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At exactly midnight on Aug. 18, 2003, horns suddenly blared and the sound of Rufus Thomas’ soulful voice hit the Wilmington airwaves.
In that instant, WUIN–The Penguin–was born.
The lively tune that started it all, aptly enough, was “Do The Funky Penguin.”
It has been a decade marked by an ever-growing list of diverse music–from the Avett Brothers to Neil Young and so, so much in between.
And for the people behind The Penguin–Hometown Wilmington Media General Manager Beau Gunn, music director and morning host Kim Czornij and afternoon deejay Eric Parson–it has been nothing short of a dream come true.
“I don’t know what I did to get so lucky,” Czornij said. “I try to be grateful every single day for this.”
Czornij, her colleagues and their fellow Penguin-heads will celebrate the station’s 10th anniversary in fitting form at 5:30 p.m. Sunday with JJ Grey & Mofro, featuring Thomas Wynn and The Believers, live at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. (Click here for ticket information)
Before the big concert, a tailgate party and pig pickin’, with music from Wilmington bluegrass band Massive Grass, will be held between noon and 2 p.m. at Capt. Bill’s Backyard Grill. There is no cost to attend the pre-show party, and the first 200 people will be served up some free barbecue. Plates are $5 after the first 200, with proceeds benefiting Alzheimer’s North Carolina, Inc.
The birthday celebration is a way, Gunn said, to pay tribute to those who have directly contributed to The Penguin’s success.
“Most radio stations don’t make it that long, especially an eclectic station like The Penguin. I feel like we beat the odds a little bit,” Gunn said. “It didn’t start with me and it won’t end with me. The Penguin is much bigger than anybody that will ever sit in that deejay chair. It’s about the artists making such great music and our audience that is willing to take a chance on that music.”
It probably doesn’t hurt that Gunn, Czornij and Parson all started out as fans themselves.
“People thought I worked there long before I really did because I was always asking them, ‘Have you heard the Penguin? Have you heard the Penguin?’” said Czornij, who joined the station five years ago after a career as a substance abuse counselor.
“It was just my love of music that brought me here–just working at record stores,” Parson added. Parson got his start on the Penguin in 2007 with “Street Date Tuesday,” a partnership between the station and Gravity Records to promote new CD releases each week.
And Gunn can still remember the tune that first got him hooked–Tom Waits’ “Step Right Up.”
“I had never heard of Tom Waits. I was a junior at UNCW and was driving in my car. I remember thinking, ‘This is weird. And I mean weird in a good way. What is this station playing this music?’ It made me really take notice of this eclectic station,” he recalled.
It’s no surprise The Penguin was still on Gunn’s mind when the following year, he was looking to wrap up his communications degree with an internship.
Gunn later came on after college graduation as part of the sales team for The Penguin. Shortly after, Sea-Comm Communications bought the station, which was at that time on 106.7 FM, and Gunn suddenly found himself in the position of director of programming.
“I certainly did not know how to run a radio station but I was kind of put at ease because The Penguin listeners were so passionate about the format and so forthcoming with their feedback,” he said.
Gunn used that passion as a guide during a time when the station’s future was a bit uncertain. Without deejays for more than a month–and hearing the music beginning to get “stale”–he reached out to the community.
“I told listeners, ‘Let’s work together.’ The Penguin survived because of the willingness of loyal listeners to understand, to help and to be patient,” Gunn said. “It was through those tough times that I actually realized we truly have something special here.”
And, he believes, their patience and understanding paid off.
“As the artists we were playing grew in popularity, The Penguin grew right alongside with it,” he said. “I’ve seen The Penguin become more accepted by the community, become more widespread.”
In 2008, the station began sponsoring live music shows at area venues, most notably Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. Since that time, The Penguin has played host to a variety of big-name regional and national acts, including Tift Merritt, Taj Mahal and Dr. John, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule, Michael Franti and Spearhead and Old Crow Medicine Show, among others.
The studio–affectionately called “The Igloo”–has been the site for some memorable in-house acoustic and impromptu performances.
“It is truly amazing. I can’t believe I am lucky enough to get to sit in this chair and have those interactions,” Czornij said. “And when you’re listening to music and thinking about musicians you really like, you often create in your head what they would be like. Then they turn out to be way more humble and down to earth than you ever imagined.”
In 2010, The Penguin launched on a larger frequency–98.3 FM. And in November 2011, Hometown Wilmington Media took over operations of The Penguin and three other stations–The Bone, BachFM and what is now Port City Radio–and launched PortCityDaily.com. Soon after, The Penguin began streaming live worldwide.
“Getting emails and calls from people in Alaska, Germany, London…that made it real. The first time that happened, I was like, ‘That is a trip,’” Czornij said. “It was just the immediacy of it. It feels like the world is connected.”
Through all the changes, Gunn and the station’s current on-air personalities said that connection is what has remained. And, they added, it is what matters most.
“I like sharing the history of music. I love music history as much as I love listening to music…Typically, that is how I converse with listeners. And listeners will call in and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that’ or they will want to share something they know. I have learned so much about music from callers,” Parson said. “You hear so many bands saying, ‘We have the greatest fans in the world,’ that it seems like a cliché. But with us, it is so true. We are such a family.”
“I wouldn’t want to do radio anywhere else or particularly with any other kind of music,” she said. “On top of that, to be part of the Penguin family…we really are a family.”
Hilary Snow is a reporter for Port City Daily. She can be reached at 772-6341 or email@example.com.