Chuck Miller is staring whimsically at his computer looking at a configuration showing three circles that together blanket southern Ohio and parts of the neighboring states.

"You look at those circles and it's kind of breathtaking," says the WNKU-FM (89.7) general manager. He still seems a bit in shock over the deal he has pulled off. But there it is, staring back at him.

What Miller is looking at is the largest potential audience of any Cincinnati area-based FM station. Those overlapping circles extend north to Dayton, touch Columbus, extend east to Athens and Huntington and Charleston, W.Va., south almost to Lexington and into southeast Indiana.

It is the new signal reach for WNKU and it is indeed breathtaking coverage for a station that three months ago had spotty dead zones in downtown Cincinnati, just a couple miles from its transmitter.

POWER PLAY

The little station that could has turned into a public radio freight train thanks to an acquisition usually expected in commercial radio, not in the public, listener-supported radio world.

WNKU, licensed to Northern Kentucky University, observed its 25th anniversary in 2010. It's come a long way from its origins as a quirky folk and bluegrass station celebrating Appalachia.

The deal that took effect Feb. 1 is this: WNKU acquired Middletown's WPFB-FM (105.9), WPFB-AM (910) and Portsmouth-based WPAY-FM (104.1) for $6.75 million.

The university will issue 20-year tax-exempt bonds to finance the purchase as approved by the Kentucky General Assembly. WNKU will sell its low-power repeater signal in West Chester (94.5) and WPFB-AM to help cover capital costs of the acquisition. WNKU is rebroadcasting its 89.7 signal on new frequencies, expecting to take full operating control of the stations with FCC approval later this spring.

The new frequencies mean Cincinnati area listeners can find consistent reception of WNKU at 105.9. The WPFB 34,000-watt signal is loud and clear in Cincinnati, unlike WNKU's 89.7 dial position. At a meager 12,000 watts, 89.7 can be hard to pick up in downtown office buildings and in homes in several urban neighborhoods, although it is well received south into Northern Kentucky. It is the last FM signal assigned to the Cincinnati market, wedged in with spotty power going north so as not to compete with existing frequencies.

The Portsmouth 104.1 frequency, at 100,000 watts, adds all of southeastern Ohio, including southern suburbs of Columbus and extending south to Ashland, Ky. and east to Charleston W. Va.

QUADRUPLING REACH

It adds up to a potential audience of over five million listeners covering over 50 counties in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Indiana. Together the new signals quadruple the station's reach.

It is a bold expansion that comes at a time when the future of terrestrial radio itself is being questioned, given the disruption of traditional listening habits brought on by the digital music and news delivery revolution. It comes as federal funding for public broadcasting is under attack. And it comes as many look to independently-owned public and commercial stations as an alternative to corporate-dominated FM, which has been in the doldrums, creatively and financially. Fifteen years of corporate consolidation has seen many broadcast conglomerates worry more about pleasing investors than engaging listeners.

SHOW ME THE MONEY

So, now what?

Make no mistake, this is about money. The radio station has been under pressure from Northern Kentucky University officials to become self-sufficient. Out of WNKU's $1.1 million budget, the university kicks in $300,000. The remainder comes from underwriting and membership contributions, plus about nine percent from a federal grant through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (Miller says with expected revenue from the new signals, any proposed federal funding cutback could be covered without too much pain).

University officials saw the purchase as a good investment, especially since NKU found itself the only bidder in a buyer's market. University President Dr. James Votruba likes to point out NKU pulled off the purchase because of the bad economy. There was little commercial radio interest in the WPFB package, partly because there was no private financing available the last couple years because of the credit crunch. NKU became a player armed with state bond financing.

"We did this to eliminate our university subsidy for the station," says Votruba. "We did a very deep dive into the financials on this deal. We project, conservatively, that we should be able to withdraw the subsidy in the next three years."

Miller said he managed to convince university officials that if they wanted WNKU to be self-supporting, it required spending money to increase the audience size. "It was impossible to monetize this station with the signal we had," he said.

On paper, at least, it's pretty simple: An audience reach expanded by millions of listeners should add revenue, in both underwriting and membership, to cover the NKU subsidy and service the debt.

