WNKU Alum Share Their Favorite Memories Of FM 89.7

Aug 17, 2017

WNKU-FM won't be making a big deal about losing its original frequency (FM 89.7) at 8:59 a.m. Friday late Friday night, since the beloved station still will be heard until late October on Middletown's powerful WNKN-FM (105.9) and streaming.

But I will.... since "it's the beginning of the end," as I wrote earlier this week.

Entrance to WNKU-FM studios
Credit John Kiesewetter

So before the Bible Broadcasting Corp. takes over the signal Saturday, I've asked former staffers and some long-time listeners to share their favorite stories about WNKU-FM.

The Northern Kentucky University station's broadcasts from Landrum Hall touched a lot of lives in 32 years, and leaves lots of memories.

The station pioneered the Adult Album Alternative (Triple-A) format that boosted the careers of Walk The Moon, Afghan Wigs, Over the Rhine and dozens of other local bands. The Blind Boys of Alabama, Judy Collins, the Indio Girls, Los Lonely Boys, Ruthie Foster, Tim O’Brien and Aoife O’Donovan and many other national artists came to the tiny station on the NKU campus. The walls can't talk, but I'm glad these people did:

Maryanne Zeleznik
Credit WVXU-FM

MARYANNE ZELEZNIK, former news director and first voice heard on WNKU-FM (1985-2005): I remember when I started, two weeks before the station went on the air.  The classrooms, which were to be converted into our air and production studios, were completely empty.  EMPTY! 

I was concerned, but told not to worry because one week before air, a crew was to be in to set things up.  They got there and worked day and night (literally) to get the job done.  They were there the morning of April 29th, 1985 at 5:30 a.m. when we signed on. 

Things worked pretty well, I pushed the button, the transmitter came up, and we were off and running.  Two days later, lightning struck.  It went through the board burning out some circuits. I called my new friend Andy, who was in charge of all the construction work, and he talked me through moving and replacing circuit boards. That was a first for me!

I also remember the strong camaraderie of the first staff members especially Ed McDonald, Sheila Rue, Stacy Owen, Rick Pender, Charlie Compton and others. Our first (official) fund drive on our one year anniversary brought in $10,000, and we were ecstatic. People were listening AND willing to give money!

WNKU is the station where I first reported nationally for NPR, where I met my husband, and made lifelong friends.  I spent 20 years there.  Hard to believe it will be going away.  (Zeleznik is news director for Cincinnati Public Radio.)

Sign on elevator doors in Landrum Hall
Credit John Kiesewetter

STACY OWEN, former music host and program director who helped create the format (1988-99): WNKU was a pioneer in the format before it was given a name! The first industry Triple-A radio conference was held in 1993 in Boulder CO, and I attended to represent WNKU.

My favorite memories revolve around the community we built around the station, and the energy and passion we had as a team breaking new ground in public radio. There were a number of naysayers who thought a format of popular music wouldn't work, but there was a huge need for under-served, yet very talented, artists who never got any radio play. Triple-A became the format for adventurous music lovers who weren't just happy listening to the same songs they loved in high school.

Before we adopted the Triple-A format, I worked with the man who became my mentor, Ed McDonald. He taught me so much about production and how to really listen when conducting an interview. Also, how to be myself on air. Ed is blind so this gave me a unique perspective early in my career. I learned valuable lessons from him that have carried me throughout my career.

I also worked in the news department under Maryanne Zeleznik when I was an intern. That lady will whip you into shape! I was gathering some sound for a news story she was going to air in her newscast. I didn't have it ready before she began the broadcast, so when I came into the studio she told me to sit at the guest mic and introduce the piece myself. That was my first time live on-air. I was sweating buckets...

I'm feeling pretty heart-broken about "the beginning of the end" and if I think about it too much I won't be able to hold back the tears. (Stacy Owen is program director for WFPK-FM, Louisville Public Media's Triple-A station.)

Michael Grayson
Credit Michael Grayson

MICHAEL GRAYSON, former music host and program director (2000-2015): I first played Walk the Moon on WNKU when my daughters introduced the music to me. I sent a copy of the first CD to David Dye at "World Café." along with a personal endorsement…

Right after we played them, I received a very nice email from Nick (WTM lead singer) thanking us for playing their music. We pinned it to the board in the air studio so we could say we knew them when, I guess. We were able to share the music of many local and lesser known national artists whose work deserved to be heard by a larger audience.

The greatest satisfaction for me came from their appreciation for the opportunity to share their art. I don't think they realized that they were doing us a favor, not the other way around. (Grayson operates Attic Art Glass in Cincinnati.)

