Thanks WNKU, For All The Memories And Great Music

Sep 27, 2017

Before beloved WNKU-FM vanishes into thin air at 6 p.m. Thursday Sept. 28, here's another installment of remembrances from loyal listeners and former staffers.

WNKU-FM will play requests and listener comments all day Thursday on FM 105.9, which has been sold by the university to Grant County Broadcasters. A new station debuts Monday, Oct. 2.

The WNKU-FM studios were built in former classrooms in Landrum Hall.
Credit John Kiesewetter

You can read more oral histories at "WNKU Alum Share Their Favorite Memories Of FM 89.7"  from Stacy Owen, Craig Kopp, Brian O'Donnell, Pam Temple, Michael Grayson, Aaron Sharpe, Elaine Diehl, Liz Felix, Oakley Scot, Maryanne Zeleznik and Trisha Lutterbie in August.

BILL MUELLER, passionate fan who "will be completely lost" without WNKU-FM: I am a passionate supporter of WNKU-FM and am extremely saddened that it will be going off the air. They are such a unique presence in local radio. No other music station had the live music sessions and unique musical artists like they had,-and in recent years they started showcasing local musical talent.

I am one of the listeners that will be completely lost without them. Their playlist format was like no other music station in Cincinnati (as one of their older bumper stickers that I display in my work office says: "Rock n Roll, Indie, Soul, Blues… and More."   WNKU was the only music station that I listened to on local radio. I have a younger niece who feels exactly the same way I do- and we have been sharing our disappointment together recently. (Bill Mueller lives in Cincinnati.)

WNKU bumper sticker
Credit WNKU-FM

RICK PENDER, first WNKU-FM general manager: Our early days were fraught with delays — equipment and permits. But we were finally ready on April 29, 1985. Freshly hired Maryanne Zeleznik offered a farm report before 6 a.m. and we were off and running.

Landrum Hall
Credit John Kiesewetter

Everyone had to do a lot of different things because the staff was so small. I was part of a three-hour program called "The Weekend Show" that used anniversaries, birthdates and historical events to conjure up program segments. NKU Broadcasting Prof Dave Thomson was the emcee and we had a third partner (whose name I've lost track of), an elderly British gentleman with an extensive collection of recorded classical music and an encyclopedic recollection of interesting anecdotes. The show aired on Saturday afternoons and repeated on Sunday evening.

Our offices were all in one subdivided former classroom in Landrum Hall. The studio and music library across the hall were two more converted classrooms; it was tight but functional space. Lots of students dropped by to see what we were up to.

Our control board had a tendency to fritz out during thunderstorms. I had to learn how to open it up and reset it. No training in electronics, but I got the process down and occasionally had to do this emergency repair.  (Rick Pender is executive editor and publisher of Everthing Sondheim and CityBeat theater critic. He lives in Cincinnati.)

Maryanne Zeleznik
Credit WVXU-FM

MARYANNE ZELEZNIK, former news director and first voice heard on WNKU-FM (1985-2005): Yes, a farm report!  I interviewed extension agents. We were trying to get a "Kentucky" audience with lots of Bluegrass, Celtic and news, lots of news.  While the station is known now as a music station, at the time we were the only station in town with both "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." (WVXU had "ME" and WGUC had "ATC.")

I was told the goal was to cover Northern Kentucky, considered such a stepchild to Cincinnati. The Kentucky Post even worked with us, sharing its stories in advance of the paper coming out (people would drive their proofs to us and drop them off at the station and they didn't even ask us to give them attribution) although we frequently did.

I was told we were to cover all eight counties in Northern Kentucky and all the individual cities (dozens and dozens). Charles Compton was on board as a reporter, and the two of us were expected to cover all of that, and not even cover Cincinnati. We soon determined this was impossible.  Charlie and I divided up the three counties and three major cities. We gave what was at the time the Louisville Redbird scores rather than the Cincinnati Reds.  Since much of Kentucky was rural, we also did agricultural reports several times a day. If something MAJOR happened in Cincinnati -- I think there was a time when a police officer was shot -- we ignored it in favor of NKY news.

After a couple of years broadcasting this way on Kentucky Folk Radio, we did some listener research/focus groups and found we had as many listeners and members in Cincinnati, so we started incorporating some Cincinnati news into our coverage.  This was a hard sell with the university, but as GM Mick McClean said at the time we can't put up a wall and stop the radio waves from traveling across the river.  We also broadened the music from folky and bluegrass to more of what is now known as Triple A.

