WSM returns to roots with worldwide live Web broadcast

January 16, 2009

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Singing A New Tune

Singin A New Tune
WSM returns to roots with worldwide live Web broadcast

Nashville Business Journal - by Jeannie Naujeck Staff Writer

Mike Terry, a DJ with WSM in Nashville, broadcasts his show from the Opryland Hotel.

For years, WSM-AM 650 was the radio legend that lacked the ratings to show it. The iconic station that defined Nashville to the rest of the world was bleeding red ink.

But today, the station that called itself “Too Country — And Proud Of It” is in the black. Freed of its last tie to corporate radio, an energized staff has been given free reign by owner Gaylord Entertainment Co. to make retro radio hip again by embracing new artists and technology and planning an ambitious live show it hopes will be a modern-day “Grand Ole Opry.”

The new show, “Back to the Barn,” debuts Feb. 20 and adopts the variety show format of radio programs such as WSM’s “Opry,” the longest-running live radio show in history. But the show will feature new artists as well as legends from a variety of genres and will be streamed and video cast worldwide on WSM’s site.

The title refers to an early name of the Opry, which was called “WSM Barn Dance” during its evolution in November 1925. But it’s not your grandfather’s Opry. “Back to the Barn” is going after a younger demographic, broadcasting live from downtown on Friday nights.

The Barn door will be open to everyone from rockers and hipsters to bluegrass and country legends, a cross-pollination experiment that WSM crew say happens organically in Music City. Pop and rock musicians such as Robert Plant, Sheryl Crow, Jack White and Kid Rock have moved to Nashville, reinventing their careers by collaborating with bluegrassers and country legends. And hot young bands such as The Steeldrivers and Old Crow Medicine Show have taken old-time music to a broader stage.

“This station has a history of presenting artists, not just playing their music,” says Craig Havighurst, author of “Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City.” “It’s the old WSM aesthetic, updated.”

The WSM team believes the station can discover and introduce new acts, and also turn a profit.

“This station can make a lot of money,” general manager Chris Kulick says. “There was a time when management was told (AM radio) couldn’t make money. But I would love to make us No. 1 billing station in the market again.”

The $900 million Gaylord (NYSE: GET) doesn’t break out station revenues, but Kulick says WSM is making money.

“We think the hard times are behind us,” he says.

For five years, WSM operated under a joint sales agreement with Cumulus Media whereby Gaylord paid Cumulus for sales and marketing support but retained management and programming control. That agreement expired last year, cutting WSM’s last tie to corporate radio.

“We’re just a single independent station again,” says sales manager John Walker, 40, who left Cumulus in 2007. “There’s no corporate dictate as to how the radio station should be programmed, and we don’t need someone in Atlanta with a hard drive telling us what’s country.”

Global reach

WSM has been a unique animal since its first airing Oct. 5, 1925. It is a broadcasting icon that represents Music City in the minds of millions, thanks to its powerful 50,000-watt signal.

WSM is one of a handful of “clear channel” stations, meaning no station within a 750-mile radius of its transmitter can broadcast on its frequency. At night, that signal reaches 38 states and Canada — occasionally as far as Sweden, says Eddie Stubbs, the announcer whose encyclopaedic knowledge of country music has made him a fixture on and WSM.

“There’s a tremendous mystique around WSM radio. This is as close to Nashville as most people will ever get,” Stubbs says.

With his combed-back hair, pressed white shirt and narrow tie, Stubbs, 47, appears to have stepped out of another era himself. He calls himself a “card-carrying moldy fig” and “a 78 RPM man in an iPod world.” But Stubbs insists that WSM is not a “museum piece” and applauds the opportunity technology is giving the station to reinvent itself.

“The Internet has opened up this international audience. I’m all about anything that can help this station succeed and move it into the future,” Stubbs says.

On a recent Friday call-in request show, Stubbs fielded calls from Germany and the United Arab Emirates, as well as both coasts and everywhere in between. Callers ranged from the elderly to an 11-year-old Buck Owens fan.

None of that fits cozily into the mainstream radio model, which likes neat demographics, preferably young and trendy, to sell to advertisers, says radio analyst Robert Unmacht. But WSM’s Walker says the new show has already sold more than half its sponsor spots and is on track to sell out. Committed sponsors include Vietti Chili, Ascend Federal Credit Union and Williams Sausage.

Sponsored musical features once were a mainstay, including the King Biscuit Flower Hour, Planters Pickers, NBC Symphony Orchestra and Texaco’s Metropolitan Opera broadcast.

WSM itself started in 1925 as a promotional vehicle for National Life & Accident Insurance Co. (the call letters mean “We Shield Millions.”) It played a wide variety of music, switching to an all-country format in the 1970s.

In 1983, Gaylord bought WSM, along with cable channel TNN and Opryland theme park. Gaylord also bought two other FM stations and launched several music businesses, all of which have been sold as the company focused on its core.

coming ‘full circle’

WSM-AM was a market leader in its heyday, with a large news staff. But over the years, it lost its shine — and its ratings — as radio consolidation gave big owners greater influence and an economic edge over independent stations.

“They’ve been through a lot of program directors on the AM, and everything they did along the way made it a little cheaper, less big sounding,” Unmacht says.

In 2001, word got out that Gaylord was considering switching to a sports/talk format, and the station was besieged by listeners. A crowd that included country legend George Jones showed up outside the door, and Gaylord quickly retreated. Two years later, Gaylord sold its two FM stations — WSM-FM and WWTN — to Cumulus, but kept WSM-AM partly as an advertising vehicle for its resorts and attractions, Unmacht says.

“For Gaylord, the main ticket is keeping people tied into the Opry and feeding them into things like the Wildhorse Saloon,” he says.

Some of WSM’s top managers now are industry veterans who see an opportunity to build back a legend.

“We built this city, and we’re taking Nashville back,” Kulick says.

New initiatives include partnering with stations to share content, as well as taking “Back to the Barn” on the road and adding programs such as “Bluegrass Underground,” a live show broadcast from a cave in McMinnville which has booked hip acts like The Silver Jews.

Unmacht, the analyst, says he hopes “Back to the Barn” will capture the excitement of old-time radio.

“It’s just a country show unless you’ve got the mythical radio part around it. That’s what keeps ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ so hot,” he says. “The live radio angle adds to the mystique.”

Kulick says he will stay true to the legend.

“We so believe in this project. There’s so much history tied up in these call letters,” he says. “With all of us, the passion is to go down in history as having taken this station where we want it to go.” | 846-4251

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