WUKY, UK Opera Theatre both benefit from donation of former recording studio

Mike Graves spoke on the air in the WUKY radio studio in McVey Hall on the UK campus. The station will move to a bigger space in 2017.
Mike Graves spoke on the air in the WUKY radio studio in McVey Hall on the UK campus. The station will move to a bigger space in 2017. Herald-Leader

WUKY has been in its current offices since 1939.

It shows.

The rooms are a small but endless warren of tiny spaces divided up over the years before the idea of an "open concept" of offices. The air conditioning, mandatory for the heat generated by radio equipment, comes from clanking window units. The heat comes from steam radiators. The offices have suffered from fire (from an overheated computer unit) and flood (from water pipes).

For its 75th anniversary, radio station WUKY-FM 91.3 is planning to move on up — and out — to a building off the Georgetown Road corridor roughly twice the size of its current offices and studios.

[Video: Ann Bakhaus and Family Donate Facility to UK Opera Theatre, WUKY Radio]

WUKY wanted a studio where it could have some of the modern radio conveniences, such as temperature control and nearby restrooms so that on-air personalities did not have to do Olympian sprints between pre-recorded material.

That's where Lexington businesswoman Ann Bakhaus, owner and president of Kentucky Eagle Beer, came in.

Bakhaus had called Everett McCorvey, director of Kentucky Opera Theatre, and invited him out to her office. They then visited a former recording studio nearby that had gone out of business.

Former University of Kentucky basketball player Ramel Bradley had recorded hip-hop there in 2008 when it was St. Claire Studios. The studio was built for $3 million and opened in 2005. It was built for $3 million and opened in 2005, hosting some big names such as Alejandro Escovedo, who recorded two albums there with producer Tony Visconti. The studio eventually folded.

Bakhaus's company owned the property. It was in excellent shape and had lots of office space, bedrooms, a full kitchen, full bath and restrooms within a few feet of the studios. She asked McCorvey if he wanted it for the opera theater.

"It was an amazing facility that held so many opportunities," McCorvey said.

Meeting with UK officials, McCorvey realized that while the opera theater could definitely make use of some of the space some of the time, WUKY was in dire straits. And UK wanted WUKY's 3,000 square feet of space at McVey Hall for classrooms.

UK wound up assigning the building mainly to WUKY and giving the opera theater the ability to use the facilities as needed.

The $1.3 million assessed value of the building was to be treated as an endowment to UK opera, which would receive the interest income from the gift — about $91,000 a year, according to McCorvey.

Given that mounting its productions "is the most expensive thing we do" — between union stage hands and Opera House space — that money provides a cushion for McCorvey's group for productions that may not be big ticket-sellers.

UK helps with student scholarships and staff, but the opera theater is on its own for production budgets, depending heavily on ticket sales.

The budget for the recent production South Pacific, McCorvey said,was about $250,000. The money from the gift "is a game changer for us," McCorvey said. "Now we'll have at least some production funds for when we move to the Opera House so we don't start at zero."

The other benefit, says WUKY manager Tom Godell, is that the radio station finally gets the space it needs: "Radio has changed dramatically. These days it's more of a partnership between public radio and the community."

He envisions community meetings and concerts off the back patio, which is near the Masterson Station development.

Godell hopes to expand parking beyond the dozen or so spaces at the recording studio so that the station can host larger groups. Parking near UK's McVey Hall is packed and coin-operated machines are limited and closely monitored.

To celebrate its 75th anniversary, WUKY has landed iconic NPR newswoman Susan Stamberg as a special guest.

Stamberg is "one of the most brilliant writers for radio," Godell said.

Godell said that he realized early on in his tenure at the station that WUKY needed a new studio.

He started work in April 2004, and "the whole time I have been here we have been looking for new studio space."

WUKY will move in late spring or early summer of 2017.

Godell praised McCorvey's role in bringing together both the opera theater and the radio station under a roof of joint benefits.

Godell said, "His vision is just tremendous."