In the early days we had lots of talented news staffers. Stacy Owen (now program director at Louisville's WFPK and former WNKU music director) started in news as a student.  WLWT-TV's Lisa Cooney went on the air for the first time on WNKU.  Michael Leland (now news director at Iowa Public Radio) started at WNKU for two years then went to WLW and moved on to many other stations, including Michigan Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Radio, WBEZ and the VOA. He also was a fill-in news anchor for NPR. Charlie Compton left WNKU for Alaska, and has worked across the country, Including at the public station at Morehead and EKU. He's now in New York. Sarah Wittmeyer is the News Director at WFIU in Bloomington, IN.

In the early days, WNKU got confused as a student station. I was 23 when I was hired and when I went to government meetings, or just around the courthouses looking for news, I was always mistaken for a student.  We really had to work hard to explain what the station was, what we were trying to do and that we were professionally staffed. (Maryanne Zeleznik is news director for Cincinnati Public Radio.)

Meredith Granger
Credit Meredith Granger

MEREDITH GRANGER, first WNKU-FM program director (1984-1986):  When he was getting things started for WNKU-FM, General Manager Rick Pender had several broad ideas about what a new public station in the Cincinnati market might air. In the job advertisement that I answered, folk music was mentioned first, then classical. As we talked about how to proceed, classical was given less and less attention. But my demo cassette had folk music hosting on one side, and classical hosting on the other!

Coincidentally -- I wish I could say it was all part of my master plan -- each of the music staffers had a predilection for a different sub-genre of folk.  Ed McDonald had bluegrass and old-time covered, I couldn’t get enough Celtic, and there were one or two others who knew quite a lot about singer-songwriters or some other facet of the music. When I was building the music library before we went on the air, I phoned Green Linnet Records, a fairly prominent presence among labels that provided Celtic music. I told them which of their two LPs from the catalogue I did not want. After a moment of silence, the reply was: "You want all the rest??"  Yep. "You will have the biggest collection of Green Linnet Records at any radio station!"  Works for me!  A pleasant memory.

The station ran every available syndicated folk music program there was, which I believe had to make us unique in the country at the time, or possibly any time…

There was a bit of music to go along with the Morning Edition segments in earliest days.  I chose “Your Saddle Is Empty” by the Dry Branch Fire Squad as the station’s first musical selection aired – not a choice I would make again. After the first few moments, we went to our respective offices and managed to stay awake for the rest of the long day. Later, we sort of adopted Cathy Fink’s rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” as the closest thing we had for an official station song.

There was a Sunday afternoon Cincinnati St. Patrick’s Day Parade in which WNKU decided to participate. We were the WNKU Marching Band, and carried boom boxes tuned to the station. Ed McDonald selflessly forwent his customary Sunday Afternoon Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Radio Show (its real name) and ran Irish music. I thought it was a stupid idea.  I returned from the parade a convert, and declared that we should never not do that again!

Everybody loved Ed McDonald.  He was the first person I ever hired.  He is the former WNKU music staffer who in his professional life has stuck with the station’s original music format.  He is the long-time host of Sidetracks on West Virginia Public Radio and this year, through untold hours of effort, launched Mountain Streams Radio, WKYW, a low power FM licensed to the Mineral County (WV) Historical Society.

I heard someone named Colin Cordy hosting folk music on WAIF-FM.  He might have been the only person I ever contacted about a job who hadn’t applied first.  I asked if he might be interested in part-time at WNKU, and I believe he appeared in my office about a half-minute later. In addition to being professional and knowledgeable, he was always friendly and conscientious… I’m glad he went on to full-time at WNKU and eventually became program director.  Colin put in a lot of time and effort there.

Maryanne, reporter Charlie Compton, Stacy Owen, and others have gone on to fine careers in their respective specialties in public radio.  Good for them.  Except for Ed McDonald, I don’t know as any of us has ever been around at the launch of a new station, before or since.  It was once-in-a-lifetime for me. (Meredith L. Granger lives in Indianapolis.)

Ed McDonald
Credit Mineral Daily News Tribune

ED McDONALD, original producer and music host (1985-1988):  Like many, I am saddened to think that the station is going away. However, unlike most people who think of it as the market's AAA station, I recall WNKU in its original incarnation as "Kentucky Folk Radio."

