Golden Oldies at the Mike
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?
LifeSphere, which owns Maple Knoll Village, gave the station free use of a suite in its assisted-living center. The station soon began broadcasting a wider range of programs.
Larry Findlay introduced listeners to his passion for barbershop harmonies, while veteran radio announcer Bill Nimmo began featuring the best of Broadway musical soundtracks. Edwin Dooley, an engineer who has since died, collected enough records for a show about theater pipe organ performances.
Most of the volunteers, anticipating their deaths, stockpile introductions, commentary and other material so their shows can run long after they’re gone.
Ernie Waits Sr., one of the country’s first African American radio broadcasters, was 84 when he died in his sleep last month. But his “Thought for the Day” -- short musings on life, faith and aging -- can still be heard on WMKV because listeners begged the station to continue them.
Cliff Baker, who died two years ago of Parkinson’s disease at the age of 78, had recorded dozens of introductions to big-band performers. The station mixed them with music, and now plays “The Big Band Era” twice a week. WMKV still gets e-mail from fans of Baker’s show.
“These are our highlight years. These songs are tied up with our memories and our youth,” Hornbaker said. “No one wants to throw them away.”
While growing up in Cincinnati, Hornbaker watched the boys in her high school try to graduate early so they could fly bombers in World War II. Her family would gather around the radio to hear the news, and listen to Bing Crosby encourage Americans to save their pennies and buy war bonds.
“I spent my pennies on records,” Hornbaker said. “I played ‘Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night in the Week’ over and over until it broke.”
Those records came with her to Maple Knoll.
After a short walk with her dog, Hornbaker grabs the music CD she’d finished the previous night and steps outside. A meandering path flanked by fading rose bushes and trees losing their autumn color leads to Maple Knoll’s four-story assisted-living building.
Hornbaker walks past the fitness center inside, listening for the sound of WMKV. The wheelchair aerobics class has just finished. Nearby, sunlight cuts through stained-glass windows that surround the Olympic-sized pool where swimmers glide gracefully in 90-degree water.
As she turns a corner, Baker’s voice rolls out of the speakers at the Looking Glass beauty spa. Each salon chair is booked, with ladies seeking the perfect perm. They sigh when Baker introduces Glenn Miller. They hear every hiss and crackle on the digital recording as the orchestra plays “Moonlight Serenade,” as if Baker were placing the needle on the vinyl.
The deejays at WMKV prefer to play recordings from original LPs, flaws and all.
“These records are like vintage wine,” Hornbaker said. “Would you try to filter it to make it taste new? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d lose the flavor.”
Hornbaker enters WMKV, where obituaries of Baker and Waits hang on the wall next to printouts of fan e-mails. A gramophone sits in one corner, forgotten after it was used to play graphite discs donated earlier this year.
She slips into a chair inside the recording studio and reaches for a pair of gray headphones. Her radio engineer, 74-year-old Fred Asmus, is ready at the soundboard.
The deejays try not to play the same song more than once every three months. Rap and top-40 stations routinely play the same track several times a day.
When the deejays grow tired of their own collections, they turn to the station’s music library in a basement at another Maple Knoll building. The room is a maze of wooden shelves crammed with records. LPs still needing to be sorted are stacked in pretzel boxes. Steps away, 78s and LPs sit waiting.
“If we get the stuff out of people’s basements, it usually looks like the dog chewed on it,” said librarian Morden Grant, 79.
With donations from the station’s volunteers and listeners, the collection is composed of more than 100,000 records, gramophone discs and some other recording media so old that the staff has had to jury-rig equipment to play them.
Earlier this morning, Asmus wandered through the library in search of inspiration. After digging through the stacks, he comes across a few interesting options for the show, including a nearly perfect copy of Tommy Dorsey and his Clambake Seven band doing “The Sheik of Araby.”
This 1921 swing tune has been recorded by a number of artists over the years: the Red Nichols Orchestra in the late ‘20s and Benny Goodman in ’37, the Beatles in ’62 and Leon Redbone in ’77. Asmus takes the 78 record back to the studio and adds it to the list of tracks that Hornbaker will play.
Bobbing her head in time to “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” Hornbaker slips on her headphones. She brushes her short, thinning blond locks out of her eyes. As the last harmony fades, her pale pixie face brightens with excitement. She takes a deep breath and launches into her routine.
“Good morning WMKV listeners. This is Alice Hornbaker. I’m your over-the-hill disc jockey, broadcasting live from inside the studios of WMKV and WMKV-FM.org on the Internet.”
She turns to Asmus and cheerfully asks, “What have you got coming up first?
Asmus replies: “The Sheik of Araby.”
“Ha, ha! That’s a good one, yeah, that’s a good one,” Hornbaker responds.
Outside the soundproof glass, the phone rings intermittently from fans pleading for their favorite tunes. Some voices sound as young as Hornbaker’s grandchildren. More often, they are as scratchy as the worn vinyl she spins.
During the hour show, Hornbaker doesn’t mention the recent election or any other news. The only weather forecast comes if Hornbaker looks out the window.
She shares tidbits about entertainer Jimmy Durante and anecdotes about people’s stupidity, including a tale of a thief who accidentally locked the keys inside the car he’d just stolen. When she notes that a dog psychologist will visit the local library, she deadpans, “Won’t that be interesting?”
Asmus cues up one of Hornbaker’s favorites, Louis Armstrong singing “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” He turns up the volume. Hornbaker briefly closes her eyes and begins to slowly sway in time to the song. For the next four minutes, she is lost amid the warm rumble of stand-up bass and the raspy groove of Armstrong’s voice.