NASHVILLE SKYLINE: WSM-AM Is Part of Country Music History

New Book Chronicles the Growth of Country Radio and Country Music

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

I just finished reading — and vastly enjoying — a new book about the history of Nashville radio station WSM. But Craig Havighurst’s Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City, as its title says, is about much more. It explores how Nashville came to be Music City, the role of commerce in country music and country radio and the history of country radio itself. Along the way, it examines such events as the rise and eventual destruction of the Opryland USA amusement park and the near demise of powerhouse WSM-AM as a country music radio station. And, as always, it’s a tale of commerce vs. art.

By all rights, Atlanta or Dallas should have become the center of country music, due to their early recording activity. But once Nashville had WSM and its birth child Grand Ole Opry running successfully, and after Nashville became the music publishing center with Acuff-Rose leading the way, the recording studios and record labels followed and Music Row was born out of that. Once fledgling artists began climbing off the Greyhound buses, guitar cases in hand, Nashville had an endless array of talent.

After Oklahoma media executive Ed Gaylord bought all the Opry enterprises, including WSM and TNN and CMT, things were on an uptick for several years. As Havighurst writes, all of the inter-related properties were becoming a “magic kingdom” and feeding into each other, with the radio stations and the TV channels and the music venues at the amusement park developing new talent at an unprecedented pace. All of the properties were flourishing. Then, Gaylord management began to change and turned its attention to hotel properties.

The company sold TNN and CMT to Westinghouse, which was bought by CBS, which went to Viacom. Gaylord demolished Opryland and turned it in 2000 into a shopping mall, Opry Mills, which was intended as a shopping portal for the adjacent, massive Opryland Hotel. That didn’t work out as well as planned. I first noticed that when CMT was still located at Opryland and all of a sudden I saw that the Opryland Hotel (now re-named as a resort and spa, although it’s still mainly a convention hotel), quit running its free shuttle buses between the hotel and the mall. Then Gaylord sold the mall to somebody or other.

Gaylord providentially finally decided not to pursue its plans to tear down the historic Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville to turn it into a new profitable parking lot.

WSM, meanwhile, was strongly defining itself as the flagship of country music. Its slogan became “too country and proud of it,” and it played the music that it felt like playing, unlike mainstream radio with its strict playlists. Then Gaylord, under a new manager, decided that WSM-AM, with its country format, was not fulfilling its profit potential. And as companies will do when weighing short-term profits versus long-term investment, Gaylord decided to go with reaping short-term profits. They planned to do it by flipping the station to a news and sports talk format, which presumably would rate better and thus get higher ad rates.

This is the same sort of corporate mind-think that has led to such profitable ventures as wholesale strip mining, clear-cutting entire forests, over-fishing the oceans, outsourcing jobs, pimping sub-prime mortgages, using cheap lead paint in toys, eliminating pillows and blankets and food on airline flights and cutting one-pound bags of coffee down to 12 ounces without cutting the price. These all carry different degrees of severity of offense to the world and its inhabitants, but all are done with the same intent: making as much money as possible as quickly as possible by any means possible.

Admirably, the Nashville community fought back against Gaylord’s effort to strip-mine WSM-AM. Primarily due to community and artist outcry, the country format was saved although the station suffered staff cuts and was moved to much smaller station facilities. It gets along these days with an incredibly devoted and talented staff.

WSM-AM has been on the air since 1925 and, through thick and thin, has been the flagship of country music, and it deserves to be treated accordingly.