I was part of the original staff when the station went on the air in April, 1985.  Rick Pender was general manager; Maryanne Zeleznik was news director with reporter Charlie Compton; Meredith Granger was program director; and Sheila Rue (who arrived some while after the original launch of the station) and I were producer/announcers.  Meredith, Sheila, and I were the music hosts who filled the time between Morning Edition and All Things Considered.  We aired ATC at 6:30 p.m., and I hosted the late afternoon shift beginning at 3 p.m.

Unlike other public radio stations of the time whose music staples were largely classical and jazz, we had no folk music stations to serve as models.  We played from a library of LP's from small labels and independent artists that included bluegrass and old-time string bands, singer/songwriters, Celtic and British Isles folk, blues, Cajun, and some of the so-called folk music icons of the 1960s.  Although each of us was expected to play selections from all of these musical categories, we had no mandated or predetermined play list. Thus, each announcer's show was very much a reflection of his/her own tastes and interests within the larger folk genre, and I am sure we learned from one another.  Although I came to the job with a basic knowledge of and love for the music, working at WNKU broadened my musical horizons and introduced me to many more regional and national artists who were making great music at the time.

Landrum Hall's third floor in August.
Credit John Kiesewetter

Having relocated to Northern Kentucky from West Virginia, I was sort of the "resident hillbilly," with a particular passion for bluegrass and old-time Appalachian music.  In fact, I hosted a five-hour Sunday afternoon show which--for want of a better name--was known simply as the "Sunday Afternoon Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Radio Show."  After I left the station and returned home (as many West Virginians do), the show evolved into Katie Laur's long-standing program, "Music from the Hills of Home."

Our sound may not always have been slick or consistent, but all of us were enthusiastic and excited about the notion of starting a station with a new and different type of music format.  The primary focus of our news programming was Northern Kentucky, but folks across the river enjoyed our music as well, and there was often frustration with the fact that our directional signal could not be heard well in certain parts of the city.  Nevertheless, we developed a loyal following of listeners and volunteers.

To the best of my knowledge, I am the only member of that original staff who has continued to present folk music on the radio.  For many years I have produced and hosted a weekly syndicated folk music show, broadcast statewide on the West Virginia Public Radio network. I am now 67 years old and live in my home town of Keyser, WV. With the support of our local historical society, I recently started a new low power FM (LPFM) station, WKYW-LP, AKA "Mountain Streams Radio." 

Much like the original WNKU, our format is a broad mix of folk and acoustic music, with an emphasis on musicians from West Virginia and the Appalachian region.

If I had not spent nearly four years at WNKU, I would not be doing what I do today, and I am grateful to Rick and Meredith for giving me an opportunity to be part of that "grand experiment" that was Kentucky Folk Radio. Perhaps as one radio station slips away, another is born to take its place. (Ed McDonald is station manager of WKYW-LP, Mountain Streams Radio, in Keyser, WV.)

In 2011, WNKU-FM (89.7) added simulcasts on Middletown's 105.9 and Portsmouth's 104.1.
Credit WNKU.org

GAYLE NAFTZGER, Long-time listener from Batavia: Boy, am I ever going to miss this station and its DJs. What a bunch of wonderful music geeks and pioneers, playing dusty classics, current local stuff, roots to bluegrass, jazz and the Dead. Who does that?? Saturday's were perfect, total joy. I learned a lot of back story from Jason Wilber & Little Steven, listened all the way through to the Golden Road.

I grew up in Huntington WVA and clearly remember the twangy, foggy mountain music coming through when we couldn't get WLS-AM in Chicago. Tuning into Katie & Wayne on Sundays just topped off my weekend…

I applaud and thank WNKU for holding on so long to this wonderful, money pit of a station. I wish we could have done more to save it. I admit they kind of lost me in the last couple of years, and soon they'll be lost forever.  (Gayle Naftzger lives in Batavia.)

Cheri Lawson
Credit Cheri Lawson

CHERI LAWSON, WNKU news reporter (2009-2016):  Developing an innovative approach to the community stories was fun and a good memory. The Greater Cincinnati community is full of passionate people with really interesting stories to tell. Not to mention great events. Each story was about 2 minutes long mixed with music.

One story that felt important to tell was with Lindsey Deaton. Lindsey is a wife, father, daughter, sister. She's Founder and Artistic Director at Trans Chorus of LA. Then she was Director of Diverse City Youth Chorus in Cincinnati. Her 2 minutes on tape was a Father's Day piece. So moving.

The 2015 MLB All-Star game in Cincinnati was a blast to cover, especially the Home Run Derby when Todd Frazier won. Baseball fans I talked with from around the country said they had never experienced the excitement and enthusiasm for a baseball team the way. They felt it in Cincinnati. It was really electric!

