Is WNKU on its Way Out?

Sadly, one of our last college radio stations may not be long for these airwaves.

Illustration by Chris Danger

WNKU went on the air April 29, 1985. The number one song in the country was “We Are The World.” The biggest movie was Code of Silence (Chuck Norris + robot = the intelligent Rambo). And for the next 31 years, the station, broadcasting out of Northern Kentucky University, defined itself by reaching millions of people who didn’t want more blockbusters in their lives. Coming over the airwaves at 89.7 FM, WNKU in many ways embodied the “left of the dial” college radio station—at times playing a mix of music cataloged as “alternative,” other times catering to the region’s underserved niches of Celtic, bluegrass, garage, and funk.

But in the months (or weeks, or even days) ahead, it seems likely that the station will be sold off by NKU, which suddenly finds itself deep in a deficit. Last April, new Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin ordered a 4.5 percent cut in higher education. As a result, the university is looking at an $8 million budget shortfall; in May, it laid off 105 employees. A month prior, university President Geoffrey Mearns announced he was forced to “explore the possibility of a sale of WNKU-FM.”

If and when WNKU is sold, it will be the latest casualty of a decade-old regional trend among college radio stations. Kentucky’s Georgetown College sold WRVG to KLOVE in 2003; Xavier University sold WVXU to Cincinnati Public Radio in 2005, which also took over Miami University’s WMUB in 2009. Now, yet another eclectic mix of sounds is primed to go over the side, in favor of religious programming, perhaps, or the NPR cookie cutter. The apprehension among listeners even inspired a “Save WNKU” online petition that has netted more than 3,100 signatures, including members of the Heartless Bastards, Wussy, and Walk the Moon.

Claiming no decisions had been made, the university said in April that Bevin’s budget cuts forced them to launch a request for proposals (“RFP”) from media brokerage firms equipped to shop the property and gauge what it could fetch in return. But an Open Records request yielded documents suggesting Mearns was already trying to sell the station in February. It was then that Rich Boehne of Scripps e-mailed a note introducing Mearns to Fred Kalil, vice president of Kalil & Co., an Arizona-based broker with years of experience selling media properties. Clearly interested, Kalil sent a contract to the university that same month. (February 1 was right on the heels of Governor Bevin releasing his first budget proposal, indicating he had higher education in his crosshairs.) Subsequently, the university did go through the state-required RFP, though it was no surprise when Kalil turned out to be the winning bidder.

On June 24, reporter John Kiesewetter wrote that the Kalil contract suggested a sale was highly probable, after which WNKU general manager Sean O’Mealy e-mailed his staff that Kiesewetter didn’t know what he was talking about. “[Kiesewetter’s] a blogger, so what he wrote is opinion,” O’Mealy angrily told me over the phone. “There’s nothing factual.” Beyond that, O’Mealy declined to speak further.

Unfortunately, nobody’s stepped forward to suggest a sale isn’t dead ahead. Staffers either refuse to talk on the record or say they don’t know anything. The university subsidized the station to the tune of $900,000 last year, and if there’s a need to make some quick money, it’s never going to get any quicker than now.

At press time, an NKU spokesperson was still claiming the broker could simply look at the books and advise the administration on whether or not to sell. But there isn’t much beating around the bush in the public records—Boehne told Kalil in early February that the university was “conducting a review of some assets and would appreciate your thoughts on the potential marketplace for these stations.” A later e-mail from O’Mealy to Kalil dated June 6 mentions work being done to make WNKU “FCC compliant for the sale.”

Another red flag is that the station hasn’t engaged in a single on-air fund-raiser in all of 2016. They aren’t turning down donations, but they aren’t publicly asking for them, either, leaving WNKU listeners and voices unsure of what’s to come. “Nobody’s saying anything about what might be, and I haven’t heard a thing,” says Mr. Rhythm Man, who’s been broadcasting on WNKU since 1996. “I know I’m coming in next week, and the week after that.”

Assuming the station will still be around to spin the next Wussy track, however, is a bet no one seems willing to take.

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