[JPL] The Sound of Nashville Selling

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Wed Oct 17 09:33:00 EDT 2007


The Sound of Nashville Selling
October 17, 2007; Page D9

Wth scarcely a dozen years left before the 100th anniversary of commercial
radio in 2020, the industry is battling a sense that its best days are long
in the past. And radio's future is hard to discern through all the static in
the air: Changing consumer attitudes and the introduction of new
technologies such as the MP3 player and souped-up cellphones have undermined
the medium's role as the dominant provider of audio news and entertainment.

In the midst of commercial radio's struggles comes a reminder of its glory
days, when stations' soaring transmitter towers seemed like monuments to the
broadcasters' influence. "Air Castle of the South," by Craig Havighurst,
tells the story of one such station, Nashville's WSM-AM. It was central to
the popularization of country music and helped spawn Nashville's
entertainment industry, which was valued at $6.38 billion annually in a
Belmont University study last year.

While Mr. Havighurst, a music journalist and documentarian, is most
interested in the station's cultural import, "Air Castle of the South" also
presents a fascinating case study in the rise of commercial broadcasting.
>From its inception, WSM was about selling -- selling everything from
insurance policies to baby chicks, from baking flour to the wonders of
Nashville itself. But especially insurance policies.

WSM was the brainchild of Edwin Craig, a "wireless buff" whose family held a
major stake in the Nashville-based National Life and Accident Insurance Co.
(Motto: "We Shield Millions.") In 1925, Craig sold his radio idea to a
skeptical board as an innovative promotional tool -- an efficient way to
raise the company's profile in the countless small towns where footsore
National Life "Shield Men" worked door-to-door sales and collection routes.
Craig positioned his new shiny thing as a public service of National Life.
The station offered a mix of popular and classical music along with lectures
and sermons by local worthies -- all of it live and, initially, without

Just a few months after its debut, WSM filled a Saturday-night gap in its
schedule with a "barn dance" program that would become known as the "Grand
Ole Opry." Clearly the foot-stompin', fiddle-driven show was an instant hit
in rural middle Tennessee: Throngs of rustics jammed WSM's hallways every
Saturday night hoping to catch a glimpse of the performers on the broadcast.

The reaction inside the city gates was less enthusiastic. Nashville's
aristocracy, which fancied its town "The Athens of the South," got a severe
case of the vapors when previously refined WSM began featuring what was then
known as "hillbilly music." But Edwin Craig was the only member of the elite
whose opinion mattered, and he quickly recognized that the "Opry" gave
National Life a powerful entrée with rural customers. To boost the show's
credibility with that important market segment, "Opry" bosses early on
ordered performers to ditch their suits and dresses for overalls, floppy
hats and checkered shirts. Established bands were rebranded with "cornball
clichés," Mr. Havighurst writes, such as "The Fruit Jar Drinkers" and "The
Possum Hunters."

By the 1940s, with WSM an NBC Radio Network affiliate, the "Grand Ole Opry"
was heard coast-to-coast. The show's weekly live broadcasts from Ryman
Auditorium in Nashville drew sell-out crowds, who clapped and laughed along
with the likes of Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and Minnie Pearl. (How delightful
to discover that Miss Pearl -- she of the price-tag-adorned straw hat and
gingham dresses -- was played by a genteel woman named Sarah Cannon who
worked tirelessly to mend the rift between Nashville's showbiz folk and
socialites. How disappointing to learn that her signature "How-DEE!"
greeting was suggested by a New York ad agency.) The "Opry" moved tons of
product for both local and national advertisers, thanks in large part to
live commercials delivered by beloved cast members.

By Craig Havighurst
(University of Illinois Press, 279 pages, $29.95)
The selling didn't stop at the end of the show. Shield Men learned to walk
through their assigned neighborhoods on warm Saturday nights and make note
of houses where the "Opry" broadcast was playing. On Monday, the salesmen
would knock on those doors, introduce themselves as being "from WSM" and
proffer a National Life sales brochure featuring pictures of "Opry"

Country musicians, who in the early days made most of their money by
performing, as opposed to selling records, quickly recognized the radio
show's power to fill a tour schedule. In the anything-goes early days of the
"Opry," fiddlers were known to travel hundreds of miles at their own expense
hoping for a few minutes of on-air playin' and pluggin'. As the "Opry" grew
more professional and influential, every string-band musician aspired to
become a cast member, a status that guaranteed steady work, both on the
Saturday broadcasts and at outside gigs arranged by the show in a brilliant
scheme to generate publicity and revenue -- for itself and for the
appreciative musicians.

WSM's ability to attract, develop and hold talent of all types was crucial
to Nashville's rise as the center of country music. Station employees and
alumni started the city's first record labels, opened recording facilities
and founded song-publishing ventures, including the renowned Acuff-Rose
Music. In 1955, WSM management, irked by the outside influence and money
amassed by "Opry" director Jim Denny, barred employees from moonlighting in
the music business.

As a result, many experienced staffers left the show and WSM to start or
expand their own enterprises. The edict was akin to blowing on a dandelion
that has gone to seed -- a pivotal act of creative destruction that greatly
diminished WSM's influence over country music but set the stage for the
explosive growth of Nashville's recording industry. By 1960, according to
one count, Nashville had 160 song publishers and 15 recording studios.

National Life skillfully rode the country-music wave across the century,
cashing in on every new technology and marketing opportunity. The company's
entertainment holdings eventually grew to include WSM-FM, WSM-TV, cable
television's The Nashville Network and the Opryland USA theme park, which
surprised experts by developing into a major tourism engine for Nashville.

When National Life was acquired by American General Corp. in 1982, those
properties (minus WSM-TV) were sold to Gaylord Entertainment, which later
sold or shuttered all of them. Gaylord held on to WSM-AM and the "Grand Ole
Opry," where an invitation to perform remains a powerful affirmation for a
rising country-music star.

As for WSM-AM, it began a slow downward drift in the 1980s, losing listeners
and revenue to narrowly targeted FM music stations. (Despite its close
assocation with country music, WSM did not go all-country until the late
1970s.) While other AM powerhouses managed to pull out of similar death
spirals -- typically by adopting an all-talk format -- WSM was weighted down
by a history of insularity and an abhorrence of change. It can be argued
that WSM settled its own fate in the mid-1950s when station management
refused to add rock 'n' roll to its wide-ranging playlist and turned Elvis
Presley away from the "Grand Ole Opry" after one appearance, fearing that
his rockabilly sound and swiveling hips would alienate old-time fans. Today
WSM-AM is a niche player, offering a twangy alternative to modern country
music. The station, which a few years ago adopted the motto "Too Country and
Proud of It," was ranked 14th in Nashville in a recent Arbitron ratings

As history, "Air Castle of the South" is engaging but less than definitive.
It's long on anecdote and sentiment ("demanding that WSM live or die by the
media economy's new rules feels a bit like asking your grandmother to work
at Burger King to make ends meet") but short on analysis. Recent years have
seen the dissolution of Gaylord's "Opry"-centered media empire and the final
stage of WSM's descent from broadcast powerhouse to radio curiosity. More
thorough contemporary reporting would have helped buttress the book's
contention that Gaylord's corporate strategy -- which included the
much-criticized closing of the Opryland USA theme park in 1997 after
attendance began slipping -- has endangered Nashville's future as a major
hub of the entertainment industry. Still, Mr. Havighurst has done a service
in preserving the colorful and instructive history of WSM -- and in
reminding us that giants once lived on the radio dial.

Mr. Bloomquist is the program director of news/talk WGST-AM in Atlanta.

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