Musicians opened their hearts and souls in stories, and shared their music with me, everyone from Emily Saliers to Jeremy Pinnell. And hearing Jim Tarbell talking back in the day of Ludlow Garage.

Thanks for helping me remember some incredible people and events, and the music. I'm in tears now, thinking about being at Lauren Hill's last basketball game and afterwards we were able to talk with her. And out of my mouth came: "What's next for Lauren Hill?" And as soon as I said it I thought, Oh no! How insensitive. And she looked at me and said. "What do you mean? I will go home now and just rest." But it turns out her legacy lives on. She went on to inspire millions and still does…

I must note the sincerity of the listeners who really believed in WNKU. One fund-raiser, I was floored we got a pledge from someone I happened to know years ago, who listened and realized we knew each other and made an extremely generous pledge.  But it wasn't about me or him. It was about family and how I think our core audience felt. We knew them and they knew us. And anything they could do to help, they did. (Cheri Lawson hosts "All Things Considered" at WEKU-FM in Richmond, Ky.)

DJ's blacked out Portsmouth's WNKE-FM in August after it was sold to K-LOVE.
Credit John Kiesewetter

STEVE HEGGE, listener since 1998: My earliest memory is seeing a WNKU coffee mug in my parents' kitchen. This would have been late 80's/early 90's, when I was in college. Apparently they made a donation and got ye old coffee mug in return. I vaguely recall the station being on in the kitchen now and then, but I wasn't too interested at the time.

Fast forward to June 1998 when I moved back to NKY. I was drawn to the AAA format and became a member. WNKU has been a constant companion for years - at home, at work, and in the car. On one occasion around 2002-03, I won a "CD grab bag" which contained Chuck Prophet's "No Other Love" CD. I wasn't familiar with Chuck until then, but I really liked the CD - still do. I've now seen him several times over the years at the old and new Southgate House. He's just one example of a musical artist that WNKU introduced me to.

I'm disappointed that NKU chose to sell WNKU period, but selling to a Christian broadcaster based in NC when there are already numerous Christian stations on the airwaves makes no sense to me… Sad and short-sighted: I don't think the powers that be at NKU realized the depth and breadth of WNKU's influence in Greater Cincinnati. (Steve Hegge of Fort Mitchell works in University of Cincinnati Office of Research.)

PAMELA DUNCAN, loyal listener:  So sad to lose WNKU. Their AAA format is scarce; one of the last in the area on terrestrial radio and will be missed terribly!

I listen in the car, while working out, at home and work. It was obvious the WNKU on-air personalities loved their jobs as they shared this fabulous music and educated their fans. Sad for those folks too; some employed as long as 30+ years. Their consistency on-air after news of the sale has been amazing, never missing a beat; just biding their time until the end.

Sign on Landrum Hall elevator door.
Credit John Kiesewetter

My favorite show was the 80's Mix-Tape with Sledge on Fridays. It stirred up quite a few memories! I will miss ALL the fabulous music, some even from my own backyard, that I would not have heard otherwise. WNKU's presence all summer on FM 105.9 and online, after news of the sale on Valentine's Day (of FM 89.7), has been a bonus. WNKU is the only station I could listen to and NEVER had to change the channel!  (Pamela Duncan lives in Kettering. )

MATT SLEDGE, weekend music host (2015-2017): I can remember the date: August 14th, 2015. It had been over a decade since I had a "real" radio job, and I'd pretty much given up hope of getting another one. I'm in bed early because I have to work my full-time "boring" job the next day, and I get a Facebook alert from John Patrick at WNKU. The message said, "Hey man, when can you come work for us? We could sure use you."

Pam Temple
Credit Pam Temple

I almost thought it was a prank.  Soon I was off and running on a part-time basis with WNKU. I met the gig with trepidation at first - I had never done public radio before. How would the staff receive me? (They were, and still are AWESOME) Would I say something that wasn't within the guidelines of public radio? (I did, but that was the learning curve!) My first "training session" was with Pam Temple on the evening shift. After I did my first on-air break she just looks at me and says, "Well, I won't need to worry about you, you've got it down already."

The next two years were filled with music, happiness, music, sorrow, music, anger, music, disbelief and more music. I got to interview some cool bands for Studio 89.I got to see more bands via our involvement with Midpoint and Bunbury, and I got to reconnect with old 97X listeners that came over to WNKU. Plus, I had a new 'radio family' with my WNKU coworkers. Like I said earlier, they're awesome.

