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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Making Waves

Commercial radio was the bee’s knees across the world in the 1920s. Roughly 60 percent of families in the U.S. owned radios by the mid-1930s. In Evansville, the decade would spark an 80-year journey to the major media companies that offer the Tri-State’s favorite music and morning shows today. But Evansville’s radio story is more than a timeline of dates and call letters — it’s an industry founded in community that has reached beyond the surface level limitations of a smaller market.

Turning Back the Dial

▲ John A. Engelbrecht stands outside the original WIKY building and his family home with chief engineer George Stolz in the 40s.

WGBF was the first AM station in Evansville, ruling the airways from 1923 to 1936 when 1400 (WEOA-AM) began, becoming the area’s Top 40s station in the ’60s. One of the most recognized stations in Evansville, WIKY was the next major player to enter the local industry in 1948.

Two years earlier in 1946, John A. Engelbrecht founded South Central Broadcasting. While his wife Bettie taught at Centennial High School to fund his “radio habit,” John A. soared past his humble beginnings at the Engelbrecht apple orchard on the North Side and established a home for WIKY and his family on the now-iconic hill at 1162 Mount Auburn Road overlooking the city.

“My grandfather was a futurist. That term is thrown around a lot now, but he really was someone who could see where things were going,” says J.P. Engelbrecht, John A.’s grandson and CEO of South Central, Inc. since 2008. “He saw where media was going and had enough communications knowledge. He saw the future in broadcasting.”

Running WIKY from the basement of his home, John A. set the local standard when WIKY became the first FM station in Evansville in 1953. The Engelbrechts retained the original 820 AM frequency until the early 1980s when it was donated to the University of Southern Indiana. In 1971, WGBF also switched to FM.

It was the 1980s that would become radio’s next important decade, sparking an era of development that majorly impacted local stations’ trajectory into the 21st century.

In 1982, WSTO was established by Century Communications Corp. as a Top 40 station with one of the largest signals in the region, reaching well into Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky with callers from St. Louis and Louisville, Kentucky. WGBF reverted to its original letters and adopted its current rock format under Larry Aiken, once Evansville’s biggest concert promoter and radio personality, who bought it in 1987.

Despite the growth of the decade, the 80s also saw one of the most tragic moments for radio in Evansville — the WIKY fire in December 1981.

“It was a pretty horrific fire,” says J.P. “There are pieces of the building now that are original, but we had to renovate again in 2005 and when we opened it up there were pieces that you could still see part of the charred wood.”

A 23-year-old John D. Engelbrecht, who became South Central’s President and CEO in 1974 when John A. passed away unexpectedly, had to move the station into a van in their garage down the hill.

But the fire didn’t affect the company’s accelerating success.

In 1992, South Central, who at the time owned 1400 (originally WEOA) under the call letters WJPS-AM, leased 93.5 (WFLW) from a local independent owner, buying the station outright in 1996. In 1997, they purchased a virgin license for WABX.

That same year, they shifted WJPS from 1400 to 93.5 FM, now 93.5 The Lloyd (WLYD). This move opened 1400 to a group of Black investors lead by Edward Lander. Lander began leasing 1400 — reinstating the original call letters WEOA — from South Central in 1997, creating the area’s first urban contemporary station. Lander purchased the AM frequency from South Central ten years later and in 2018 rebranded to 98.5 (WEOA-FM).

During this time, several other companies also were vying for radio dominance.

Locally owned by Alan Brill, Brill Media Company operated a bulk of local stations — some of which he acquired from Century in 1996 — such as WSTO, WOMI, WBKR, and WKDQ, one of the area’s top country stations. Other notable stations such as 103.1 (WGBF-FM), Kiss 106 (WDKS), and 105.3 (WYNG), another favorite for country, were owned by Clear Channel Communications at the time.

From the turn of the century to 2002, Brill Broadcasting sold their radio assets. 96.1 (WSTO) went to South Central and Regent Communications, a moderately-sized media company based in Covington, Kentucky, acquired the majority of remaining stations such as, WOMI, WBKR, and WKDQ.

▲ Continuing the legacy of his grandfather John A. and father John D., J.P. Engelbrecht is the current CEO of South Central, Inc.

In 2003, all of Clear Channel’s Evansville stations were acquired by Regent Communications who transitioned 105.3 to adult contemporary under the call letters WJLT. By 2010, Regent also was selling. All seven of Regent’s Evansville and Owensboro, Kentucky, market stations were acquired by Townsquare Media, a brand-new company from Connecticut, now the third largest owner of radio stations in the nation.

“Townsquare wanted small to mid-sized markets so our Evansville/Owensboro cluster fit right in,” says LaDonne Craig, market president. “What Townsquare valued then, and still does, is our local engagement with our listeners, viewers, and clients. Our talent does this on air, online, and on site. We take great pride in the many partnerships we have with local nonprofits and community organizations.”

Four years later on Sept. 1, 2014, Midwest Communications — a family-owned company based in Wisconsin — bought all of South Central’s radio assets in Nashville and Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as Evansville.

“We knew the business would not be the same going forward and we wanted to diversify our business holdings,” says J.P.