Aaron Sharpe (center) with WNKU-FM staff after 2016 fund drive.
Credit Aaron Sharpe

AARON SHARPE, interim general manager and marketing/development director (1999-present):

We were the first station to play Walk The Moon. I can remember, Michael Grayson sent something to World Café, when they first came by with their demo. I booked them for a Tunes & Blooms at the Cincinnati Zoo a few weeks after they came by. I thought they had potential, and I was booking Tunes & Blooms, the spring music series.

You can look at Tunes & Blooms two different ways – before Walk The Moon and after Walk The Moon. Now it's a 3,000- to-5,000-person event every Thursday in April.  Before it was a 500-people event. And I know we paid $500 for Walk The Moon to play it. It was just as things were starting to happen for them.

Brian O'Donnell
Credit WGUC-FM

BRIAN O'DONNELL, former Saturday morning host who left in 2016:  I spent 20 years at WNKU and cherished going to work there on Saturday mornings. My most memorable times were playing and promoting music my friends in Cincinnati created.

Oh, and also, one Saturday morning Judy Collins was scheduled to stop by. I was thrilled and looking forward to maybe 10, 15 minutes with her. We hit it off from the start and she stayed with me on the air for nearly two hours ! (Brian O'Donnell hosts mornings on classical WGUC-FM 90.9)

PAM TEMPLE, evening music host and former "Front Porch" host for 19 years:  The loss of WNKU feels like grieving the slow, agonizing death of a close friend. I write this a day before our final broadcast on the 89.7FM frequency – the “Mother Ship”, where I started, where I was a member and listener first, where I first heard my own band’s music on the radio, where so much of my education and music discovery took place. MY radio station.

Pam Temple
Credit Pam Temple

I’ve been hosting shows on 89.7 for almost 19 years, and hosted the "Front Porch" for 16 of those years.  I hosted 13 seasons of "Studio 89," our live concert/interview series with live audiences. Now I wish I had kept a diary of it all – dates and times and songs and laughs.  So many vivid memories, from meeting  and talking with some of my favorite songwriters and artists, to hanging with Los Lonely Boys at Sudsy’s after our interview and RIGHT before they broke (through to national prominence), to singing on stage with Ellis Paul, both of us reading lyrics off his iPhone. I got a quasi-marriage proposal from one of the Blind Boys of Alabama as I helped him before their amazingly energetic, WNKU-members-only show at Greaves Hall on campus.

Meeting the listeners at shows or events around town and feeling the gratitude…Wow!…This station has held deep personal meaning for so many, has been a source of comfort and discovery, has been there at the foundation of musical careers, and has been an essential part of our community at large in so many ways. 

It’s hard to believe we won’t have it anymore.  I’m still getting my mind around what that will be like.  It really is just a tragedy, plain and simple. (heavy sigh) But, for the time being anyway, we can all still listen and gather together daily at 105.9 FM, and at wnku.org from anywhere or any time you might need a familiar voice and the music.

Craig Kopp at WMNF-FM in Tampa.
Credit Craig Kopp

CRAIG KOPP, former morning host (2008-2011):  I loved every minute on the air there from when I started in November of 2008 until I left in June of 2011.  Such great people -- Aaron Sharpe, Michael Grayson, John Patrick, Steve Hirschberg and Pam Temple-- were so welcoming to me, a fugitive from commercial radio who really needed a chance to prove himself in this non-profit radio world. They took such great care in how they raised money, how they performed on the air, and how they chose the music. It reinvigorated my radio chops and my love of the medium in way that I can never really thank them for.

I can't forget Gary Keegan, either. When he came on board he reminded me every day how lucky we were to be there, on the radio, playing that great music. I will always remember the warm feeling I got sitting in that comfortable studio will all the musician posters on the walls. It was a radio warm blanket -- just the way WNKU sounded when it came out of the speakers at home or in the car. 

One of the stories I always tell about my WNKU days was having the Indigo Girls come in for a live interview and having them play. Yeah, it went over the radio, but it was just them and me in that studio and I swear I could barely talk when they finished playing. It was that overwhelming to have the Indigo Girls singing and playing just a few feet away from me.

So many cool people came through those studio doors just in the time I was there. They came to Greater Cincinnati because WNKU played their music. The place was a huge cultural influence on the area. There's no recovering from that loss. I will always count it as a privilege to have had a chance to be a small part of it.  (Craig Kopp is general manager at WMNF-FM in Tampa, Fla.)

Elaine Diehl
Credit WGUC-FM

ELAINE DIEHL, morning host 2011-2016:  I got the regular morning air shift in 2011 when Craig Kopp moved to Florida.  I loved all of the live music we brought through.

