Tucked behind a Gold Star and a Snappy Tomato, in a strip mall in the small town of Dry Ridge, sits WNKR-FM (106.7), the only independent and local broadcasting radio station in Northern Kentucky.

From Twitty to Twain, McBride to McGraw, WNKR plays all the classic country hits from 1975 to 2008. Founded in 1992 by Grant County Broadcasters, which still owns the station today, it originally played a contemporary country format but that was changed in 2002 when Jeff Ziesmann bought half of the station and took over the role of general manager. Under his leadership, the station was changed to its current classic country format. The classic country format—like an oldies channel for country fans—lets the station stand out on the crowded FM dial and made way for changes in sales and targeting as well.

“There was no real specific reason to listen to the station before. Going to classic country set it apart from the other channels. We got very little pushback. The station is substantially larger now than it was as a current country station and the billing is substantial,” says Ziesmann. “And the audience you get is slightly older than the current country format, or any other format for that matter. They are people with buying power at the height of their earning potential.”

The classic content lends itself well to a 34- to 54-year-old demographic, which is prime capital for local advertisers, according to Ziesmann, who was a leading broadcast advertising salesman prior to taking on the GM/CEO role with WNKR.

“Northern Kentucky needed its own station and its own coverage, and the advertisers needed that as well. We offer a Northern Kentucky audience at a Northern Kentucky price to businesses that don’t see many Ohio license plates in their parking lots and that’s been a successful venture,” he says. “Local merchants are the backbone to our audience and they don’t necessarily need businesses in Nevada. We’re not in the music business, we’re in the advertising business. Our goal is to deliver as many sets of ears to our advertisers as possible, not to sell records to Nashville and L.A.”

While Ziesmann chose the classic format, it is Program Director Peter Zolnowski who chooses the songs. Known as Peter Z when he’s on air from 2-7 p.m. each weekday, Zolnowski sets out to find the perfect mix of DJ chatter, local news and traffic and fan-favorite songs by the likes of country greats such as Reba McEntire, the Judds, Clint Black, Brooks & Dunn, Alabama and Garth Brooks—songs mainstream country stations stopped playing long ago.

“We are a contemporary station that plays old music. We’re talking about today,” Zolnowski says. “We are proudly local, we reflect Northern Kentucky. It’s talk about what’s going on—the politics and things to do. We have loyal followers who are dedicated. That is a tradition in this type of format. They don’t just like you, they love you. They bond with the station and the personalities.”

Zolnowski’s career, which spans more than 40 years, brought him to Cincinnati in the 1990s to work first at WCKY-AM (1530) and WSAI-AM (1360) and then at WGRR-FM from 1999 to 2005. He happily returned to the Tristate last year to join the WNKR team after spending 11 years working in the Dallas market. And while he is proud of the station’s programming, he sets his ego aside when talking about the fans’ loyalty and their favorite on-air personality.

“It’s the Larry B station. We make no bones about that. He’s the guy that has been waking them up all these years,” he says, referring to long-time DJ and WNKR morning show host Larry B who has been playing country music on the radio for 50 years—the last 19 of those at WNKR.

Whether they are gushing about Larry B, or the station in general, WNKR fans can’t say enough good things about the station.

“Finally!!! A station that plays the real country music. I’m not big on the new stuff that’s out—I don’t consider it country at all! Can’t thank you enough for preserving a heartfelt way of life. True country has songs that are filled with meaning and experiences, in songs about love and losses and heartbreak and happiness. Thank you for sharing and preserving true country,” listener Gina Pruent Geiser shared on the stations’ Facebook page, one of hundreds of glowing reviews.

These are the listeners Zolnowski and Ziesmann set out to please. They check online comments, ready to react or respond. While most comments give a proverbial thumbs up, others offer constructive criticism, typically for song selections and programming options. Zolnowski, himself a big country fan, is open to the suggestions.

“Personal taste is for ordering dinner. Playing what the listeners like is how you keep loyal listeners. I’m still listening and learning from the listeners.”

But it is fine balance. For every listener who doesn’t want to hear Carrie Underwood (“I don’t listen to hear Carrie Underwood!!! That’s not classic country!”), there are dozens of others clamoring to hear the American Idol season 4 winner belt out her early hits. Personal preferences aside, the classic format offers a sort of cheat sheet for songs’ popularity.

“The classic format offers the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. You can go back and play records from any given year that has stood the test of time,” says Ziesmann. “This format let you look over your shoulder to gain clarity that wasn’t there when the music was unfolding.”

What Ziesmann and Zolnowski don’t need hindsight to know is that in addition to country music, their listeners bleed blue—Wildcat blue. For 26 years, the station has broadcast the University of Kentucky football and men’s basketball games live. This and a three-hour Rick Jackson syndicated music program aired each Saturday evening are the only non-local programming offered on WNKR.

A single station airing nearly all homegrown programming is a rarity in today’s age when most stations are part of a commercial broadcast radio network. And while it may appear to be a David vs. Goliath situation when it comes to battling the competition, Ziesmann says that while Grant County Broadcasters doesn’t own as many properties, it is far from being the little guy in the fight.

“The quality of our product is extremely competitive to other stations and, in my opinion, our engagement is better than theirs and our sales items are extremely competitive,” he says.

He’s counting on those assets and the popularity of classic country to help him repeat the station’s success a little further north.

In July, Grant County Broadcasters made a $5.3 million deal to buy WNKN (105.9) from Northern Kentucky University.

The call letters stayed but not the station’s adult alternative format, a decision Ziesmann says was given much study. The station went back on the air in early October as a classic country channel.

“I have a lot of respect for that format but we felt we wouldn’t be able to pay our bills if we maintained that format,” he says, adding that changing the format to the same classic country programming as WNKR provides a unique synergy and a seamless ride up Interstate-75 from Dry Ridge to Piqua.

“The purchase was a year-long exercise and it’s a year of my life I’ll never get back. In the 15 years I’ve been here, many, many deals have come across my desk and we took a serious look at some of them, but each of them had a flaw. This one didn’t,” says Ziesmann. “We changed the fate and direction of this station (WNKR) so quickly by putting something on the air that there was a pent-up demand for and there’s the same thing happening here with WNKN.”

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