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Inside the Small NKY Radio Co. that Just Made a Big Move in Cincinnati Media

In order to find the small studio that just made a big move in the Cincinnati media market, you have to drive along U.S. 25 where it becomes Main Street in Dry Ridge, and locate a small strip mall that features a Gold Star Chili location.

Then you have to drive behind that.

That's where you find 106.7 WNKR-FM, a classic country station celebrating 25 years on the air, and a recent high-profile acquisition of a second station in the northern Cincinnati suburbs.

Somehow, in the ever-changing and unpredictable world of media where conglomerates gobble up TV and radio stations and newspapers by the city-full, Grant County Broadcasters, owner of WNKR, has managed to create a successful business model with just one station.

A station, hidden behind a chili parlor, that has found a niche in Northern Kentucky and loyalty from its advertising partners.

"I think the two most basic rules are: you want a sound that is commensurate with what's coming into your market, and you want a product that's unique enough that it gives people a reason to listen to your radio station," said Jeff Zeismann, general manager and CEO. When the station launched in 1992, it could have adopted a popular country format to compete with Cincinnati's WUBE (B-105), but it likely would have found itself at a severe disadvantage.

"It's the exact same music presented in the same manner and we'd have the weakest signal, so what's the reason to listen to us?"

Classic country - which now includes hits from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000s - was unique to the market. "Classic country is something we own in the area. We're giving people a reason to tune in and we're spreading a little Kentucky on everything we do," Zeismann said. 

WNKR is devoted to its Kentucky roots. Its traffic reports go farther south than most Cincinnati traffic reports and it's also the FM home of University of Kentucky football and men's basketball games and coaches shows, recently extending its contract to broadcast the Wildcats' games. "UK football and basketball is almost a religion down here," Zeismann said.

When UK athletics is not on the air or Rick Jackson's Country Classics, a nationally syndicated program, is not on, listeners hear favorite songs from Reba McEntire, the Judds, Merle Haggard, Clint Black, Brooks & Dunn, and Alabama - tracks that are mostly left in the dust bin and popular country format radio stations.
 
"We also have an audience that fascinates me," said Peter Zolnowski, WNKR's program director. Peter Z, as he's known on the air, recently returned to the area after a time as program director for radio stations in Dallas. He previously worked many years at Cincinnati stations.
 
"(The audience) likes the unique nature of it and 58,000 extra listeners a month tune in on our audio stream," Zolnowski said. They tune in from Germany, Canada, and all over the southern United States. "It's because they prefer the way we do the format."
 
"The bottom line on how do you survive is, you put a high-quality product on the air and you sell it aggressively," he said.
 
Advertisers seem to get it. The station turns a profit each month, and the local sponsors include Grant County-based drug stores and restaurants to downtown Covington merchants. The key is that these advertisers spend their money on a station with an audience that is dominated by their closest potential customers. In other words, advertisers at WNKR are not paying higher prices to be heard on Cincinnati stations by listeners as far away as Middletown or Hamilton, Oh.
 
But they may soon have that option.
 
Grant County Broadcasters emerged last week as the surprise buyer of 105.9 WNKN-FM, a Middletown-based station that was owned by Northern Kentucky University as part of its efforts to expand the reach of 89.7 WNKU-FM. With the announcement earlier this year that the university would sell WNKU's frequency and related stations, Grant County Broadcasters saw an opportunity.
 
Armed with $4 million in cash (and $1.3 million offered to NKU for advertising, too), the company now owns two stations.
 
Zeismann said the company is not yet sure how it will program its new station, but the business model will be similar to the successful one at WNKR.
 
"You can expect us to do excellent, quality radio," Zeismann said. "We're not sure, formatically, where we're going with that station. It's a large enough purchase that we want to research and make sure we get it right. It will be commensurate with what we do here."
 
It is possible that Grant County Broadcasters will retain the "adult album alternative" or AAA format popularized by WNKU, but a departure from that is also possible. "It's a question of what fits the market best," he said.
 
