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Livin' on the Air at WNKU

By Katie Laur · September 5th, 2007 · Editorial
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I started working at WNKU (89.7 FM) in November 1989, when popular Bluegrass DJ Ed McDonald left to pursue other opportunities. Sheila Rue, the station's general manager, asked me to host the show, and I agreed to do it for the princely sum of $25 a week.

Buddy Griffin, who was playing fiddle in my Bluegrass band at the time, agreed to co-host with me. He knew how to work the board and how to cue up records. We had a CD player, but the discs themselves were scarcer than hen's teeth. I think we had 10 or 20 of them in the whole record library.

WNKU was a funky little Folk music station in those days and had started in 1985 as Cincinnati Folk Radio. Stacy Owen worked there then, as did Colin Cordy. Then there was the German music show with Hans Krueschke on Sunday nights. Hans played German music, and for all we knew he was on a first-name basis with the Motherland.

One thing I learned about small radio stations was that listeners were loyal and fiercely resistant to change. They wanted no part of new music. They wanted to hear old, cool things, songs by Dave von Ronk or Townes van Zandt.

"Thistle and Shamrock" was the most popular show on the air back then. I still come in to the station on Sundays listening to host Fiona Ritchie going on about the great potato famine in her sweet, lilting soprano voice.

Buddy and I used to get to WNKU by three minutes 'til noon on Sundays, tearing into the studio just in time to throw a few records together and go on the air. From there, we'd start exploring, seeing where the music led us.

We never had a plan. If we found something we liked by Allen Shelton, a Bluegrass banjo player, we'd start looking for other things in the same vein. We'd chase the thread to its obvious conclusion, playing the original recordings of some of the popular current-day Bluegrass songs.

When we gave the weather report, Buddy usually simulated the sound of helicopter blades hovering. He sounded just like a real traffic copter on the radio, beating his chest while talking into the mic in a reverberating fashion.

"We've got a white Camaro blocking the Norwood Lateral," he'd say, sounding exactly like the big radio stations, chopper blades whirring.

It led a fan of ours to make a WNKU Traffic Helicopter for me that summer. It was a regular model plane, bright red with a real propeller, musical instruments strapped to the side. The name of the station was painted on it. It's one of the best things anyone ever made for me.

By that first summer Buddy had gone off to play in Branson, Mo., and Wayne Clyburn became the engineer and co-host.

Since then we have been "exploring" the intensely changing landscape of Bluegrass and Roots music. I called the show Music From the Hills of Home because I didn't want to be limited to hard-core Bluegrass, and I'm not.

We play old Mills Brothers stuff. We play Hank Williams. We play Chet Atkins. When we get bored, we go back to Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe and remember how it all started.

Just to keep things interesting, we've learned to dig deeper through the years. We've decided nothing much is original and we can do nothing but continue to dig.

We got a demo tape from a Dayton couple singing a song they had written called "The Ballad of O.J. and Nicole," written in the style of one of the mountain ballads of murder and lost love. I actually played it a couple times and probably still would if I could find it. Somewhere in there, I learned how to tell Don Reno's banjo playing from J.D. Crowe's.

We survived the Great Dulcimer Madness. One week I said something unsavory about dulcimer players, and suddenly mailbags full of cards and letters started pouring in, demanding our heads be chopped off.

Wayne came up with the Folk Scare Warning System: If you hear a 12-string guitar being played in your neighborhood, you are in danger of having Folk music played somewhere near your house. If you hear a dulcimer, you should take cover immediately.

I was called on the carpet regularly for saying "Good Morning" when I came in at noon. "Noon is no longer morning," the manager would say, and I struggled hard to change my ways.

Lester Flatt always said, "Might' proud to have you folks with us this week," in his smooth baritone voice. I learned the value of such generalized greetings, especially now that we're in the computer age. Fans "listen live" on their computer from Boston, San Francisco, Alabama, New York City.

We once had an e-mail from Australia, and we have regular listeners in the Netherlands and Mexico.

WNKU has grown a lot since 1985. You can hear smokin' electric guitars as much as thumb-picked nylon-stringed ones these days. Mr. Rhythm Man plays R&B on Saturday nights, and rumor has it he and the Mr. Rhythm Man Dancers are as wild as Hans Krusheke. Wayne and I have moved to Sunday evenings.

Our fundraisers are big-city slick (note: we've got one coming up this month, so don't forget to pledge). We don't have air conditioning in the studio, but we have one of the most amazing recycling systems I've ever seen -- outside the studio we put plastic in one bin, paper in another, tin cans in one and plastic in another.

Grady Kirkpatrick joined us 10 years ago. He's our acting general manager now, but he's a natural leader. When something goes wrong, you don't think, "Who do I call?" You just naturally call Grady.

Last week I started getting e-mail from the WNKU staff and on-air folks, all of them thanking Grady fervently for having purchased a portable air conditioner for the on-air studio. The raves reached a height of ecstasy rarely heard from the WNKU staff.

Finally I saw it assembled last Sunday. The air conditioner works were housed in a plastic container that looked like a miniature vacuum cleaner. And out of its body there arose a round chimney made of chicken wire and duct tape. "It's a wood-burning air conditioner," I said.

Wayne had to agree. The makeshift chimney rose out the top of the ceiling and had a note attached to it saying, "Do not turn on." Evidently when someone plugged it in it had blown out the ceiling lights.

"Back to the drawing boards," I said.

Wayne put on a "Little Cabin Home" song by Flatt & Scruggs, and we listened to Earl kick it off. The banjo sounded like "a dominecker hen peckin' corn out of a No. 2 washtub," as another Bluegrass DJ used to say.

