WOKI changing hands, format
Pinks slips will go to station's staff as part of ownership switch
By WAYNE BLEDSOE,
Knoxville radio station WOKI 100.3 FM The River is expected to run dry on Aug. 1.
The station, which was the last Knoxville station operated by locally founded Dick Broadcasting, began an eclectic format of Americana, blues and classic rock music in April 2001.
On Aug. 1, management of the station's operations will change hands from Dick Broadcasting, now of Greensboro, N.C., to Las Vegas-based Citadel Communications, which bought WIVK 107.7 FM and 11 other stations from Dick Broadcasting in 2000.
WOKI is owned by businessman and local radio pioneer Johnny Pirkle, but he sells all of the station's airtime through a local marketing agreement with Dick Broadcasting.
The move means that Knoxville's 100,000-watt commercial stations will be operated by one of three corporations - Citadel; the Journal Broadcast Group of Milwaukee, Wis.; or South Central Communications of Evansville, Ind.
According to sources at WOKI, Citadel plans to change the format and fire the station's employees, effective July 31. The terminations include longtime drive-time radio personality Phil Williams.
Aaron Snukals, general manager of The River, said the staff was informed of the deal on July 11, although he had known about the change since July 4.
Since 2000, the station has slowly crept up in the Arbitron ratings that measure radio listenership.
"The ironic thing is that in the spring book we have a really good chance of being fourth in the market," Snukals said. "I think with a format like this it took us time to get on people's radar. We really thought that Citadel was going to pick us up.
"We're doing radio the old-fashioned way. We were playing new people. We were the first to play Norah Jones, John Mayer and Jason Mraz."
The station also played locally based national artists, including Scott Miller.
"We consciously supported many things in our community and (have been) playing local musicians' work, promoting their shows or even having them perform live on The River," said Benny Smith, WOKI promotions director and host of the "Americana Cafe" program.
Snukals said he had tried to convince Journal Broadcasting and South Central corporations that own the other large Knoxville stations to pick up WOKI's staff and format but was unsuccessful.
Ed Brantley, general manager for Knoxville's Citadel Communications stations, said the company would have no comment until Aug. 1, but he did note that no decision has been made on format.
Williams, who began his career in Knoxville in 1977 and became one of the area's top-rated morning personalities in the 1980s with WIMZ 103.5 FM, said the move was a surprise.
"We were just having so much fun," Williams said. "It was like building a house. Everybody liked it; then all of the sudden you get evicted because you're on the wrong lot. It was working. You just had to ask our advertisers."
Williams said that it was more fun to watch The River grow than to just try to maintain WIMZ's numbers.
"Still, I'll land somewhere," Williams said. "I'm a free agent, which I've never been before. I'm not ready to just go play golf."
Dick Broadcasting paid Williams for a full year to sit out through a non-compete clause when he left WIMZ to join WOKI.
While Pirkle, who also owns WNFZ-FM, has no input into the programming of The River, he said that he was surprised that Citadel would change formats.
"It's a format that has soul," Pirkle said. "It's like gumbo rather than soup."
Snukals said the station's first listeners were those who had given up on radio, because they hadn't been able to find anything they liked.
"If there's a positive to it, we got to watch a radio station be born, live and unfortunately die," Snukals said. "And if we do well in the spring book (Arbitron ratings), it will prove that the little guy can make a difference."
Unlike most stations changing formats, WOKI has been allowed to announce the change and continue its format until the end of the month.
"We get to go on the air and thank people," Snukals said. "And we have until the 31st to play some good music."
Wayne Bledsoe may be reached at 865-342-6444 or Bledsoe@knews.com
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