Live On the Air

Despite what critics may say about radio in the time of innovative technology, Midwest Communications thrives on the same hill WIKY has resided on since 1948 and Townsquare finds success overlooking Downtown from the Fifth Third Tower.

“The data shows radio in general still reaches 92 to 93 percent of the population on a weekly basis,” says Ryan O’Bryan, WKDQ brand manager and morning show host. “The thing about radio is that it’s still free and there’s a relatability to us because [the audience] knows we’re here.”

You can laugh with Claire Ballard and Tyler Cooper on Claire and the Hot 96 Morning Show or get your news from Dennis Jon Bailey and Diane Douglas on the WIKY Morning Show. At Townsquare, O’Bryan co-hosts 99.5’s (WKDQ) morning show with Leslie Morgan while Bobby and Liberty hit the airwaves on My 105.3 (WJLT).

▲ WKDQ brand manager and morning show host since 2018, Ryan O’Bryan blends his talent for connecting with the community for almost 20 years with Townsquare Media’s forward thinking digital strategies to keep radio relevant.

“Radio remains relevant because of the connection to the audience,” says Craig. “If you are a huge fan of one of our personalities, you can hear them, read articles they write, follow them on social media — they are friends.”

Both companies have received national recognition for their work. WIKY received a National Association of Broadcasters Crystal award for community service in 2010, a NAB Marconi Radio award for Best Small Market Morning Show in the U.S. — Dennis Jon Bailey and Diane Douglas in 2011, and a Spectrum award from the Indiana Broadcasters Association in 2019. In 2009, WKDQ won the IBA Station of the Year.

Evansville is a small market for radio but still is the largest city within 100 miles. Its combination of urban isolation and small-town mindset create a concoction of loyal support, community involvement, and a large audience base that benefit and cultivate more successful local radio.

“I have a saying, ‘the larger the community, the less sense of community,’” says Tim Huelsing, general manager at Midwest. “Evansville is one of the most terrific, caring communities. People care, they know what they do and what happens affects others. We have tried to be part of that and reflect that.”

Additional ingredients in Evansville’s radio recipe, technology and presentation, also have changed since DJs like O’Bryan began their careers almost 20 years ago — no more running down the hall to find the next song in a CD index or hoping for a bathroom break when “Another Brick in the Wall” plays. Through the tight-knit community and digital platforms, listener and host are closer than ever before.

“There’s so many avenues in which to interact with that audience,” says O’Bryan. “We here at Townsquare make community involvement a major priority for us. Especially with social media, they can connect with me in a different way than before.”

So, it’s no surprise that over the years while advertising revenue has drifted to digital media, streaming services dominate consumer’s attention and money, and markets bigger than Evansville’s succumb to more syndication and impersonal corporations, the Tri-State’s big names in radio have held strong.

Still, a community doesn’t form overnight and the level of brand recognition and quality of stations like WIKY and WGBF take years to develop and decades to maintain. Both Huelsing and O’Bryan credit Evansville’s success in these areas to its foundations in the 20s and 40s.

▲ Midwest Communications General manager Tim Huelsing has decades of radio experience, much of which he has spent working at WIKY with the Engelbrechts.

“I don’t want to make this sound too flowery, but Evansville is lucky that it had a family — a local family — who owned one of the most influential radio stations and kept it focused locally and always had a long-term perspective,” says Huelsing, who has worked for WIKY since 2003. “We’ve never changed locations and only had two owners that entire time. WIKY has never changed call letters. That’s unheard of in broadcasting, it just doesn’t exist. It’s the highlight of my career to work here.”

From the influences of Alan Brill, Larry Aiken, and the Engelbrechts, to larger companies like Midwest and Townsquare, Evansville’s love of radio spans multiple generations. Children in elementary school can listen to and enjoy the same stations that brought their grandparents their first-ever radio broadcasts. And local radio students can trace some of the nation’s greatest radio personalities to Evansville stations.

For J.P., it is this legacy of community and personal relationships that fueled John A. and John D.’s (who passed in April 2020) passion for radio and will continue to propel one of Evansville’s most successful, underrated industries for years to come.

“To my father and also to me, radio was magic,” he says. “Radio was a big part of people’s lives and it was a big identifier. It was a fabric piece of the community and to be able to be a part of something like that was meaningful. It will still be a necessary and important utility in the future.”


Spin Masters

Local universities sound off

It should come as no surprise that the University of Southern Indiana and the University of Evansville had their hands in the game of radio.

For USI, it started in 1947 when the campus station WSWI began as the commercial station WIKY (well-known call letters in the city and region) owned by local company South Central Communications. Thirty-four years later, South Central donated the frequency to the university and on Nov. 3, 1981, WSWI went on air as an AM station. The switch to FM came in 2010. Today, the station (95.7 The Spin) is managed by USI radio and TV instructor John Morris, who came to the university in 2000, and primarily run by students.

“Working with college students is what brings me the most joy and why I love the job I have both teaching and working with students at the radio station,” he says. “It is so neat to see the students grow from their first semester until the time they graduate.”

