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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Golden Oldies at the Mike

The deejays at WMKV play the music of their youth: big-band tunes dating back decades. It's radio by, and for, a retirement community.

November 30, 2004|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

SPRINGDALE, Ohio — The alarm rings and the dog barks. It's 6 a.m. Alice Hornbaker climbs out of her daybed and squeezes past a table covered with computer equipment.

The 77-year-old deejay nearly fell asleep there last night, lulled by the wooing of Frank Sinatra and the hum of her hard drive. "The Late Show" was over by the time Hornbaker finished burning songs onto a CD for her show on WMKV -- the only FM station in the country licensed to a retirement community.

Every day, whether she's on the air or not, Hornbaker makes the five-minute walk from her apartment to the station, tucked in a corner of Maple Knoll Village. Here, she and 125 volunteers, most in their 60s to late 80s, run the nonprofit station.

WMKV's programming -- as well as its disc jockeys -- hearken back to a more civil time. It specializes in big-band music from the 1920s through the '50s, and has a playlist that spotlights Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and other bandleaders from swing music's golden age.

Volunteers also host talk programs that address issues facing the elderly. Listeners tune in each week to "Senior Computer Talk" to learn how to use their PCs and to "Grandparenting Today" for help with raising their grandchildren.

About 25% of the volunteer radio staff lives at Maple Knoll, a gated complex of townhouses, apartment buildings and nursing facilities with 700 people. The rest drive from their own homes or other retirement communities. Many had never been inside a radio station, let alone behind a microphone. But they were drawn by the music and WMKV's sense of camaraderie.

Annie Wagner, 75, who had some radio experience from college, begged to host a show -- and cajoled her husband, Robert, 79, to learn how to work the soundboard. She now heads the station's advisory board and anchors a four-hour show on Saturdays.

"You don't know how much time you have in this world," said Wagner, who has been on the air for more than six years. "We live for every day and every radio shift."

Hornbaker moved into a one-bedroom apartment at Maple Knoll this spring to be closer to WMKV. "The station and the music we play are our connection to feeling needed and alive," said Hornbaker, who has hosted a weekly show on Mondays for seven years.

About half the programs, such as "Song Shop with Annie Wagner" and "Music and Memories With Attitude With Alice Hornbaker," are live. The rest are recorded and automatically cued up by a computer.

WMKV is licensed to broadcast up to 1,000 watts of power -- enough to reach the tristate area of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. The staff uses less than half the allotted signal to avoid interference with nearby rock and talk stations.

"That would be just rude, don't you think?" Hornbaker asked.

Founder and general manager Alan Bayowski, one of WMKV's three paid employees, said the station reaches 30,000 local listeners and as many as 60,000 people tune into its Web broadcast at any one time. Much of its $300,000 annual budget is paid by donations from retirees on a fixed income.

Although most of its fans are 60 or older, a growing number of younger listeners are tuning in. When swing music enjoyed a comeback in the late 1990s -- giving rise to bands such as the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy -- a new generation discovered WMKV.

"It makes you feel happy," said Tamara Griggs, 34, who listens to WMKV as she works at Evers Greenhouse in Cincinnati. "I love hearing the deejays talk about their memories of these songs."

Bayowski and Maple Knoll started the station in 1995 as a limited in-house service -- a means of reaching infirm and immobile residents to announce such things as lap pool hours and delivery times for Meals-On-Wheels.

It broadcast a six-hour loop of music and prerecorded spots from a spare room donated by a firehouse near WMKV's radio tower. There were no news headlines, and no debates over politics or the economy. There still aren't any today.

Hornbaker -- who spent decades working as a newspaper journalist, as well as a TV and radio broadcaster -- learned about the station while writing a column on aging for the Cincinnati Enquirer. She was among the first volunteers to join in 1995; she recorded public service updates for the fledgling station.

Over time, word of mouth drew listeners outside the retirement community. Grandchildren discovered WMKV while visiting their grandparents at Maple Knoll -- about 20 miles from downtown Cincinnati -- and began tuning in when they returned home. Listeners driving across town stumbled across it and called to request songs.

In 1997, Bayowski, eager to expand WMKV, sought advice from retired radio broadcasters and engineers in the area. They offered their own expertise and extensive music collections: Could the station use their decades of broadcasting experience and put them to work as live announcers?

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