Wayne and I settled back to enjoy it in the stifling, airless heat.



CONTACT KATIE LAUR: letters(at)

Buddy Griffin, who was playing fiddle in my Bluegrass band at the time, agreed to co-host with me. He knew how to work the board and how to cue up records. We had a CD player, but the discs themselves were scarcer than hen's teeth. I think we had 10 or 20 of them in the whole record library.

WNKU was a funky little Folk music station in those days and had started in 1985 as Cincinnati Folk Radio. Stacy Owen worked there then, as did Colin Cordy. Then there was the German music show with Hans Krueschke on Sunday nights. Hans played German music, and for all we knew he was on a first-name basis with the Motherland.

One thing I learned about small radio stations was that listeners were loyal and fiercely resistant to change. They wanted no part of new music. They wanted to hear old, cool things, songs by Dave von Ronk or Townes van Zandt.

"Thistle and Shamrock" was the most popular show on the air back then. I still come in to the station on Sundays listening to host Fiona Ritchie going on about the great potato famine in her sweet, lilting soprano voice.

Buddy and I used to get to WNKU by three minutes 'til noon on Sundays, tearing into the studio just in time to throw a few records together and go on the air. From there, we'd start exploring, seeing where the music led us.

We never had a plan. If we found something we liked by Allen Shelton, a Bluegrass banjo player, we'd start looking for other things in the same vein. We'd chase the thread to its obvious conclusion, playing the original recordings of some of the popular current-day Bluegrass songs.

When we gave the weather report, Buddy usually simulated the sound of helicopter blades hovering. He sounded just like a real traffic copter on the radio, beating his chest while talking into the mic in a reverberating fashion.

"We've got a white Camaro blocking the Norwood Lateral," he'd say, sounding exactly like the big radio stations, chopper blades whirring.

It led a fan of ours to make a WNKU Traffic Helicopter for me that summer. It was a regular model plane, bright red with a real propeller, musical instruments strapped to the side. The name of the station was painted on it. It's one of the best things anyone ever made for me.

By that first summer Buddy had gone off to play in Branson, Mo., and Wayne Clyburn became the engineer and co-host.

Since then we have been "exploring" the intensely changing landscape of Bluegrass and Roots music. I called the show Music From the Hills of Home because I didn't want to be limited to hard-core Bluegrass, and I'm not.

We play old Mills Brothers stuff. We play Hank Williams. We play Chet Atkins. When we get bored, we go back to Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe and remember how it all started.

Just to keep things interesting, we've learned to dig deeper through the years. We've decided nothing much is original and we can do nothing but continue to dig.

We got a demo tape from a Dayton couple singing a song they had written called "The Ballad of O.J. and Nicole," written in the style of one of the mountain ballads of murder and lost love. I actually played it a couple times and probably still would if I could find it. Somewhere in there, I learned how to tell Don Reno's banjo playing from J.D. Crowe's.

We survived the Great Dulcimer Madness. One week I said something unsavory about dulcimer players, and suddenly mailbags full of cards and letters started pouring in, demanding our heads be chopped off.

Wayne came up with the Folk Scare Warning System: If you hear a 12-string guitar being played in your neighborhood, you are in danger of having Folk music played somewhere near your house. If you hear a dulcimer, you should take cover immediately.

I was called on the carpet regularly for saying "Good Morning" when I came in at noon. "Noon is no longer morning," the manager would say, and I struggled hard to change my ways.

Lester Flatt always said, "Might' proud to have you folks with us this week," in his smooth baritone voice. I learned the value of such generalized greetings, especially now that we're in the computer age. Fans "listen live" on their computer from Boston, San Francisco, Alabama, New York City. We once had an e-mail from Australia, and we have regular listeners in the Netherlands and Mexico.

WNKU has grown a lot since 1985. You can hear smokin' electric guitars as much as thumb-picked nylon-stringed ones these days. Mr. Rhythm Man plays R&B on Saturday nights, and rumor has it he and the Mr. Rhythm Man Dancers are as wild as Hans Krusheke. Wayne and I have moved to Sunday evenings.

Our fundraisers are big-city slick (note: we've got one coming up this month, so don't forget to pledge). We don't have air conditioning in the studio, but we have one of the most amazing recycling systems I've ever seen -- outside the studio we put plastic in one bin, paper in another, tin cans in one and plastic in another.

Grady Kirkpatrick joined us 10 years ago. He's our acting general manager now, but he's a natural leader. When something goes wrong, you don't think, "Who do I call?" You just naturally call Grady.

Last week I started getting e-mail from the WNKU staff and on-air folks, all of them thanking Grady fervently for having purchased a portable air conditioner for the on-air studio. The raves reached a height of ecstasy rarely heard from the WNKU staff.

Finally I saw it assembled last Sunday. The air conditioner works were housed in a plastic container that looked like a miniature vacuum cleaner. And out of its body there arose a round chimney made of chicken wire and duct tape. "It's a wood-burning air conditioner," I said.

Wayne had to agree. The makeshift chimney rose out the top of the ceiling and had a note attached to it saying, "Do not turn on." Evidently when someone plugged it in it had blown out the ceiling lights.

"Back to the drawing boards," I said.

Wayne put on a "Little Cabin Home" song by Flatt & Scruggs, and we listened to Earl kick it off. The banjo sounded like "a dominecker hen peckin' corn out of a No. 2 washtub," as another Bluegrass DJ used to say.

Wayne and I settled back to enjoy it in the stifling, airless heat.



CONTACT KATIE LAUR: letters(at)citybeat.com. Her column appears here the first issue of each month.
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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