From a business standpoint, Zeismann sees the area between Cincinnati proper and Dayton, such as Hamilton and Middletown, as being just as underserved by local media as Northern Kentucky is. "One thing that excites us about that is being able to bring, conceptually, the same kind of concept from a sales point of view that weve done before. The population up there has exploded in Mason, Montgomery, Middletown, Hamilton, Fairfield."

"(Advertisers in that corridor) can't afford, nor do they need Cincinnati signals," Zolnowski added. "There is a lot of waste there. Everyone we reach is a potential customer."

And listeners reached by WNKR develop a relationship with the personalities, who offer a no-frills and straightforward approach to broadcasting. The small line-up of personalities include Larry B in the mornings, "The Music Professor" Jim LaBarbara in the late morning and early afternoon, swing man Jay Anthony, and Peter Z, who handles afternoon drive on-air duties.

Though the studio is small and tucked away off Main Street in Dry Ridge, its equipment is state of the art, and its programming keeps listeners and advertisers returning.

"We enjoy tremendous loyalty from the business community," Zeismann said. "We try to do business in a professional manner and give them the attention they deserve.

"We're sitting here basically shoe-horned between three major markets: Cincinnati to the north, Louisville and Lexington to the south. And as such, this is a smaller radio station. In those areas, you can't sound small. You have to have a sound that is competitive with the major market stations coming into your area."

You won't hear any morning zoo-style programming while Larry B is on in the early a.m. hours, or any quizzes or games when the Music Professor takes over, both of whom have been on Cincinnati airwaves for decades. Instead, it's just the DJ and his listeners.
 
Radio is a one-to-one medium, Zolnowski said. "The person listening to you is likely by themselves and you are by yourself but through the airwaves, you're talking one to one with that person, as opposed to those 3 or 4 or 5 or 7-people morning shows. They're all talking to each other and you're just eavesdropping. I think it builds a better bond and it's why the clients get a bigger reaction out of our little station and by name. You don't have to remember a show name like the Morning Zoo. They remember the DJ name on our station because they have been listening for years to that person and they trust them."
 
Now equipped with two stations, more advertisers with similar budgets can be added. Zeismann explained the model as one that offers a car dealership in Grant County the opportunity to place an add on WNKR and be heard by people in the immediate area, and a car dealership north of Cincinnati could advertise on WNKN for similar geographic reasons, or a large advertiser like Kroger could buy ads on both.
 
Whatever format broadcasts from WNKN when the switch is flipped from WNKU won't be known publicly until the moment it happens, Zeismann said. "Why tip your hand to the market?," he said. 
 
"Internally, we should have an idea fairly soon. There is no doubt that NKU's existing audience was a loyal audience and vocal audience. You never want to ignore a format that inspired enough passion that there was an online petition with 9,000 signatures on it," Zeismann said. "On the other side of the coin, 9,000 people is a relatively small audience and how can you expand on that? We want to bring stability to this. We want to still be in business in five to ten years and we want our lenders to be paid off and on time. It doesn't benefit anybody if we don't make it work."
 
It's a big move for a small company.
 
"I think independent broadcasters have a decided advantage over the big guys. We're here," Zeismann said to The River City News during a meeting at the Dry Ridge studio. "The fact that you're sitting in our studios and offices, and the people in this studio and offices come here every day with the specific charge to make this the best possible station it can be.
 
"If it were part of a cluster, it would probably be the weak sister of it, and at the end of a hall and no one would be paying much attention to it."
 
After years of passing on possible acquisitions, WNKR and Grant County Broadcasters finally saw its opportunity.
 
"This particular opportunity was utterly unique," Zeismann said. "It's a second radio station in the same market. It has a signal that is a lot of synergy in terms of service area. It's an opportunity to essentially do business in two separate markets with two separate products, but you can keep your eye on the whole thing because it's not hundreds of miles away. It's basically down the street.
 
"You're always looking at opportunities, but this one was just an incredible opportunity."
 
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher
Top photo: Peter Z broadcasts from WNKR studios in Dry Ridge (RCN)