We are a community divided. And the name of that divide is the Ohio River.
Actually, even beyond the separation created by our greatest defining geographical feature, Greater Cincinnati is further subdivided by multiple boundaries, jurisdictions and even state lines, a complicating factor that often doesn’t work to our benefit. One of journalist Michael Monks’ big goals as he takes on what he calls “the biggest opportunity I’ve ever had” is to help us see past what divides us.
On Feb. 4, Monks takes over the hosting duties for WVXU’s “Cincinnati Edition,” Cincinnati Public Radio’s weekday deep dive into the stories and subjects that make Cincinnati a vibrant community. Monks is not new to WVXU audiences, having been a regular guest on the program the past few years, bringing in particular a Northern Kentucky expertise from his role as the publisher/editor/chief reporter for the River City News. He’s also a Covington native who, for a 38-year-old, has a long list of credits in reporting and producing, including stints with WXIX-TV and WLW-AM.
"Cincinnati Edition" moves to a new time, an hour earlier at 12 p.m., and will be heard five days a week. Here’s a Q&A with the new host about what he’s expecting and how he is approaching the job.
How do you see your responsibilities as the leader of a public conversation in the current environment being buffered by so many forces – polarized social media, distrust of mass media, traditional Cincinnati skepticism. Are you like a columnist of the airwaves?
I think I still have to be a straight shooter, the way that I have been with the journalism that I produced all these years at the River City News. So we're going to find a way to have intelligent, elevated conversations — about important topics, about interesting topics, about fun topics — and find a way to make a different kind of noise, a kind of noise that people want to listen to, and where people feel like their perspectives were either challenged or enhanced because of the level of our presentation.
Do you consider yourself more of a newspaper guy or a broadcaster?
I definitely grew up as a broadcasting guy more than newspapers. I always liked the news. I liked reading newspapers as early as grade school. But I was always more attracted to the broadcasting side of things. And when I was at Holmes Middle School, I got my first taste of reading a script into a camera and thought, “Man, this is it. This is what I'm going to do.”
So then my family ended up moving to the south end of Covington, which put me in a different school district. So I went to Scott High School and I became the host of the morning announcements and I started to do some public access shows, back before YouTube, when teenagers had to go take classes and then rent equipment from the cable company, and then you would go out and actually shoot and edit your show and wait a couple of weeks before the cable company would air your program. I did all of that.
Podcasts are really a big thing now, and so many of them have tried to make themselves in the mold that NPR has brought to storytelling. What do you think stands out about that style that works, and how will you incorporate it into what you do?
The conversation is the most important part. It's not about noise. It's not about bells and whistles. It's not about shocking you or offending you. It's just talking. And it's really the only radio format that's like that. You go up the dial or if you flip over to the AM side, it's just anger and shouting and people trying to foster that and expand that. Whereas here, the conversation is challenging, it's fun. And most importantly, it's smart. I want to do a smart show. I don't know that I am smart. I want to have smart people around me and we will have smart people on the show. I want to learn, I want to grow and I certainly want the audience to I think that's the difference here.
What do you see as some big, long-term area stories you want to keep an eye on with the show?
We're going to be talking about the relationship between the Cincinnati side of the river and the Northern Kentucky side of the river. I think it's important, and I'm coming to this as a Northern Kentucky guy who feels like, you know, I've infiltrated Cincinnati. (Laughs). And because I've got this chair now and get to talk into a microphone to the masses, rather than just staying in Covington, I'm really looking forward to exploring this strange and fun and important relationship between these two sides of the river. Because it is very complicated, and I find it fascinating and interesting. There are very significant issues out there that literally connect them, like the bridges and the need to address infrastructure issues, and how will we go about doing that collaboratively?
Then there are other significant issues such as the media. The mass media in this market is almost exclusively focused on stuff that's happening in Cincinnati, and that's to Northern Kentucky’s detriment. I'm also a big fan of the art scene around here, and I'd like to find some creative ways to talk about creative people. Rather than just having people come on and plug a play or an upcoming concert, I'd like to get in to why Cincinnati is so fortunate to have the art scene that it has and how we're able to sustain that. Outside of that, I'm looking forward to just doing more creative storytelling in general. So while this is mostly a news talk show, with some lifestyle components to it, I'm a storyteller myself, and I'm going to be taking out the recorder and meeting the community and interviewing people and trying to produce some creative stories that will be injected into the program.
What are two favorite stories you’ve covered in your career, and what does that say about how you will be as a host?
I always fall back on this one and I hate that, but I’m so associated with it, I can’t get away from it, and that’s the story of the Goebel goats escape of several years ago. (Editor’s note: In what was supposed to be a parade in 2016, seven goats escaped and wandered through Covington. Monks broadcasted the incident live on Facebook as it went viral.) That’s one that will be big for me. I’ll always be associated with those goats, which is strange for somebody that is terrified of animals.
One I’d point to that’s a little more general was the 2018 election coverage, because that's an area that Northern Kentucky really struggles with because of its lack of proper media. I feel like I did my best work this year, because I hosted about a dozen debates for multiple cities, and was able to broadcast them all live on Facebook.
So is that a little hint of what we’ll get, one story is entertaining and lighthearted and the other is civic-minded and impactful?
That’s exactly right. You have to keep in mind that I’m also an actor and I do a lot of community theater. I really am the comedy and the tragedy. That is my face.
I read at one point in your life you thought you’d like to be a college basketball coach. If that had worked out, what local school would you choose to be at?
Oh, NKU, without a doubt. I’m an underdog and I love an underdog.
I grew up a big UK fan, and it’s been an interesting perspective to go from being a fan of the all-time greatest college basketball program to this upstart program. But I’m an alum and I love it. This fits me better. I’m a scrappy kid from Covington who feels like I’ve had to overcompensate and overachieve in order to be on the same playing field, and that’s what they do. And that’s the kind of program I would want to lead. But you can bet regardless of where I’d be coaching there would be jacket-throwing and profanities and I would be ejected on a regular basis.
So what do your parents and your old friends who’ve known you the longest think of this new turn in your career?
I think everybody's really excited for me. This feels like the biggest opportunity I've ever had, and I think they all recognized that before I did.
I guess I've been so caught up in just the day-to-day work and building this thing that I have in Covington that this just felt like another project for me at first. But to watch all the love come in and all the excitement, it finally caught me that I'm doing something bigger now. And I’ve got a lot of people rooting for me, so I feel a lot of gratitude for that.