel broadcast by WREW-FM (MIX 94.1); and XPoNential Radio from Philadelphia public radio WXPN-FM on WVXU-FM's HD2 channel.
LOCAL NEWS: "Southwest Ohio's Classic Country Giant" will be aimed at fast-growing Butler and Warren counties between Greater Cincinnati and Dayton. WNKN-FM will do local traffic, and Butler-Warren news from Michael Monks, a former WLW-AM reporter and WXIX-TV news producer who operates River City News covering Covington, Newport and other Northern Kentucky communities.
MUSIC HOSTS: Morning host Larry B has been heard on FM 105.9, as the afternoon guy on "The Rebel." Closson, former WUBE-FM program director (1990-2004), returns to local airwaves on weekends starting Oct. 7, while still working as an affiliate sales manager for Westwood One. Closson was inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame in June.
STUDIO: For now, WNKN-FM will broadcast from the Dry Ridge studios – 35 miles south of Covington -- while awaiting the Federal Communications Commission's possible changes on how close a studio must be to the tower. Ziesmann's did not buy the old Middletown WPFB farmhouse studios from the university.
A third studio was just added at WNKR-FM for the Middletown station. Ziesmann could eventually build a studio along the Butler-Warren I-75 corridor, or a centrally located joint studio in Greater Cincinnati. Dry Ridge "is not the most convenient situation," he says.
TARGET AUDIENCE: The "Classic Country Giant" is aimed at the Butler-Warren I-75 corridor, between Cincinnati's country WUBE-FM (B105) and Dayton's WHKO-FM (99.1). It's similar to his strategy for WNKR-FM in Dry Ridge, between B105 and Lexington's "The Bull" (98.1).
He should find a receptive audience for listeners and potential advertisers between Cincinnati and Dayton with WNKN-FM, which has been operated as a non-commercial station on a commercial frequency for six years. All the other commercial FM stations originally licensed to Butler and Warren counties have been converted into Greater Cincinnati stations: 97.3 (Lebanon), 103.5 and 96.5 (Hamilton) and 94.9 (Fairfield).
"We've run into a lot of people up there who can't wait to have a local station again. We're really looking forward to this," he says. "We're going to be a Southwestern Ohio radio station, not a Cincinnati or a Dayton station, just like we (WNKR-FM) are a Northern Kentucky radio station. We deliver a Northern Kentucky only audience to a Northern Kentucky only advertiser for a Northern Kentucky only price. We've made a nice living covering the communities between Cincinnati and Lexington."
SPORTS: It's too early to say if sports will return to the old WPFB-FM, which had broadcast high school and college sports over the year. "Sports is the last thing we'll pay attention to. I don't know if local high school sports belong on a signal that big," Ziesmann says.
The Dry Ridge station broadcasts University of Kentucky basketball and football.