DISCOVERING MUSIC: WNKU targets more listeners with new format

'I think they've done a great job of appealing to a broader audience'

By Becky Weatherford
NKU Marketing + Communications

I was trapped in my car. And as much as I tried to move, I really didn’t want to.

Turns out I was frozen in place (in a parking lot) by a song on the radio, a tune that took me back to my youth – post-punk classic “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus.

The song held me in its clutches for so long that the store I was parked in front of – the store I needed to go shop in – closed and locked its doors for the night.

WNKU ruined my shopping experience. But it was worth it, because I love that song, one of many I realized I love in WNKU’s playlists.

“It’s a curated playlist for the musically curious along with carefully selected content that engages our listeners with us and the community, on-air and on-line,” said WNKU General Manager Sean O’Mealy, who was hired in February.

Before 2015, WNKU focused on the singer-songwriter end of the adult alternative spectrum, and featured specialized shows. Bands like Blitzen Trapper, Alabama Shakes, and hometown heroes Foxy Shazam help to shape a new sound that’s intended to be much more inclusive.

“I’ve always appreciated and admired that WNKU was playing music that was not being played anywhere else on the radio dial,” said long-time listener Michael Frazier, a staff member in NKU’s department of Marketing + Communications for 16 years. “And I was always seeing WNKU banners, DJs and volunteers at the shows I was going to. But the truth is, I was a frustrated listener because the programming seemed to lean too heavily toward songs and artists that I wasn’t interested in. As a result, I didn’t listen as much and let my membership support frequently lapse.”

The station hopes to pull in the music lovers in Greater Cincinnati whose musical tastes are being ignored by commercial radio.

“I have been really excited with the new format and the mix really appeals to me,” Frazier said. “I love the idea of ‘music discovery’ and being introduced to new songs and bands that play into old favorites. I quickly renewed my membership in enthusiastic support of the new direction the station has taken.”

To give you the flavor, playlists span Muddy Waters’ blues to indie pop artists like Elle King, to deep cuts from The Beatles, and electronic beats like Daft Punk.

It’s like hanging out with that cool friend you have who makes the best mixtapes. If you were to look at this list you might raise an eyebrow – but when you hear it, every song makes sense in terms of what O’Mealy wants to achieve. One song flows right into the next. And every song is handpicked.

With competition like Pandora, Spotify and our own iPods, WNKU’s advantage over those devices is curation as opposed to algorithms.   

“We’re living in a handcrafted society: craft beer, locally roasted coffee, farm to table, local is good,” O’Mealy said.  “As quickly as we succumb to the convenience of technology, you also see a strong movement and desire to seek out those life experiences that we feel enriches our lives. These experiences are the result of real people with real passions.”       

Meet The Maker

Growing up in Williamsport, Penn., a town best known as the birthplace of Little League baseball, O’Mealy developed his love for music. 

In the 1970s the signal of WMMR in Philadelphia reached into young O’Mealy’s home, bringing with it the sounds of bands like the Sex Pistols, and cool DJs that shared the culture of the times.

After studying mass communications at Penn College of Technology and Lock Haven State University, he started his career in Hagerstown, Md., at WOCM. He then went on to work at WRSI in Northampton, Mass., a station legendary for showcasing local musicians and playing anything new and different.

It was a perfect fit for O’Mealy, whose musical taste is self-described as “varied and eclectic.”

Then, after 25 years in the commercial realm, just like any good craftsperson, O’Mealy decided it was time to explore a new path in public radio.

Enter WNKU.

The Future - 'It's Evolve or Die'

Like the university that it calls home, WNKU was at a turning point at the beginning of 2015.

The station was in need of a new general manager and a different direction. Three years prior, the station had expanded its signal to be one of the largest in Cincinnati, but the listener base was not growing. Those in charge knew they needed someone with the ability to make hard decisions to rebuild the station’s brand and increase its vitality in the market.

This was the charge of hiring committee member – and WNKU underwriting and sales manager – Valerie Abbott, who served as interim general manager of the station from January 2014 to February 2015.

“Although Sean’s experience was with a commercial Triple A station, his love for public radio and the role it plays in the community, how you leverage those opportunities, his commitment to engage the corporate community for larger gifts, and his energy, spoke to the needs of WNKU,” she said.

And now we’re seeing the difference.

In September 2015, WNKU reported a marked increase in their cumulative audience or ‘cumes’ from August. Monthly listeners were up more than 35 percent. On-air personality John Patrick attributes this to all of the work they’ve put in since the spring.

“We’re using the science behind growing our listenership,” Patrick said. “Adding more new songs to the rotation than commercial stations, but also playing popular songs more often.”

During the station’s latest pledge drive, WNKU representatives said they surpassed their goal of $110,000 in donations. “I think it’s safe to say 50 percent are new members,” O’Mealy said.

He sees the station as a potential powerhouse and tastemaker for new or little known artists in the market. O’Mealy said he hopes to develop the synergy between the station and local concert promoters in a way that will further define the music scene in this region.

“Public radio stations like WNKU have an enormous opportunity to cultivate fans within our cities through local engagement and music discovery,” he said. “The format is evolving just as people, cities, and technology are evolving every day.”

Caleb Bélanger, an Electronic Media and Broadcasting major at NKU, loves the new format.

“I’m a huge fan of what they strive to do,” he said. “I think they've done a great job of appealing to a broader audience with the new format and have made a point to draw in a millennial crowd. They have an unparalleled selection of indie, alternative, local, and smaller artists that you won't find in mainstream radio.”

O’Mealy says it isn’t really a choice – it’s necessary.

“If every day we’re not asking each other, ‘Can we do this better and how?’ we’re dead in the water,” O’Mealy said. “It’s evolve or die.”