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NKU Sells 2 FM Stations To Religious Broadcasters

WNKU-FM's unique adult album alternative format will be replaced by religious programming later this year after the Northern Kentucky University Board of Regents Tuesday voted unanimously to sell two of the school's three FM stations: 

- The Bible Broadcasting Corp., which owns about 50 stations nationwide, will pay $1.9 million in cash for WNKU-FM, which has been broadcasting to Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati since April 29, 1985. The sale doesn't include the call letters, staff, or studio equipment on the Highland Heights campus.

Credit Ann Thompson
Board chair Rich Boehne and NKU President Geoffrey Mearns at Tuesday's regents meeting.

- The Educational Media Foundation, which broadcasts the contemporary Christian K-LOVE and Air-1 formats, will pay $700,000 cash for WNKE-FM (formerly WPAY-FM) in the Portsmouth/New Boston area, and share profits from EMF selling WEKV-FM in nearby South Webster, Ohio.

If the Federal Communications Commission approves the sale, "WNKU will cease to broadcast," said NKU President Geoffrey S. Mearns Tuesday. "While the sales are pending with the FCC, our HR staff will work closely with the employees who are directly affected by this decision on a transition plan, including severance."

The Portsmouth station – and Middletown's  WNKN-FM (formerly WPFB-FM), which will be sold after tower and transmitter repairs, and WPFB-AM – were purchased in 2011 for $6.75 million to expand WNKU's audience and potential membership income. NKU sold the AM station to Sacred Heart Radio last year for $450,000. 

Mearns said Tuesday that the university's subsidy to operate WNKU over the last six years totaled approximately $4.4 million, including $1.1 million last year.

It's expected that revenue from the sale of WNKU-FM, WNKE-FM and anticipated future sale of WNKN-FM would pay off the $5.1 million debt NKU is carrying from the 2011 purchase, according to a presentation at the regents' meeting.

Tuesday's decision came 10 months after Mearns announced the university would "explore  the possibility of a sale of WNKU-FM and its assets," and three weeks after Ball State University announced that Mearns would become its president later this year.

Credit Ann Thompson
Acting Station Manager Aaron Sharpe addresses the board Tuesday.

“It’s painful to let go of something that has reflected so well our deep commitment to this region," said board chair Rich Boehne Tuesday. "Hearing those call letters, the voices and, of course, that music has helped weave the NKU brand into the fabric of our core geographic market." 

But changes in media technology and consumption, and the impact of "highly efficient social media alone greatly out-weighs the benefit of a substantial ongoing financial investment in radio," Boehne said.

"Much on our campus and in higher education has changed over the past 30 years," Boehne said. "In these challenging economic times, we must continue to direct our resources to support our core mission: the education of our students." 

Aaron Sharpe, acting WNKU-FM general manager, said he was "disappointed" in the sale, and criticized the administration for not doing more to benefit the station's loyal listeners.

"I think more could have been done to explore better options for the sale," Sharpe told WVXU-FM reporters after the meeting. "I understand the university's position financially, and the focus on students….(but) I do feel more could have been done to explore opportunities that would have been good for the university, as well as for the community, and our listeners, and our members."

Universities giving up their radio stations – particularly to religious broadcasters – to save money is not a new trend.

Georgetown College sold its full-power station to EMF for K-LOVE in 2003. Cincinnati Public Radio bought Xavier University's WVXU-FM in 2005, and has operated Miami University's WMUB-FM since 2009 . Cedarville University east of Xenia sold its station in 2011 to EMF.

Full disclosure: When NKU first indicated it was considering options for WNKU-FM, Cincinnati Public Radio contacted the administration to say it was willing to discuss the possibility of entering into a Local Management Agreement to operate the station, such as CPR has with Miami University for WMUB-FM.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.
John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.