Student to star: Alumna Katie Neal’s journey to hosting on Big Apple’s only country music station
Illinois State alumna Katie Neal ’12 never wanted to work in radio, because she hated the sound of her own voice. Little did she know one day she would be nominated for a national radio award for her work as midday host on 94.7 NASH FM, the only country music radio station in New York City.
Neal is grateful to be an on-air host in America’s largest city, and to be nominated for the Academy of Country Music Awards On-Air Personality of the Year.
“It’s unbelievable. I’m still shocked by my nomination,” Neal said. “I check every day to make sure somebody didn’t make a typo! I’m so honored that the Academy for Country Music would nominate me, and I’m beside myself to be the only solo female that was nominated.”
Neal got started in radio when she took an introductory course as a mass media major at Illinois State. She enrolled in the class only because it was a requirement to graduate, but she soon fell in love with radio.
School of Communication faculty, like Deb Lesser, then director of WZND, suggested Neal join the student-run radio station’s on-air staff. Neal thought the idea was crazy at first, but after she became a member of the WZND team, she knew she had made the right decision.
“I love entertaining people and making them laugh, and I knew then that radio would be a great way to do it.” Neal said. “We had so many great opportunities at WZND, and the faculty and staff always encouraged us to think outside of the box with all of the resources we had available at our fingertips. It gave me experience that not a lot of people going in to radio have.”
Neal would take advantage of those resources to co-found Wake Up Normal, WZND’s morning show. Her show was part of an overhaul of WZND. The station switched from a split format (half rock, half hip-hop/hits) to a variety format with a focus on current pop music. Steve Suess ’10, M.S. ’12, the current director of Convergent Radio Broadcasting at WZND, was a student alongside Neal during the station’s transformation.
“It was so much more than just changing the kind of music we played,” Suess said. “It was everything from branding to tone to our off-air logo; it was essentially like creating an entire radio station from scratch. We kept the call letters and that was pretty much it. Katie was instrumental in helping that move forward, and you know the change was a success because we’re following the same footsteps to this day.”
After hosting Wake Up Normal, Neal worked for Bloomington-Normal station 101.5 WBNQ-FM, doing digital advertising, promotions, and production. Her supervisors were so impressed with her work they volunteered to help find her a job within Cumulus Media’s network of stations. Neal decided to move to New York.
Neal found work in sales and did part-time voice-over work for commercials. She eventually landed a part-time on-air gig at NASH FM before becoming the full-time midday host. The station is the only country music radio station in New York, and has been around six years.
Neal is returning to Illinois State in mid-April for COM Week. She plans to speak with current WZND students about her experiences.
“I’m so happy about my decision to go to Illinois State,” Neal said. “They have such a reputable radio program, and I recommend to people all the time that if you want to learn about radio, that it doesn’t get better than WZND.”
If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Tune in to CBS at 7 p.m. April 7 to watch the Academy of Country Music Awards and see if Neal brings home of the On-Air Personality of the Year Award. Listen to Katie Neal on-air at nashfm947.radio.com, weekdays from 10 a.m.–3 p.m.
Timothy Wyland can be reached at tjwylan@IllinoisState.edu.