image: Chad Crawford

Val Hoeppner

“I have this saying at the station: if we take care of our artists and we take care of our community, they’ll both take care of us. And that has proven to be one-hundred percent true.”
— Val Hoeppner

As Executive Director of public radio station WMOT-FM, it’s Val Hoeppner’s job to make sure all that caretaking gets done. From mentoring student interns and building playlists with Program Director Jessie Scott, to running live events and fundraisers, and taking photos to creating digital content, Hoeppner’s days are more than full, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I get to do all of the things I love, really and truly,” she says. “I love the music; I love to be a part of that day in and day out. I love the digital side of things and reaching people in
new ways.”

Hoeppner takes pride in the community of listeners and artists that has developed around 89.5 Roots Radio since the Middle Tennessee State University station flipped its programming from a mix of classical and jazz to an Americana format in September of 2016. “Our three pillars at the station are music discovery, music experiences, and building community,” she says. “The most rewarding part, I think, is building community. I know a ton of our members; when we see each other on the street, or at WMOT events, they hug me because we’re family, a family of people who love this music.”

It was that sense of community and a love of diversity that drew her to settle in East Nashville when she moved from Indianapolis in 2008 to work at The First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. A photojournalist by training, Hoeppner worked for Gannett newspapers in the Midwest. She’d also been volunteering with The Freedom Forum, which promotes First Amendment education, when John Seigenthaler — famed journalist, Nashville native, and First Amendment Center founder — invited her to work with him as a specialist in diversity and multimedia training.

“When we came to town, I was big into biking,” Hoeppner says. “I said to our realtor, I want some place that I can get to a bike trail and ride 40 to 50 miles without getting on the highway, and by the way, I have a wife [Beth Shroeder, a school counselor]. And the agent was like, well, of course it’s East Nashville. I was just enamored with everything about the neighborhood. Two of our kids are Native American, two of our kids are Hispanic, so we wanted a place where we felt comfortable, our kids felt comfortable, where they could go to school with kids who looked like them and talked like them and were being raised like them, so all that just kind of came together. And the creative vibe here is so good.

“[Seigenthaler] was kind of like a grandfather to me; he stood for so many of the things I believe in. At the end of the day, I’d stop by his office to say good night, and from time to time, he’d invite me to sit down and have a drink with him. He drank Irish whiskey, Redbreast. I’d get to hear his stories about the freedom rides and Nashville during Civil Rights days.” After Seigenthaler died in 2014, his secretary saw to it that Hoeppner inherited his office cache of premium
Irish whiskey.

When The Freedom Forum, which operated The First Amendment Center, shifted most operations to Washington D.C., Hoeppner didn’t want to leave Nashville. She credits Seigenthaler with connecting her to MTSU, where in 2013 she signed on as Director of The Center for Media Innovation and then was approached by Ken Paulson, Dean of the College of Media and Entertainment, to helm the WMOT format switch. It was an easy sell. “I’ve been passionate about this music since way back in college,” Hoeppner says. “I love the diversity, the inclusion of female voices, the musicianship, and dedication to craft.”

She also relishes the opportunity to give women artists more airplay and female students more opportunities to work in radio. “Jessie Scott and I have made it our mission to amplify female artists and give them an even playing field,” she says. “We also want to encourage women to work in production, and some of those students are now producing our shows. It’s good for them as students; it’s good for the community, and it’s good for the artists. Diversity is truly changing this industry.”