NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Country Music Radio Gets a Foothold in New York City

New Book Details Early Struggles to Countrify the Big Apple

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

Radio station WHN in New York City will always occupy a special place in radio history as well as in a lot of listeners’ hearts and memories. For me, when I moved from Austin to New York in 1974, I was leaving a lot of spiritual anchors behind. Some were music and cultural venues such as the Armadillo World Headquarters and the Broken Spoke. And great barbecue and fabulous Mexican food. There was also the scintillating progressive radio station KOKE-FM.

KOKE-FM was a totally free-form, anarchist country music radio station. Lots of live shows and interviews, much music from Willie , Waylon , Jerry Jeff Walker , Ray Wylie Hubbard , David Allan Coe , Greezy Wheels, Michael Martin Murphy and the like.

But when I got to Manhattan, I was pleasantly surprised to find a fairly active country music community and a real audience for the music, both in Manhattan and its boroughs and also in Long Island and New Jersey. People are pretty much alike, after all, all over this country. Why wouldn’t a blue collar worker in Queens enjoy Merle Haggard just as much as one would in Houston?

And just around the corner from my apartment, I discovered a country music-friendly Irish bar named O’Lunney’s. The owner, Hugh O’Lunney, and I became friends, and I was pleased to occasionally suggest a country booking for him or even help make it happen.

I also found the wonderful Lone Star Cafe down in Greenwich Village, with Texas artist Bob Wade’s marvelous huge, 40-foot iguana sculpture on the roof and the CafĂ©’s motto, “Too much ain’t enough.” That all proved to be true. And rock clubs such as Max’s Kansas City welcomed the likes of Waylon Jennings, and the Bottom Line was a regular home for country and bluegrass artists. Country music proved to be a hardy survivor in a hard asphalt and concrete jungle.

And, in Manhattan, as a last piece of the puzzle, I found a great AM country music radio station. WHN had been around as a pioneering New York City radio home for decades and had been through many format changes over the years.

After a decision was made in 1973 to take the station country, WHN floundered a bit and went through three program directors in as many years. Finally, they turned to a 20-something PD from Pittsburgh. Ed Salamon had propelled Pittsburgh’s WEEP to the top. His secret? Listener call-out and research. The station’s listeners responded favorably, just as they were to do for WHN in New York.

Salamon has just published a memoir of his years at the station, WHN: When New York City Went Country, which is an informative, entertaining history of the station and its personalities, such as Lee Arnold and Jessie Scott.

WHN was successful but not successful enough. The problem wasn’t a lack of listeners. It was the attitude of advertising time buyers, who were lukewarm or even hostile to country music. In 1987, the station was flipped to sports talk WFAN, which became even more popular. For a time, WYNY went country and became the most listened-to country station in America until it gave up the ghost in 1996. Again, ad sales were the villain.

Then, earlier this year country returned to New York City, in the form of Nash-FM 94.7. (The official call sign is WRXP-FM.)

I recently listened to an aircheck from WHN in 1977. Artists played included Crystal Gayle , Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette , Johnny Duncan and John Denver .

In a recent listen to Nash-FM, I heard Brad Paisley , Eric Church , Clay Walker , Band Perry , Kenny Chesney , Sara Evans , Miranda Lambert and Lee Brice .

Welcome back to New York City, country radio.