Still Country: WSM Keeps Format, Opry

This appeared on - January 14, 2002

WSM-AM will stay country.

Ending weeks of speculation and listener outrage, Gaylord Entertainment Corp. announced today (Jan. 14) that Nashville radio station WSM-AM (650) will keep its country music format. Gaylord CEO Colin Reed broke the news at a press conference held at Ryman Auditorium and attended by country stars Vince Gill, Connie Smith, Marty Stuart and Billy Walker.

Reed also said that the Grand Ole Opry will remain on WSM-AM, the station that launched the world-famous radio show 76 years ago. He noted, however, that there would be "changes" at the station, although he did not hint at what those changes might be.

Since the press conference was held at the historic home of the Opry in front of a banner that showed WSM-AM’s lute-like logo, Reed’s announcement was somewhat anti-climatic.

In his remarks leading up to the announcement, Reed made it clear that Gaylord sees the Opry as its crown jewel and a property that must be developed. He marveled at the Opry’s fame, noting that when he was on a recent trip to London, a car rental clerk at Heathrow Airport saw he was from Nashville and said, "Oh, the home of the Grand Ole Opry."

Reed also would not say if personnel changes were anticipated at the station or if any headway had been made toward getting the Opry syndicated. He did confirm that potential syndicators were interested in the show.

Beside the prospect of syndication, Reed said that other approaches were being discussed that might increase Opry listenership and profitability. These include devoting more days to Opry shows than the present Fridays and Saturdays; featuring on the Opry a mix of up-and-coming artists, "legends" and country stars; and using the company’s database to communicate with listeners directly.

In explaining his decision to keep the station country, Reed said, "What it came down to for us is that we weren’t dealing with a conventional AM station. ... The ratings [which showed a decline in listenership] might be wrong. We couldn’t look at this in a vacuum."

What other station, he asked rhetorically, could make national news -- as WSM-AM has lately -- simply by considering a change in format?

By Reed’s account, his company had never decided to switch the station to a sports/talk format. This was simply one of the options looked at, he maintained. He did indicate that he was more heartened than intimidated by the impassioned e-mails, phone calls and demonstrations in support of keeping the station traditional country. "We have to shape the Grand Ole Opry and WSM by what the listeners say to us," he said.

Having completed his announcement, Reed looked over at staunch traditionalist and Opry member Stuart and said, "You can put that gun away, Mr. Stuart."

After Reed finished answering questions from reporters, Gill took the microphone to say, "I’ve watched the papers over the last couple of weeks, and I saw mostly bashing of Gaylord. ... But on behalf of all of us that really revere the tradition and the reverence of where this music began, we also should be willing to say thank you."

By Edward Morris

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