Grand Ole Opry station WSM-AM says it will retain country music format

Tuesday, January 15th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Country music stalwart WSM-AM can't be judged like other radio stations, said an executive who ended two weeks of heated speculation and public protest by announcing the station will retain its format.

WSM-AM will stay country and continue to broadcast the Grand Ole Opry, but changes are being considered to make the station profitable again, said Colin Reed, president and chief executive officer of Gaylord Entertainment Co., the station owner.

The 76-year-old station, 650 on the dial, reportedly was considering a move to talk or sports.

At a news conference Monday, Reed wouldn't specify the options being considered. But he ruled out switching to talk or sports, the option that has been successful for many high-powered AM stations.

``What it came down to for us, is that we're not dealing with a conventional radio station,'' Reed said. ``And rating formulas don't always take into account the chemistry and heritage and the loyalty of our listeners.

``Judging by the amount of people who have called and e-mailed me over the last two weeks _ self-professed AM listeners _ the ratings may be wrong.''

WSM-AM ranks third of Nashville's four country music stations, beating only its sister station WSM-FM. But the AM station is held in high esteem by the country music community as the place where the Nashville music industry traces its beginnings, with the Opry show.

It is also one of the only prominent stations that continues to play records by older stars such as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.

``There's a whole lot of country music people not hearing what they want to hear,'' said country singer Marty Stuart. ``They should get at least the chance to hear someone as great as Merle Haggard.''

Stuart, who applauded the WSM-AM announcement along with singers Vince Gill, Billy Walker and (Stuart's wife) Connie Smith, said public reaction played a prominent role in Gaylord's decision.

``It wasn't a total surprise after seeing the outcry the past few weeks,'' Stuart said.

A protest last week outside the WSM-AM offices drew about 100 people, including Walker and George Jones.

Gaylord bought WSM-AM in 1983, and Reed said the company was exploring ways to expand the Opry brand and listenership. He said the company considered changing the AM station to sports talk and franchising the Opry show to FM stations in part because its research showed music listeners prefer FM radio because of its sound quality and numerous choice of stations.

He said discussions continue about syndication of the Opry. Also, technological improvements may soon make AM sound more competitive, and there is the possibility of satellite radio carrying the Opry.

WSM-AM has had various formats since it was founded 76 years ago as one of the nation's original clear-channel stations _ radio stations that have exclusive nationwide rights to a given frequency.

But the station is most famous for broadcasting the Opry every Saturday night for three-quarters of a century. The Opry is the longest continuously running radio show in the country. Hank Williams Sr. and Patsy Cline were once part of the Opry cast, and Garth Brooks and Gill are part of the show today.

Gaylord officials say WSM-AM lost about $1.5 million last year.

The 50,000-watt WSM-AM signal can be heard in more than 30 states at night.