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|Broadcast area||Nashville metropolitan area|
|Branding||650 AM WSM|
|First air date||October 5, 1925|
|Callsign meaning||We Shield Millions (slogan of former owner, National Life & Accident Insurance Company)|
|Affiliations||Grand Ole Opry|
|Owner||Ryman Hospitality Properties|
|Webcast||Listen Live and
WSM (branded The Legend) is a 50,000-watt AM radio station located in Nashville, Tennessee. It broadcasts a full-time country music format at 650 kHz and is known primarily as the home of The Grand Ole Opry, the world's longest running radio program. The station's clear channel signal can reach much of North America and nearby countries, especially late at night. It is one of two clear-channel stations in North America, along with CFZM/740-Toronto, that still primarily broadcast music. Nicknamed "The Air Castle of the South," it shares its callsign with WSM-FM, also in Nashville, and formerly with television Channel 4, now WSMV.
WSM first signed on in 1925. It is primarily associated with the popularization of country music through its weekly Saturday night program, the Grand Ole Opry, the longest-running radio program in history. The Opry began as the WSM Barn Dance in 1925, but on December 10, 1927, the program's host, "Judge" George D. Hay, referred to the programming as being "Grand Ole Opry" in contrast to the preceding grand opera program on NBC. In 1932, WSM boosted its power to 50,000 watts, becoming Tennessee's first clear-channel station. In addition to its vast nighttime coverage area, the station boasts one of the largest daytime coverage areas in the country. It provides at least grade B coverage as far southeast as Chattanooga, as far northwest as Evansville, Indiana, as far west as Jackson, Tennessee and as far south as Huntsville, Alabama. Under the right conditions (particularly at night), it can be heard in nearly all of Tennessee and much of Kentucky, and can be picked up as far away as northern Illinois.
The station traditionally played country music in the nighttime hours, when listeners from around the United States would tune in. Before the advent of television, the station broadcast long-form radio (both local and NBC network) programs in addition to music. After television became popular (thus largely eliminating the audience for full-length radio programs), WSM adopted a "MOR" (middle of the road) music format during the daytime hours, and continued to play country music at night. It was not until about 1979 that WSM adopted the 24-hour country music format of today.
WSM is credited with helping shape Nashville into a recording industry capital. Because of WSM's wide reach, musical acts from all across the eastern United States came come to Nashville in the early decades of the station's existence, in hopes of getting to perform on WSM. Over time, as more acts and recording companies came to Nashville, the city became known as the center of the country music industry. Disc jockey David Cobb is credited with first referring to Nashville as "Music City USA", a designation that has since been adopted as the city's official nickname by the local tourism board.
WSM's unusual diamond-shaped antenna (manufactured by Blaw-Knox) is visible from Interstate 65 just south of Nashville (in Brentwood) and is one of the area's landmarks. It is located near the I-65 exit 71 interchange with Concord Road (State Highway 253). When the 878-foot tower was built in 1932, it was the tallest antenna in North America. Its height was reduced to 808 feet (246 m) in 1939 when it was discovered that the taller tower was causing self-cancellation in the "fringe" areas of reception of the station (it is now known that 195 electrical degrees, about 810 feet, is the optimum height for a Class A station on that frequency). For a period during World War II it was designated to provide transmissions to submarines in the event that ship-to-shore communications were lost. It is now one of the oldest operating broadcast towers in the United States.
As a tribute to the station's centrality in country music history, the diamond antenna design was incorporated into the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's design in 2001. The tower is listed as a National Engineering Landmark and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 15, 2011.
Former FM sister
W47NV/44.7 Megacycles (the historic term now called "megahertz") was America's first commercial FM broadcast station. Its antenna is still mounted to the top of the Blaw Knox tower at Brentwood. After World War II W47NV became the first WSM-FM and moved frequencies to 103.3 Mc., and eventually signed off. Other stations on the east coast had signed on with FM, and Major Armstrong's "Yankee Network", but W47NV was the first commercial FM, the rest were non-commercial licenses. The current incarnation of WSM-FM was bought by National Life, and redesignated WSM-FM in 1968, an acquisition from another broadcaster. WSM-FM (95.5 MHz) was WSM's sister until 2008, when Cumulus Media, the full owner of WSM-FM since 2003, ended its joint sales agreement with the AM (see below). Despite base callsigns, the two stations are no longer related; incidentally, however, both the 95.5 frequency of the most recent WSM-FM and the 103.3 frequency of the original (now WKDF) are now sister stations, with both broadcasting variants of the Nash FM format.
Ownership and facilities
For most of its history, WSM was owned by the Nashville-based National Life and Accident Insurance Company, along with WSM-TV, and the Grand Ole Opry. The stations' call letters derived from the company's motto, "We Shield Millions". Studios were first located in the NL&AI building on Seventh Avenue and Union Street in downtown Nashville; this was the original home of the Opry, until 1934. The studios remained until the mid-1960s, when NL&AI began carrying out plans to build a new headquarters building downtown and construct new studios for WSM-TV in west Nashville (the TV station had been located near Belmont College). Upon construction of the new headquarters, NL&AI chose to relocate WSM radio to the TV station's building, and the station, joined in 1968 by its new FM sister, broadcast from that location, on Knob Road, from 1966 to 1983. In 1974, NL&AI reorganized itself as a holding company, NLT Corporation, with the WSM stations as one of the major subsidiaries.
In 1981, the American General Corporation (now part of the American International Group) bought NLT. American General was not interested in NLT's non-insurance operations, and sold Opryland Hotel, Opryland USA, The Grand Ole Opry, WSM-FM, and WSM, to Gaylord Entertainment Company. WSM-TV was sold to Gillett Broadcasting and is now WSMV. However, there was still considerable overlap between the stations' on-air personnel for some years after the ownership change. Gaylord would add The Nashville Network, now Spike TV, to those holdings soon after those acquisitions, disposing of the television property, in part to pay the expenses of starting the nascent cable network. It would also move the WSM radio stations to new facilities at the Opryland Hotel, departing their shared building on Knob Road, which still houses WSMV today.
