Famed radio producer Hallie Flanagan once said that “the power of radio is not that it speaks to millions, but that it speaks intimately and privately to each one of those millions.”
Cincinnati-area listeners are treated to just that power each and every day with the wonderful opportunity to listen to Michael Monks, host of Cincinnati Edition, Cincinnati Public Radio’s weekday news and information talk show. A true media multi-hyphenate, Monks somehow also finds the time to serve as publisher/editor/chief reporter for Northern Kentucky’s River City News.
The Buckeye Flame spoke with Monks about his path to the microphone, the way he wields his own voice, and how he has fun in the area…or, at least, used to.
Before we get too deep in the thick of things, your twitter bio describes you as a “closet homosexual.” Say more on that.
[laughs]Obviously I’m not a closet homosexual. I’ve been out for 20 years, half my life. I think you need to be out and that’s just my way of doing it with my sense of my humor.
I read that 15-year-old Michael Monks created a multimedia empire!
Yes! Back in the day when I was a teenager in the roaring 90s, there wasn’t YouTube. So you couldn’t just log onto your computer and start a career in the media the way kids can now. You had to go down to the public access station and take classes. And I always wanted to be on television, so I went down to the cable channel here in Northern Kentucky, took some classes, and was certified to be able to rent their equipment and produce a show.
I produced a news magazine about life in my subdivision. [laughs]The name of the subdivision in Covington was called Clover Meadows, so the name of my program was “Clover Meadows Wrap-Up.” It was a really exciting program. We made it to air and our first episode included such thrilling segments as a very large zucchini that one of our neighbors had grown. And we played competitive POGS on air. I don’t know if you remember that.
Well, we had a POGS competition on the show. We baked a lemon merengue pie. My mother collected those terrible garage door flags that you would change out seasonally. So we went through her extensive collection of garage door flags. The ratings were huge. Our phone really did start to blow up.
It was crazy because we were new to that part of town. This was between my freshman and sophomore year and I had no friends that freshman year of high school. I would eat lunch with the librarian just to hide from everyone. But after the show aired during the summer, the school brought me in to start hosting the morning announcements on the school television. So I had a thing. I finally had a thing that I was good at! I went from not having any friends to having been the host of the morning news and being class president, and all because of that media.
Why radio as a preferred medium?
I think I just had a generic interest in broadcasting. Frankly, I have a generic interest in attention, if I’m being honest. This is the only way I know how to get it. My undergraduate degree is in radio and television. I always say that I like to perform and I like to inform. This is a way to combine all of that.
There was a documentary that came out a few years back called Do I Sound Gay? centered on that ubiquitous topic of LGBTQ+ people and the nature of their voice. What is like to be an out gay person in a field that is so centered on voice?
I think that you want to have a vocal quality that is general enough for people to either enjoy or at least not have an opinion about. I don’t have any intention behind the way my voice sounds. I listen to my show obviously for educational purposes, to learn, “Should I have done that differently?” or “How can I build on that?”
There are times when I squirm, not because I sound like a gay guy. But maybe I had a vocalized pause and I hate vocalized pauses. Or I have this habit where I might trail off a little bit. I know I’m trying to find a question while I already started to ask it. And it sort of…sounds…a little bit…like…I’m…searching…for the words.
But I’m not worried about whether people can tell if I sound gay. I think I’ve got a good voice. I don’t have that [voice drops three octaves]classic broadcast voice that I wish I had. [resumes normal voice]But I think I speak well enough and sound pleasant enough that I’m pretty non-threatening while I’m on the air.
While I was searching all things Michael Monks, I came across “Awesome City Magazine.” Tell us about that.
In addition to hosting my radio show, I publish a newspaper in Covington every day called River City News, which serves an underserved population on the Kentucky side of Cincinnati. I founded it 9 ½ years ago. About three years into this enterprise I raised some money and brought on a couple of staff members. One of our goals was to launch a print product targeting the LGBT community. There was a bar magazine available at the time and I was interested in acquiring it and expanding it into a glossy magazine.
We hooked up with an outlet out of Nashville that was producing a publication called Unite and decided that would be a way to go. We would be the Cincinnati part of this regional network of publications. We published I think four issues of Unite. After that relationship ended, we needed to fulfill some advertising obligations so we published two issues independently, but we had to change the name. So at the last moment, we just came with “Awesome City.” Everyone here hated the name. Everyone who read it hated the name. The content was great, but the name was terrible.
I have no doubt that you have your fair share of interview subjects from whom it proved difficult to extract complete sentences or get the full story. How do you navigate that?
I find that if you’re able to connect before you go on the air and just have a little bit of smalltalk, it puts people at ease and they get a feel for you. I approach journalism and broadcasting this way. I think of it as a neighborly situation. If something good has happened, I want to celebrate that. If something bad has happened, I want to have a conversation about it, but I’m going to be gentle and empathetic.
If you don’t get that opportunity to connect before you go on the air—and believe me, I’ve done interviews where I have silently wept during because it was going so poorly—the key is your own preparation. Anticipation of answers is important because if they aren’t giving you all the words you know they could, you can supply them and ask them to build on it. There are generic tips. Like pulling a quote from an earlier interview and say, “Can you expand on that?” More often than not, they at least try.
That geographic nexus of Cincinnati and Kentucky is such an interesting area of the state for LGBTQ+ life. How do you describe it?
Yeah, I’m an old man now…
Ok, can you not say that to someone older than you please? Thank you.
[laughs]Look, I had a great run back at the clubs. I had a lot of fun in college and in my 20s, up until my early 30s. Cincinnati has always been blessed to have an assortment of really cool places to go. I think back to The Dock and Adonis and Vertigo and Oscars. Those places were just awesome. And we’re fortunate to still have places like Below Zero and some of the newer ones that have come online recently.
I don’t go out a whole lot. So I don’t know anything about what people do for fun, because I don’t really get to have fun anymore, Ken. But I see pictures on Facebook, so I see that fun happens. So it might be something I explore at a later date.
But Cincinnati has progressed over the years. I came of age at that time when the charter was amended with Issue 3 and Article 12, which was a scary time. But my goodness, it has come a long way and it’s a good mid-major city for gay people. And that includes Covington where I live, on the Kentucky side. Covington is very progressive in that respect. We have our own gay bars here. I have personally never been uncomfortable in my surroundings and that’s a luxury that not a lot of people have, so I’m grateful for that.
And finally, I have it on good authority that you can give our readers good exercise tips for a pandemic.
[laughs]I know that when this pandemic started—and certainly I’m prone to turning to food for comfort—that people were joking about the pandemic 15 and putting on weight because they were sitting around. And I thought, “That is not happening to me!” So I’ve been working out a lot this entire year.
I was ahead of the curve because I work out at home anyway. I have a full gym in an armoire in my tiny-ass, 700-foot apartment. There’s like a full LA Fitness inside that cabinet. Every morning and sometimes again in the evening, I just flip that switch. That way when I do have my breakdowns like everyone else and I have eaten entirely too much cake, I have at least earned my way into crying into a spongecake.