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    This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. 
    To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, please click here.

    At 6 a.m. on Jan. 8, 1996, in the basement of the downtown public library, a 31-year-old Laura Shine switched 91.9 WFPK’s format, following Mozart with ’80s band Timbuk 3’s funky and upbeat “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” “That was an incredible moment,” Shine says. “I didn’t sleep all night long. I was a wreck. Then it snowed, and I ended up staying with my partner, who lived downtown, in case I had to walk.”

    WFPK has been a Louisville radio station since 1954. It started out as the library’s classical music station, with news sprinkled in, while WFPL — the FPL stands for Free Public Library; the WFPK call letters were chosen because “K” is a neighboring letter to “L” — was predominantly news. Through the 1980s, the University of Louisville also had a classical music station, WUOL. By the late ’80s or early ’90s, the city was discussing shutting all three down. John Grantz, who started out volunteering for WUOL in 1979, says, “Imagine trying to run Louisville Magazine and losing $70,000 a month. The city and the university did that.”

    In 1993, after a politically sticky eight-year merger, the Public Radio Partnership formed. (It’s now called Louisville Public Media.) Keeping the two classical stations didn’t make sense, but Gerry Watson, the first president of the partnership, who recently retired from working at an NPR jazz station in New England, had discovered WXPN in Philadelphia, which was doing an “adult album alternative” format, commonly called Triple-A. “College rock for adults,” host and assistant program director Shine says of the all-genres format the station mixed with its heavy jazz programming. In the first five years, listenership across all three stations almost doubled, from 90,000 listeners in 1996 to 177,000 in 2001. “(Record store) ear X-tacy had a whole lot to do with it,” says Grantz, who does underwriting sales for the stations and also co-owns Headliners Music Hall. “Music being played begat record sales begat performances begat record sales begat music being played. That was the model in 1997.”

    In 2001, legendary jazz host Phil Bailey died and, soon after, the station expanded its musical offerings to include what was then an emerging genre — indie rock. “Death Cab for Cutie replaced Coltrane. That was a big moment,” music director Kyle Meredith says. A lot of listeners were not happy with the change, he says, but it opened the door to a new audience. Ten years ago, the station’s weekly audience was about 53,000 listeners. Now it’s 67,000. 

    I meet with some of the WFPK hosts on a December morning at the South Fourth Street studio and offices, which the station moved into in 2000. Meredith says the space is now dated and will soon undergo renovations. “The corporately owned stations, they’re not leading, they’re following,” Meredith says. “They play the same seven songs every hour because they cannot upset advertisers or even one audience member.” Duke Meyer, the 63-year-old weekday morning host, has piloted the Saturday show Relics for 13 years. “Duke holds a lot of power with his show,” says Meredith, who’s in his 30s and worked in commercial radio before coming to WFPK six years ago. “During membership drives, Saturday is our biggest money-maker. By far. Relics, toward the end of the drive, will pick up $7,000 to $8,000 an hour.” (The community provides 93 percent of LPM funding, which totaled almost $6.5 million in 2015.) Meyer worked in commercial radio for 45 years before coming to WFPK. “All people called in for was, ‘Did I win something?’” Meyer says. “I’ll never forget the first day I was on the air here — the passion coming through the phone. It was good passion. People were calling and they wanted to talk. We don’t have beaucoup billions of people listening. (But) the folks that do and the ones that support us are rabid, and they’ll let you know if you screwed up. In a heartbeat. ‘That’s the worst song I’ve ever heard in my life; never play that song again.’”

    "We're a 50/50 station. Half of our programming is new music. The other half, we kind of get off on having that, 'Oh, man, I haven't heard that in forever!'" — Kyle Meredith, music director

    “We’re not in the market to please everybody,” Meredith says. “We don’t want to be that station. We want music fanatics, and music fanatics are opinionated people. But they’re gonna hang with you.”

    “Usually the hate is for one song,” Meyer says.

    “Somebody didn’t like a Neil Young song he played this morning,” Meredith says.

    “It’s a Neil Young song!” Meyer shouts.

    “The guy just didn’t like that song.”

    “But I sat on the phone with him for 20 minutes. What’s the song I hate?” Meyer asks.

    “Um, Pharrell’s ‘Happy’?” Meredith replies.

    “No, I love Pharrell’s ‘Happy,’ I just don’t want to play it so often.”

    “Oh, the William Shatner and Ben Folds song, ‘That’s Me Trying.’”

    “Every time he plays it, I’m saying, Kyle, for God's sake, that’s three-and-a-half minutes I’ll never get back.”

    “We play anything on FPK,” Meredith says. Along with a room stacked with CDs that’s adjacent to the sound booth, the hosts use streaming services such as Spotify and YouTube as tools for new music, though at first the FPK team treated those like competitors, the same as satellite radio. “The future of radio will be based on who is curating, the tastemakers,” Meredith says.

    This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. 
    To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, please click here.

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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