With $6.75 million purchases, WNKU triples its reach

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WNKU, a Triple A public radio station serving Cincinnati from Highland Heights, Ky., will triple its potential audience with the purchase of sister commercial country-music outlets in southern Ohio — WPFB in Middletown and WPAY in Portsmouth.

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Map courtesy of Public Radio Capital, annotated by Current

The $6.75 million agreement, brokered by Erik Langner of Public Radio Capital and signed Jan. 19, will be financed through tax-exempt bonds to be issued by WNKU licensee Northern Kentucky University.

The station has struggled for years with a weak signal of 12,000 watts directed south on 89.7 MHz. Its managers received so many listener complaints about signal weakness in Cincinnati that WNKU published a reception guide on its website, said Chuck Miller, g.m.

The two new signals not only upgrade WNKU’s Cincinnati reception but also bring its Triple A music to big swaths of the region where Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia share borders and watersheds. The 34,000-watt Middletown station WPFB, at 105.9 MHz, reaches north beyond Dayton along a stretch of I-75 populated at rush hour by commuters. WPAY, at 104.1 MHz, licensed to a small river town on the Kentucky border, broadcasts at 100,000 watts; its 40-dBu contour stretches north into suburbs of Columbus, the state capital in central Ohio, and southeast to Huntington and Charleston, W.Va.

When WNKU begins simulcasting on the new stations Feb. 1 under a local management agreement — before the FCC approves the transfer — it will reach 51 new counties in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia. Its potential audience will grow from 1.06 million to 3.3 million listeners.

Miller retained PRC to pursue signal expansion two years ago, and one deal for a higher-priced station with a smaller coverage area fell through in 2009, he said with some gratitude. “We had an insurmountable number of hurdles.” The Kentucky legislature signed off on the bond sale, and a subcommittee of the university’s board gave the deal a due-diligence examination.

Business plans call for WNKU to reduce its reliance on its university licensee while paying down the debt for the station purchases, according to Miller. WPFB’s AM sister station in Middletown, also acquired in the deal, will be sold.

“The university understands what we do as broadcasters — this is the first time I’ve had that experience,” says Miller, who previously managed WWNO in New Orleans and Georgia Public Broadcasting’s radio network. “They want us to run ourselves like a business and pay our own bills. … Everybody understands that we have to reach more people and that we are a great marketing tool for the university.”

University President James Votruba described the pubradio expansion as an important strategic investment, especially in light of the university’s funding challenges and the economy in Kentucky. “Frankly, if the economy weren’t in the state it is in, there is no way we could afford to do this,” he said in a news release. “The price is right, right now. We are presented with an opportunity that we could not pass up.”