WSM broadcast in the C-QUAM format of AM stereo, which could be heard over several states at night, from 1982 until 2000.
WSM currently operates out of the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, and visitors to the hotel may look into the studio 24 hours a day, provided the curtains are open, which they usually are. Following the devastating 2010 Tennessee flood that inundated Gaylord Opryland and the Grand Ole Opry House, the station broadcast from a makeshift studio at its transmitter site for six months, while the Grand Ole Opry rotated between several performance sites, until the buildings at the Opryland complex were repaired. WSM's administrative offices next door to the Grand Ole Opry House were completely destroyed by the flood and later demolished, resulting in the loss of several priceless documents from the station's history.
In 2001, management had sought to capitalize on the success of sister station WWTN's sports trappings by converting WSM to an all-sports format. Word was leaked to other media resulting in protests, including longtime Opry personalities and country music singers, outside the station's studios. Management eventually made the decision to keep the station's classic country format.
In recent years, the operations have been reorganized again. In 2003, WSM-FM and WWTN, sister stations to 650 WSM, were sold to Cumulus Media. Cumulus intended to purchase 650 WSM as well, but Gaylord decided to maintain ownership at the eleventh hour. Through a five-year joint sales agreement, however, Gaylord paid Cumulus a fee to operate WSM's sales department and provide news updates for the station. Gaylord Entertainment continued to control WSM and operate all other departments, including programming, engineering, and promotions. The agreement ended in 2008, at which point all control of the station reverted to Gaylord. In 2012, Gaylord Entertainment Company was renamed Ryman Hospitality Properties.
Reception outside the Nashville area
From 2002 until 2006, the station was a choice on Sirius Satellite Radio, which carried a full-time simulcast of WSM's AM 650 signal, except during NASCAR races. Briefly in 2006, the channel converted to "WSM Entertainment", a separate satellite radio feed that carried the same classic country music format as the AM signal. About a year after the channel was eliminated, then-rival XM Satellite Radio announced the carriage of the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville! channel 11 beginning in October 2007, as well as the Eddie Stubbs Show on America channel 10 beginning in November 2007. After the merger between Sirius and XM, the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts were moved to the service's The Roadhouse channel, which is heard on both Sirius and XM.
WSM continues to reach a worldwide audience, through both its powerful 50,000-watt clear channel AM signal and via its Internet simulcast. WSM is a Primary Entry Point (PEP) for the Emergency Alert System (EAS).
Famous station alumni
- Ralph Emery served as the overnight host of WSM from the late 1950s until the early 1970s. Because of his time slot, listeners all over the U.S. could hear Emery spin country music records. This and The Grand Ole Opry solidified WSM's central role in the history of country music. In the 1980s, Emery gained further national fame as the host of Nashville Now! on The Nashville Network; before then, he hosted syndicated radio and television country music interview shows, and a long-running, highly rated morning show on WSMV-TV.
- Pat Sajak (host of TV's Wheel of Fortune) served as the afternoon air personality on WSM during the mid-1970s. During that time, he doubled as a voice-over announcer and weekend weathercaster on WSM-TV, channel 4.
- Larry Munson was a sportscaster for the Nashville Vols, Vanderbilt Commodores men's basketball and Vanderbilt Commodores football in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as working for WSM-TV. He was later renowned for his long tenure as the legendary voice of Georgia Bulldogs football.
- Grant Turner (born Jesse Granderson Turner) was known as the "dean of the Opry announcers" and had a nearly 50-year association with the station, also announcing country music programs in the early morning hours. His show was so popular that NL&AI used its title, Opryland USA, as the name for the theme park built in 1972.
- Teddy Bart, another Nashville broadcaster of long tenure, began as a singer on shows like Waking Crew and parlayed his skills into hosting that show, an afternoon drive-time program with Munson (above) in the early 1960s and Nashville's first-ever call-in talk show, which ran from 1969 to 1981. He also hosted WSM-TV's Noon Show in the 1970s and anchored WKRN-TV's newscast briefly in the early 1980s before launching the group-discussion radio talk show Roundtable on WLAC in 1985, a show that ran for 20 years on several different stations.
- Keith Bilbrey moved to Nashville in 1974 to begin working for WSM, first as a substitute announcer for WSM-FM and then as a full-time disc jockey on WSM’s FM and AM stations. Throughout his career, Bilbrey worked every single time slot at WSM and became an iconic voice in the modern history of the station and was truly a fan favorite. In 1982, Bilbrey began announcing on The Grand Ole Opry. When The Nashville Network (TNN) began televising a 30-minute portion of the show in 1985, the young announcer became the first host of Grand Ole Opry Live. Bilbrey hosted Opry Live, along with the Opry warm-up show, Backstage Live, until TNN stopped airing the show in 2000. He also hosted the Opry warm-up show on WSM. His 35-year career at the station ended in 2009.
- Larry Gatlin, lead singer of the Gatlin Brothers, hosts an hourlong gospel program on the weekends as of 2016.
- Gevinson, Alan. "Broadcasting Longevity." Teachinghistory.org, accessed 8 October 2011.
- "Bluegrass Rumblings and Awards".Nielsen Business Media, Inc. (17 February 1996). Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc. pp. 34–. ISSN 0006-2510.
- WSM tower gets 'historic' status, The Tennessean, April 14, 2011
- "Weekly list of actions taken on properties: 3/14/11 through 3/18/11". National Park Service. March 25, 2011. Retrieved March 26, 2011.
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