Of course, it all depends on whether the station's eclectic Triple A format can be a steady revenue generator.


TRIPLE A

WNKU was a pioneer in the '90s of the format known as adult, album, alternative, or Triple A, which now numbers over 200 commercial and public stations. It is a format that gives a nod to the early progressive rock/underground FMs in the '60s and '70s, like WEBN's "Jelly Pudding," which featured an inventive assortment of rock, blues, folk, R&B and jazz. Around the country, Triple A stations each have their own nuances. Many skew younger, playing more alternative rock. WNKU leans older with a more singer-songwriter, Americana bent and is a little twangier, because of its origins as a Kentucky-centric folk station.

Triple A is a reaction to the tight playlists of FM stations usually locked into a single-minded musical genre. It appeals to a music lover with a diversity of tastes. At WNKU, songs are rarely repeated; new music can make up 40 percent of a listening hour. Indeed, the format breaks all the rules of Radio 101, especially the one that says listeners want familiarity.

"We've thrown that out the window and moved on to Radio 102. Tight playlists have been so overdone people are sick of it," says Michael Grayson, WNKU program director, a former commercial radio programmer at Cincinnati's WRRM-FM (Warm98). "If anything we've gone to the opposite extreme, instituting a system that assures songs won't be repeated very often."

DIVERSE, ECLECTIC

The diversity can be wonderfully jarring with the station going, for example, from Arcade Fire to Guy Clark, from Lucinda Williams to Bruce Springsteen. It's also the only Cincinnati station that plays a steady diet of local original music with homegrown artists built into the daily format.

Independently-owned Triple A stations have been critically praised for their format experimentation at a time when corporate-owned FMs have been firing creative talent and tightening up formats as the radio conglomerates remain focused on the bottom line. Yet, even though Triple A is an exciting format for the music junkie, it is not always an accessible one for the casual listener. It is not a format designed for mass appeal.

"We are an unusual beast," Miller acknowledges. "It does take some time to get used to us."

NOW, ABOUT RATINGS...

WNKU has never been a ratings star in the Cincinnati market, partly because of its signal problems. It averages around 47,000 listeners a week, which ranks it in the bottom third of some 30 stations that show up in local ratings.

Miller acknowledges the signal expansion is partly a build-it-and-they-will-come approach. But he knows the station has its work cut out to educate new listeners in the Triple A format and in the need to donate.

Some local broadcast executives wondered if WNKU, with its tiny million-dollar budget, has the staff and financial resources in place for such a marketing effort. They point out the station's potential new reach can also be a sales and marketing nightmare trying to mount underwriting and membership drives with three signals that cover dozens of counties in four states.

WNKU's first marketing move was to introduce itself to new listeners with a billboard campaign branding the station as "Public Radio That Rocks."

Last year the station positioned itself as a public radio jukebox, dropping NPR's "Morning Edition" and cutting local public affairs talk shows. It is now a 24/7 music machine with the only full-service Triple A format throughout its listening area.

MIDDLETOWN FALLOUT

WNKU is faced with some disgruntled listeners in Middletown and Portsmouth who lost longtime country music formats. And it's an end of the era for high school sports coverage, since WPFB broadcast Middletown football and basketball games practically since the station was started in the late '40s. Miller says that, since the station will be operated as a non-commercial outlet, the public radio business model doesn't work for high school sports.

Already anecdotal indications are that WNKU is gaining new listeners with the real proof coming in fund drives this spring and summer. Announcers say the request line is now ringing constantly, something not previously the case.

FITS WITH THE MISSION

Votruba says WNKU is a nice fit with the university's mission. It provides internships for students; marketing classes have worked on station projects and faculty are featured in news stories. "Frankly, it is an important part of our marketing strategy," Votruba says, "to keep the university in front of the people we serve."

Miller, with a 30-year career as announcer, programmer and general manager in such markets as Tulsa, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Atlanta, came to WNKU in 2007 from a New Orleans public station where he helped direct the station's recovery.

"There is a comfort zone here I haven't found anywhere else," Miller says.

"That's because of the realization that the radio station is part of the university environment. It is not just a sideshow. The value of a public radio station is appreciated. And, in a rotten economy, they backed this idea that we should expand."