Matt McClellan looks back on incredible journey at Horizon Radio

2nd January 2020

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–Matt McClellan remembers the moment he became aware of Horizon Radio.

“I was walking down the hallway, and saw the old credit union space being remodeled into a radio studio,” McClellan said. “I went straight to Dr. Maksl [Adam Maksl, associate professor of journalism and then faculty advisor for Horizon Media] and said, ‘I’m not a journalism student, but I want to be part of this.'”

Fast forward to December, 2019. McClellan graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, and a year and a half of experience as Horizon Radio’s station manager.

McClellan, like his predecessor Jose Aponte, has overseen continued growth and diversification of content at the station during his tenure as manager. He can take credit for a number of unique shows, and for nurturing a culture of inclusivity and creative risk. Under McClellan’s leadership, Horizon Radio has reached new heights: Last summer, five Horizon Radio shows received first-, second-, and third-place awards at the Metro Journalism Contest of the Society for Professional Journalists chapter in Louisville.

None of this was on his radar when he sat down at the console for the first time and introduced himself with a garbled word-salad before spinning the song, “Badge,” by Cream.

“I knew the people there believed in me and were not going to let me fail,” McClellan said. “This is a family type thing.”

That family gave him the freedom to experiment, to take risks, to blow it, to overthrow convention and come out on top.

When he began, McClellan’s technical experience was limited to years of listening to Wolfman Jack and other old-time DJs, and operating the scoreboard at high school basketball games. But he soon found that the skills translated perfectly.

“The scoreboard was all about watching, timing, staying in your lane, doing what you’re doing, tasks that turned out to be very useful for radio and gave me confidence,” McClellan said.

Another key to his success was his omnivorous intellect and relentless curiosity, which made him the ideal communications major.

“Because of what I had learned in traditional communications, not only could I effectively communicate about all the stuff I thought was cool, but there are no limits,” McClellan said. “As long as you can make it relevant, you can speak about anything—you can convey passion, even wisdom.”

Listeners soon found out that he is an eclectic spirit who likes classic rock, hip hop, military history, baseball (especially the 1976 Cincinnati Reds), cutting-edge K-pop, and giving people with passion and interests access to the station.

They also found out that radio itself can be expansive and experimental.

Initially, participation in the radio station was a requirement of Maksl’s audio storytelling course. But McClellan’s reputation for erring on the side of “why the heck not?” when it comes to programming resulted in a steady stream of students proposing ideas for shows about everything from Shakespeare to dinosaurs.

Asked about his favorite moments, McClellan zeroes in on the day the dinosaur show–a programming gamble if there ever was one–broke the listenership record, and the experience of seeing members of the Horizon Radio team recognized by the region’s top journalists.

“They thought they had no business being there, because they’re not professionals, but they are professionals, and this was a big deal,” McClellan said. “Maybe we were just a bunch of students who pursued their passions, who put heart and soul into everything they did, but there we were, eating steak and asparagus beside the best journalists in Louisville.”

Asked about his legacy, McClellan is proud to have given his Horizon Radio colleagues an opportunity to shine.

“I’m okay with being the person who opens the door and holds it open for you,” McClellan said. “It’s great to be a footnote when someone does something that goes beyond your wildest expectations.”

As for personal growth, the experience has been a game-changer, building confidence and teaching him a lot about leadership.

“With a staff of 80 coming in and out of the studio, I wondered: Am I ready for this?” McClellan said. “In the end, it boils down to getting the product to be the best it can be, and getting the people to feel like they matter to me and the whole Horizon Radio organization.”

With a big team, a full schedule, professional recognition and plenty of buzz, Horizon Radio is on the rise, thanks in no part to McClellan’s deft touch and unerring instincts, and to the familial ethos of the station.

“We’re doing cool things here,” McClellan said. “We have the right staff, the right people, and I love watching them succeed.”

Homepage photo: Matt McClellan at the console of Horizon Radio.

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