I got to sit across the desk from Jason Isbell, Ruthie Foster, Tim O’Brien, Bootsy Collins, Aoife O’Donovan and Matisyahu as they sang and chatted live on the air. I loved our "Friday Morning Request Show." Our listeners had great taste.  I loved our involvement with the community and our bare-bones, no-frills approach to great radio.

I have had friends whose kids were interested in broadcasting ask me about talking to their sons or daughters, allowing them to visit WNKU, learn about it and while I always welcomed them, I told them, truthfully, that there would probably not be an opportunity like WNKU for them in the future – a place where intelligent, thoughtful hosts are appreciated and the listeners are part of the journey.  I’m sad that I was right about that.  (Elaine Diehl is afternoon drive host on classical WGUC-FM 90.9.)

Liz Felix in the WNKU-FM studio
Credit John Kiesewetter

LIZ FELIX, assistant program director and program director (2015-present): The local music has been a huge deal for me. I came here 2-1/2 years ago and was just blown away by the amount of talent in this market.  The music scene is here in incredible.

I remember being in the production studio when we were thinking about the pledge drive, in 2015, and what are we going to do to make a big splash , and we decided to start playing local bands every hour. We were already playing local music, but it was kind of random, and it wasn't talked about….

It was scary at first, because the baseline standard of this stuff needed to be on the same level of the national acts that we're playing. It turns out there was more than enough stuff! We play 16 songs an hour, and we have one spot an hour for a local band.  One an hour for local bands is unheard of in this business.

WNKU-FM station identification card read by music hosts -- minus the Portsmouth FM station and Middletown AM station.
Credit John Kiesewetter

OAKLEY SCOT, co-hosted Katie Laur's "Music From The Hills Of Home" 2014-17:  Katie Laur launched "Music From The Hills Of Home" in 1989 when WNKU was just four years old. I served the final three years of the show.

When a guy with no experience finds himself behind a radio microphone talking to countless listeners, it’s kind of daunting. When that same fella finds himself speaking on behalf of a station dear to his heart, it’s downright terrifying. Throw in a living legend sitting across the table and one just might collapse under the weight of the responsibility.

But the listeners buoy and encourage you. It’s like being a curator and, if you do your homework and provide some meaningful context to the music, the folks tuning in will share their affection for you.

My favorite memories are twofold — one show-related, the other not.

Number one was the depth of our audience’s appreciation of music and affection for the station. Whenever I sat in for other hosts — Mr. Rhythm Man’s R&B & soul, Pam Temple’s "Front Porch" folk or even weeknights playing new music — listeners would call to mention that they never miss Katie’s show.

Katie Laur
Credit File

My other favorite memory was "Driving Miss Katie," as we call it. I would pick her up on my way to the studio and drive her home after the show.

Often a song would come up in conversation and, in talking about it, Katie would casually start singing the piece. I have always had a thing about lyrics, but Katie’ll be the first to admit she’s not so much a lyrics person.  She’s more about the melody.

I’m no singer, but I can carry a tune. When Katie would forget a lyric, I would pick up and sing the next line. Finding her feet, she would continue, sometimes breaking off to sing harmony with me carrying the melody.

There were nights we argued over elements of the show and once, while telling me how much she appreciated my help, she said, "That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes want to hit you over the head with a tire iron."

But, each Sunday, as we drove across the river from Kentucky to home, I'd find myself singing – "Memphis in June" or "The Very Thought of You" or some old Larry Sparks tune -- with this madwoman whom I've admired since long before I knew her as a friend. That was kindly magical. (Oakley Scot does weekend announcing on WVXU-FM 91.7)

Framed Peter Frampton autograph in WNKU offices.
Credit John Kiesewetter

TRISHA LUTTERBIE, loyal listener since 1985: I would have to say some of my favorite memories are the hundreds of Sunday nights with Katie and Wayne Clyburn. Life just doesn't get much better than that! The Sunday night memories along with the great music put out there by Sledge, Aaron, Pam, Liz and crew will live in my heart forever.

And the concert /live music information has gotten me to many venues and concerts that I like to remember fondly as tied to WNKU. Thanks y'all! Gonna miss you tons and tons and tons. (Trisha Lutterbie lives in Fairfield teaches math at Fairfield High School.)

SEND ME YOUR FAVORITE WNKU MEMORIES

What's your favorite memories of WNKU-FM? Email them to me at johnkiese@yahoo.com. I'm compiling remembrances for another blog before the station vanishes into thin air in October.