Students are taught to put the audience first when it comes to content on The Spin. Commercials do not run on the station and students are encouraged to keep the listeners top of mind with the music they select and entertainment they provide. Along with playing alternative music, the station also covers news and sports.

“There are many types of college radio stations — some allow their students to play their own music and others are like us,” says Morris. “We want to develop professionals and because of that, we approach our station as being a professional one.”

Meanwhile, while USI was getting its radio started, over on the campus of Evansville College in Olmstead Administration Building, WEVC first hit the airwaves in 1951 with programs two hours a day, five days a week. Once the school became the University of Evansville, the call letters officially changed in 1977 to reflect the new name — WUEV.

The program steadily grew over the following decades, introducing new technologies as they became available. The advancements allowed WUEV to offer UE Men’s basketball coverage and carry the World Radio Network signal. The station also opened a bureau at the Harlaxton College in Lincolnshire, England, in 1997.

By the 2010s, UE students were programming much of the day of broadcasting, offering listeners jazz during the night and daytime hours, pop music in the early evening, blues on Saturdays, and Christian music on Sundays.

In May 2019, university officials announced the decision to sell WUEV to WAY-FM (a nationwide contemporary Christian music network out of Colorado Springs, Colorado) after the conclusion of a two-year review. The transfer of the license was finalized by the FCC on Nov. 25, 2019, and WUEV played its final song before midnight. WAY-FM broadcasting began on Nov. 26 and on Dec. 4, 2019, the station’s call letters were changed to WJWA.

—Trista Lutgring

For the Community

Public radio station still strong 39 years later

The year was 1982 — it had been a decade since WNIN-TV, Evansville’s independent, nonprofit, community-owned TV station had been saved from going off air permanently. While the first Great Channel 9 Auction had revived the station in 1974 and WNIN began to take off with some of its first local programming, another plan also was in the works — starting a WNIN radio station.

It wouldn’t be until those first few years of the 1980s that the radio station became a reality. In the basement of the old McCutchanville School, WNIN 88.3 FM went on air in ’82. As the station got its bearing, playing classical music and offering radio reading services, it eventually would become known for its hybrid of classical music and NPR programming.

“Classical music was a big part of what was being done both during the week overnight and on the weekends,” says WNIN Vice President of Radio Steve Burger.

▲ WNIN Vice President of Radio Steve Burger oversees the station that has broadcasted public radio since 1982.

Though NPR shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered were popular staples mixed with the classical music, the station began to look into offering more in the early 2010s. Research conducted around 2011 and 2012 pointed out a need for a switch in what was on air, moving the station to more news-focused programming.

“The reason for that was not just what the community wanted, but also what the public radio programmers were telling us,” says Burger. “If you turn your audience over — in other words you go from news programming to classical music then back to news — you’re missing a lot of people. People want a consistent sound. They want to have the radio on in the background and know what they’re going to expect at a certain time.”

So the new course was set and WNIN-FM has not looked back. While NPR programming still has its time slots, the station now offers more of its own reporting and local news segments. Well-known hosts John Gibson and David James, along with Burger and his experience from a long career in radio, bring trusted experience while new personalities such as Paola Marizán, Kenton McDonald, Sarah Kuper, and Jevin Redman offer new perspectives. The efforts have not gone unnoticed, with numbers in listeners and fundraising rising as the coverage continues to expand.

“I’ve really enjoyed public media. You feel much more independent,” says John Gibson, who hosts Morning Edition for WNIN. “I couldn’t be happier to be here. I enjoy informing the people and getting their feedback. It’s always been about public service. This is where the best broadcast news is happening these days, in public radio.”

While NPR programming still is hosted on WNIN’s air waves, local productions such as ¿Qué Pasa, Midwest? (a bilingual program), the Summer of Music (live broadcasts of local musical festivals), and Day Out (broadcasts about one topic or regional community) have been well received, becoming just as popular as NPR shows. The success of these programs opens the door for more original programming the staff know the community is waiting to hear.

For Burger, who made it a goal to grow the audience and recognition of WNIN-FM when he was named vice president of radio in 2008, the shift has been something to be proud of.

▲ WNIN-FM host John Gibson is one of the most well-known voices on Tri-State radio

“The changes we’ve made are being embraced, our supporters are coming through,” he says. “At the state, regional, and even national level, WNIN is recognized as one of the top radio news operations in the nation. In Indiana, in the Associated Press contest, we were the best overall news operation for five of the past seven years. In 2020,¿¿Qué Pasa, Midwest? received a national Edward R. Murrow award for innovation — a truly significant award and very rare. For markets the size of Evansville, it’s just really hard to do.”

It’s all reflective of what WNIN-FM’s mission is — providing community and local news to the city of Evansville.

“What we do helps round out the market in Evansville radio. What we like to say is that supporting WNIN is not a burden, it’s a price you pay for a better Evansville. The type of news and programming we do just adds another component to that environment,” says Burger. “We are owned by the community — our charter from the FCC lists the community of Evansville as the owner of WNIN. That ownership is represented in our board of directors. We are directly responsible to the community to do the things that other stations may not find financially feasible. We’re supposed to find those things and make sure those people have a voice — that’s what we do.”

—Trista Lutgring

Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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