If you had told me before I started there that WNKU would be sold, I would've thought you were joking. I'm extremely disappointed (to put it mildly) it had to end with the sale, but that's life. You take the punches and move on. Would I trade a second of it? Absolutely not. I will however, miss being behind that mic again. We shall see what the future holds.

As for the legacy of WNKU, it's actually similar to 97X - both were heavily involved in the community, supported local music, and truly cared about their listeners. WNKU will be missed very, very much.  (Matt Sledge Waller was a DJ at WOXY-FM. He lives in Moscow, Ohio.)

Matt Sorrell
Credit Matt Sorrell

MATT SORRELL, former summer intern: In April of 1992, I was looking for an intern position in radio. I was still in the 9th grade, but that didn’t matter at all. I wanted it so bad I could taste it! Low and behold, I knew someone who worked at WNKU in the office by the name of Leva Kidd. So on a Thursday morning in April, Mom and I headed to Landrum Hall, where I talked to the folks at the station, who accepted me.

I hitched a ride with my cousin, who was going to School to get her teaching degree at that time, so transportation was taken care of.

I’m totally blind, and some of the equipment had been adapted before I got there. I worked strictly in production, under Stacy Owen. I worked from about 8:30 a.m. til noon on Fridays. As I recall, I worked on putting short segments on-air taking them from reel-to-reel onto carts. Stacy was always so helpful, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I just want to say thanks to Stacy, Leva and countless others at WNKU who helped me that summer. I’ve never forgotten the time I spent. (Matthew Sorrell is a Falmouth KY 911 dispatcher and voice-over announcer who operates an internet radio station for Pendleton County at   pcroradio.com. He's also the voice for the Kentucky Wool Fest.)

Framed Peter Frampton autograph in WNKU-FM lobby.
Credit John Kiesewetter

CLAYTON CASTLE, student marketing staffer (2012-14): I worked at WNKU from 2012-2014 while I was a student at NKU. I worked in marketing, side-by-side with Aaron Sharpe. When I started working there, I didn't know what to expect. I wasn't a huge music person and was just looking for a job in the media business. But my time at WNKU changed my life.

WNKU is one of those rare gems that not a lot of people know about it. As a 20-year-old kid at the time, I was learning more from the people and the music at WNKU than in my classes at NKU. What listeners hear is music that is unknown to most. Whether it was introducing Walk The Moon to the world or playing the classics like The Beatles, WNKU always provided something new and innovating to the airwaves.

What the listeners didn't hear over the air was the amazing camaraderie between the staff. I would assist Elaine Diehl with the "Friday Morning Request Show" and she ended up being a mentor in music, media, and life. My favorite times at WNKU were the laughs I'd have with John Patrick in the music library or catching up with Teresa McQueen in the office.  The people of WNKU and the amazing members made my time memorable at WNKU. And I will always hold those memories near and dear to my heart. (Clayton Castle, a Walnut Hills High School and NKU grad, lives in Brainerd, Minn., and works as a sports/news reporter for KAWE-TV Lakeland News.)

Bill Thompson
Credit Bill Thompson

BILL THOMPSON, writer for WNKU.org in 2012: After I retired from the Enquirer in 2012, then-WNKU general manager Chuck Miller gave me the opportunity to write stories for the station's website. This was a dream gig for me.

When musicians came through town, many of them would stop in to promote their shows, and I met some of my favorites: Dave Alvin, Jason Isbell, Tift Merritt, Buddy Miller, the Indigo Girls, Derek Trucks and many more come to mind. They were fans of the station, too, just like their audience.

WNKU-FM was more than a destination on the dial, it was where people who loved rock 'n' roll, folk, Americana, alt-country – roots music – could congregate, at concerts, station-sponsored events or online with like-minded folks. It was the Golden Age of Radio for what I believe is the Golden Age of Music.  (Bill Thompson of Cincinnati writes music stories for the Enquirer and is co-host of "Blue Snakes & Banjos" on WAIF-FM 88.3 Wednesdays 6-8 p.m.)

B J. BILLOTTE, long-time listener: I have to say, this radio station truly is the best station I have ever listened to. We moved here nine years ago. I came across it by accident and I have NOT changed the dial since. We have donated to keep ya.

I will miss rolling myself out of bed straight to my radio and tune in. You start and end my days. Now who do we all tune in to? Any suggestions?

THANK YOU WNKU FOR 33 YEARS!!!

WNKU staff photo after 2016 fall fund drive.
Credit WNKU-FM