Nellie Knorr 1916-2006

by Scott Westerman

Nellie Knorr, the visionary woman who created WKNR, passed away on August 10th, four months shy of her 90th birthday. She would have been the first to share the credit for WKNR’s groundbreaking success with the many men and women who were part of the Keener team. But in the end, it was she who took the risk that October night in 1963 and transformed Detroit radio forever.

Nellie KnorrWe take it for granted today, but in the 1960s, it was still unusual for a woman to be a the helm of a major broadcasting organization. It was a role that was thrust upon Nellie after the untimely passing of her husband and she took to the challenge with an energy and grace that was an inspiration to her coworkers, her family and the industry at large.

As is the case today, broadcasters in the 60s were reluctant to break with tradition. The industry was trying to find it’s way as the long-form programming of the Golden Age migrated to television. There were many who still felt that “playing it safe” was the best way to preserve cash flow. Fred Knorr was aware of the groundbreaking work being done by the likes of Todd Storz and Gordon MacLendon, but even he was uncomfortable with what seemed like a radical departure from conventional wisdom.

After his death, it fell to Nellie to make the decision.

She knew that her choices would profoundly impact her family and the many WKMH employees who depended on the organization for their daily bread. And after careful consideration, she decided to reinvent the definition of radio in Detroit.

Beyond her broadcasting career, she was a loving mother, grandmother, aunt and friend. In her later years, it was often hard for her youngest relatives to believe that this gentle, smiling personage was one of the most powerful forces in the history of telecommunications in Detroit. When she made her final public appearance at last year’s Detroit radio reunion, the family entourage that accompanied her were stunned at the prolonged ovation she received. “I never realized that Aunt Nellie had this other life,” said one. But to the hundreds of broadcast professionals who were there that night, Nellie was a living legend, a symbol of broadcast professionalism and class at its best.

For those who worked there, WKNR still remains the highlight of their careers. For the tens of thousands who listened, Keener was embroidered indelibly into the fabric of their existence. Even today, four decades after the last Keener broadcast has faded into history, our email boxes continue to be filled with grateful expressions of how WKNR was the central pivot of listeners lives.

All of this happened because of one woman’s courage.

Her passing is a profoundly personal loss. Yet we gratefully celebrate her extraordinary life… a life that lives on wherever broadcast excellence still exists.