NKU Rejects Louisville Bid To Retain WNKN-FM's AAA Music Format

May 3, 2017

Update 3:15 p.m. Thursday, May 4:  Northern Kentucky University has issued a revised comment today about the status of selling Middletown's WNKN-FM (105.9), which indicates the university is in serious talks with a prospective buyer.

“NKU is in the middle of an active process to sell WNKN-Middletown that is ongoing until the Board of Regents votes on it, which will be a matter of public record. Until that time, we will continue to entertain all proposals. Given these challenging economic times for public education, we will choose the best option that supports our mission of delivering an affordable, quality education that our students deserve," says Anna Wright, NKU public relations director.

That would explain why Louisville Public Media could have been told Monday that its bid for the Middletown commercial band station had been rejected without a vote by the NKU Board of Regents.

Original story posted 1 p.m. Wednesday, May 3:  Louisville Public Radio's bid to buy WNKN-FM (105.9), and preserve the adult album alternative (Triple-A) music format, has been rejected by Northern Kentucky University.Louisville Public Radio's bid to buy Middletown's WNKN-FM (105.9), and preserve the adult album alternative (Triple-A) music format, has been rejected by Northern Kentucky University.

Louisville station president Michael Skoler emailed WNKU-FM supporters Wednesday saying: "I'm sad to write that Northern Kentucky University regents have turned down our offer to acquire the assets and last remaining radio signal for the university's groundbreaking, but financially challenged, independent music station."

Skoler had offered $3.5 million in cash, plus $1.5 million in services, for the Middletown commercial-band station which reaches about 2 million people from downtown Cincinnati to north of Dayton. In February, NKU regents sold flagship WNKU-FM (89.7) and WNKE-FM in the Portsmouth area to religious broadcasters.

"We are deeply disappointed by Northern Kentucky University's decision and the likely loss of WNKU's roud tradition of serving the region’s music and cultural community. We offered a fiscally responsible way for the board to protect university resources and still preserve the important service it had created and nurtured for 32 years," he wrote.

Skoler told me in a phone conversation today that he learned Monday that NKU regents turned down the proposal. "We got no details about why they rejected it. We got no feedback."

NKU officials have not responded to my request for information about the rejected bid, and any other offers for the Middletown station.

5 p.m. update Wednesday May 3: Late Wednesday, NKU officials issued a statement that did not explain why Louisville's bid was rejected -- or even confirm or deny that it was rejected.

“NKU is in the middle of an active process to sell WNKN-Middletown, and the Board of Regents is pleased with the process. Our first obligation is to our students, and we will make the decision that best satisfies the financial responsibility we have to them.  The Board of Regents has not voted on this. When it does, the action will be a matter of public record,” said Anna Wright, NKU public relations director.

(Here's my guess  as to what the NKU statement means:  The university or its broker have settled on a  prospective buyer, and they're trying to work out details and seal the deal. That's my best guess.) 

A month before the "surprise sale" – his words – of WNKU-FM and WNKE-FM on Valentine's Day, Louisville Public Media came to Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati and "met with a number of musicians and a number of music promoters," Skoler told me.

The effort to preserve WNKU-FM's format was led by Stacy Owen, program director at Louisville Public Media's WFPK-FM. Owen is a former WNKU-FM music director and music host, and a NKU graduate.

Owen planned to "blend Louisville and Cincinnati music hosts who would be heard in both markets," Skoler said.  The simulcast in Louisville and Middletown would "promote music by local bands and sponsor hundreds of music events in the area to support the independent music scene as she has done in the Louisville area," he said.

WNKU-FM listeners and former WNKU-FM staffers urged the Louisville station to save the beloved music format, he said.

"We had a lot of people who were saying they'd like to help us," Skoler says. "There are a lot of people who love the station who reached out to us after the surprise sale of the original station. I was reassuring people, because I thought we had put together a pretty good offer."

On Feb. 14, NKU approved the sale of WNKU-FM to the Bible Broadcasting Corp., which broadcasts Bible teaching on about 50 stations nationwide, for $1.9 million cash; and the sale of WNKE-FM (formerly WPAY-FM) to the Educational Media Foundation, which broadcasts the contemporary Christian K-LOVE and Air-1 formats, for $700,000 cash.

Middletown's strong signal on the commercial band is expected to be sold at a much higher price.

WNKU-FM has been broadcasting to Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati since April 29, 1985. It will cease operation immediately when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approves the sale this spring or summer.

WNKN-FM and WNKE-FM were bought by the university in 2011 for $6.75 million to expand WNKU's audience and potential membership income.  NKU's has subsidized the operation of WNKU over the last six year with about $4.4 million, including $1.1 million last year, said NKU President Geoffrey S. Mearns in February.

Here's the full text of Skoler's email Wednesday:

To the friends of WNKU,

Many of you contacted us to ask if we could help save WNKU. I’m sad to write that Northern Kentucky University regents have turned down our offer to acquire the assets and last remaining radio signal for the university’s groundbreaking, but financially challenged, independent music station.

Louisville Public Media offered the university $5 million, with $3.5 million in cash and $1.5 million in services aimed at maintaining the academic mission of WNKU through on-campus music events, student learning opportunities and broadcasting internships. The deal included ten years of on-air promotion for the university in Cincinnati, Dayton and Louisville and would have purchased the 105.9 WNKN frequency.

We are deeply disappointed by Northern Kentucky University’s decision and the likely loss of WNKU’s proud tradition of serving the region’s music and cultural community. We offered a fiscally responsible way for the board to protect university resources and still preserve the important service it had created and nurtured for 32 years.

We know from our experience running 91.9 WFPK for central Kentucky and southern Indiana how critical it is to have a local station that serves, promotes, and anchors independent musicians and cultural organizations. WFPK’s program director Stacy Owen is a graduate of NKU and once served as music director and host at WNKU. She planned to employ local radio hosts in Cincinnati, promote music by local bands and sponsor hundreds of music events in the area to support the independent music scene as she has done in the Louisville area.

I was confident that Louisville Public Media’s expertise, back-office systems and programming experience would have allowed us to expand WNKU’s service. More than 8,700 WNKU fans signed a petition to save the station. Their support, along with support expressed by community businesses and cultural groups, would have enabled us to pay off the loan needed to acquire the station and run the station in the black.

We are proud of our community-supported stations 89.3 WFPL News, 90.5 WUOL Classical and 91.9 WFPK Independent, along with our growing reach in the region. Four years ago, we started the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, which shares its in-depth coverage with news outlets across the state. We participate in the Kentucky Public Radio Network, which included WNKU, and we manage the Ohio Valley ReSource, a collaboration of Kentucky stations, West Virginia Public Broadcasting and Athens, Ohio station WOUB.

Please know that we remain committed to using our airwaves and resources to connect people in the region through trusted independent news, music and cultural events. At a time when our country seems divided, we strive to remind people of all that we share.

Thank you for your support and being with us on this journey,

— Michael