Northern Kentucky University President Geoffrey Mearns says he will "explore the possibility of a sale of WNKU-FM and its assets" in light of "the very real prospect of significant funding cuts from the state."
WNKU-FM (89.7) began broadcasting in 1985. The station's adult album alternative ("Triple A") format has been simulcast since 2011 on two powerful Southwestern Ohio signals, Middletown's old WPFB-FM (105.9) and Portsmouth's old WPAY-FM (104.1).
The university bought the two stations, and Middletown's WPFB-AM (910), in 2011 for $6.75 million.
In an email Tuesday afternoon, Mearns said a suggestion made during recent budget forums on campus about "whether the university should continue to subsidize" WNKU-FM.
"After consultation with members of the Board of Regents, I have decided that the university should issue a request for proposal (RFP) for a broker to explore the possibility of a sale of WNKU-FM and its assets.
"I want to emphasize that this step is an exploratory one. No decision has been made regarding the future of WNKU," he wrote.
"This step is one that I do not make lightly. WNKU has been part of our university and our community for more than three decades. But in these challenging economic times, and as we face the very real prospect of significant funding cuts from the state, it is our responsibility to align our efforts with our core mission: the education of our students," he wrote.
WNKU-FM staffers heard the news at a meeting today, "and we’re working it through it. For now, it’s business as usual: We’ll remain on the air with our same commitment to great local music, and our operations will go on as normal," said Sean O'Mealy, general manager.
O'Mealy, hired in February last year, said the "decision is a result of the prospect of significant cuts to NKU’s state funding. The university has a responsibility to examine all activities in order to align its limited resources with its core mission: educating students."
Universities pulling the plug on radio to save money is nothing new. Georgetown College sold its full-power station to K-LOVE in 2003. Xavier University sold WVXU-FM to Cincinnati Public Radio in 2005. Cincinnati Public Radio has operated Miami University's WMUB-FM (88.5) since 2009.
The Middletown (WNKN-FM) and Portsmouth (WNKE-FM) commercial-band stations could be attractive to a broadcasting company. Middletown's 34,000-watt FM signal reaches more than 2.1 million people from Urbana and Piqua north of Dayton, to Northern Kentucky. It reaches many parts of downtown and Greater Cincinnati that WNKU-FM's signal from the Highland Heights campus doesn't serve.
The 100,000-watt Portsmouth FM signal serves 442,000 people from Clermont County, across southern Ohio, to Charleston and Huntington, W.Va.
After the WNKU-FM network was created, the station worked with many broadcasting, electronic media and marketing students. But a lot has changed in the five years since the expansion of WNKU-FM, which then-NKU President James C. Votruba said reflected "the value we, as an institution, place in this community treasure."
Votruba is no longer president, and Chuck Miller, who oversaw the expansion five years ago, is no longer WNKU-FM general manager. Since hired a year ago, O'Mealy has taken on the duties of sales manager.
In the past 13 months, program directors/music hosts Michael Grayson and John Patrick have left the station, along with news reporter Steve Hirschberg. Saturday morning host Brian O'Donnell retired because he "felt the winds of change approaching."