WSM Keeps Classic Country as Gaylord Says Station Won't Change Format

This appeared in The Tennessean - January 15, 2002

There will be a future for country's past on WSM-AM 650 after all.

Pressured by fans and country music stars, Gaylord Entertainment Company yesterday announced it has shelved any further consideration of a format change at the historic, classic country station.

Chief Executive Officer Colin Reed said Gaylord will consider a long menu of technological and programming innovations to bolster WSM's flagship program, the Grand Ole Opry, including satellite radio and potential spin-off shows branded with the Opry name.

''I'm not saying we will continue business as usual,'' Reed said. ''That is not an option for us. Things are going to change, and our goal is to make those changes positive.''

Since news broke before Christmas of Gaylord's rethinking on WSM's mission and format, listeners protested through phone banks, e-mail and an 8,500-name cyber-petition. Some even took their pleas to Mario Gabelli, whose New York-firm manages investment funds that collectively are the largest shareholder outside of the Gaylord family.

Such support was decisive, said Reed, who joined Gaylord almost nine months ago from Harrah's Entertainment, where he was chief financial officer.

''The last two to three weeks were very helpful to me in seeing the potential'' of WSM's classic country format, Reed said. ''I knew it was there. I just didn't know how big it was, and I think it's big.''

A central Gaylord goal is to build a brand while restoring the stature of the Grand Ole Opry to its 1940s glory days, when it was an essential part of a country music star's career. Reed said he wants the show ''in front of every household in this country'' so that artists see playing the Opry as a worthy alternative to a big-city arena show.

The first hurdle is negotiating with syndication companies, which could broadcast all or part of the Opry across a nationwide network of country stations. General Manager Pete Fisher said it is too early to predict the terms or launch date for a syndicated Opry.

''We're in a getting-to-know phase right now,'' said Fisher, adding Gaylord was identifying potential syndicators.

Reed and Fisher said it's also possible that the Opry name could be applied to sister radio or television shows devoted to legends or emerging artists.

''A healthy brand almost busts at the seams. Consumers want extensions of the brand,'' Fisher said. ''So the notion is, 'Why put a ceiling on this. Why limit it to a show that happens on Briley Parkway?' ''

Country stars Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Connie Smith and Billy Walker attended yesterday's announcement at the Gaylord-owned Ryman Auditorium. They expressed deep gratitude that Gaylord had listened to WSM's fans.

''The thing that touches me the most is that public opinion counted,'' Stuart said. ''The fans were the first ones on the battle lines.''

The National Life and Accident Insurance Co. founded WSM-AM in 1925. Largely through the Opry, it helped make Nashville synonymous with country music. Gaylord acquired WSM and the Opry in 1983.

For the past six months, the company has contemplated ways to reverse losses at WSM-AM that reached $1.5 million last year.

''We would not have been doing our jobs if we did not explore the possibility of changing the format of WSM-AM as we looked at strengthening the Opry,'' Reed said. ''But what it came down to, for us, is that we're not dealing with a conventional radio station. Judging by the amount of people who have called and e-mailed me over the last two weeks, the ratings may be wrong.''

Of the five country stations in the Nashville area, WSM-AM is last among younger listeners. With older fans, the station performs better than most of them, including sister station WSM-FM.

New technologies under consideration for the Opry's future include high-fidelity digital AM, which is still years away, and satellite radio, which was launched this winter. One of the two companies in satellite radio rebroadcasts Nashville's WSIX-FM 97.9.

A WSM-AM alliance with satellite radio would be ''wonderful,'' observed Robert Unmacht, a Nashville-based media analyst.

''Then you could hear them anywhere.''

By Richard Lawson and Craig Havighurst

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