Each of the three stations comprising Cincinnati Public Radio celebrates a milestone anniversary this year. WMUB (founded at Miami University) went on the air in 1950, and WGUC (launched by the University of Cincinnati) debuted in 1960, both predating National Public Radio; WVXU (originated at Xavier University) followed in 1970. Tune in today, and you’ll find organized, cohesive programming: WMUB is a repeater station of WVXU, an NPR news affiliate, while WGUC is all classical music all the time.
Before Cincinnati Public Radio came into existence, though, the stations were wildly divergent. A turn of the dial could yield anything from Car Talk on WGUC to polka on WVXU. Then WGUC formed the Cincinnati Classical Public Radio nonprofit in 1994 and purchased WVXU in 2005.
“The strategic plan we devised with the board was that we’d like to, if the situation ever developed, operate two independent, distinct broadcast services to cover the city of Cincinnati,” says Richard Eiswerth, the organization’s president and general manager since 1998. “One would allow WGUC to return to its roots as a full-time fine arts station, and the other would address the responsibility we felt we had to news and information. It was quite by coincidence that Xavier called us.”
Xavier University worked with brokers to secure a new owner for 91.7 FM. National religious broadcasters came forward, but the local proposal won out. Car Talk and All Things Considered moved up the dial to WVXU, and the umbrella organization became simply Cincinnati Public Radio. In 2009, it assumed operational costs and programming duties for WMUB, while Miami continues to hold the license.
Today’s WVXU consists largely of NPR programming from across the nation and the world, but the people behind the station are uniquely Cincinnati. The voices greeting listeners every day are household favorites, none more so than Morning Edition host and longtime news director Maryanne Zeleznik. A graduate of Miami University, she worked at WMUB as a student and joined WVXU after 20 years with the former public station WNKU. Every morning from 5 to 10 a.m., Zeleznik greets listeners, filling them in on the news of the day. She’s acutely aware of the intimacy of her job. “It’s a very personal medium,” she says. “They let you into their homes and their showers and their bedrooms and while they’re eating breakfast, and you’re a part of their morning.”
For Cincinnati Public Radio, serving those listeners and the community is paramount. Daily local talk program Cincinnati Edition injected energy into the format when Michael Monks became host in 2019. The company also produces the Looking Up podcast, cohosted by the Cincinnati Observatory’s celebrity astronomer Dean Regas, and offers indie rock formats Radio Artifact and Inhailer Radio on HD digital signals.
Cincinnati Public Radio has secured a development agreement for a new downtown location directly across from City Hall at Ninth and Plum streets. “We want to incorporate what our branding talks about, which suggests we bring the ‘public’ into public radio,” says Eiswerth. “Rather than encouraging the station to just go out into the community, we invite the community into the station, physically. We want a building that reflects that.”
The new building will have additional studios to generate more content. Public podcast booths will be available free of charge, along with a public performance studio. A cafe is planned, as is a public outdoor gathering space. “We want to have a space where people can come in and just mingle and enjoy themselves, and ideally the facility will be designed to allow us to partner with all kinds of local organizations,” says Eiswerth.
COVID-19 has put the planned capital campaign into what he calls a “quiet” phase, and public celebrations of the respective station anniversaries are on hold. But the stations keep operating, with only about a dozen people in the building at a time. “We do have a very engaged audience right now,” says Zeleznik. “People are appreciative of the coverage we’ve been doing through the pandemic and that we’ve been there for them. Every day, I talk about what day it is. I never used to say, It’s Wednesday. I find myself saying it three or four times an hour now.”