On January 14, 2002, Gaylord Entertainment announced that WSM-AM will remain a country-music station and will continue to carry the Grand Ole Opry.

Well, damn. Here I had this nice little node about this nice little controversy, and they go and settle it. Hmph. I've decided to preserve my original writeup, so as not to destroy the words that garnered my +12/1C! initial rating, so if you want to know what the fuss was about, read on ...

zgirll's last statement, above, was probably correct when she wrote it ... but man, how quickly things change. Six months later, in January 2002, the Grand Ole Opry -- the longest-running radio program in the world -- is in danger of being kicked off the radio entirely.

WSM-AM radio, which has always carried the Opry, is now owned by Gaylord Entertainment Co., a publicly traded conglomerate. And Gaylord wants to replace WSM's country music format with sports radio. Fans of WSM-AM are concerned that the loss of its radio feed would be the first step in the destruction of the Opry itself, and they've been outside Gaylord headquarters to protest the change.

To be fair, Gaylord's got their reasons. Among four country-music stations in the Nashville area, WSM-AM ranks third and WSM-FM fourth, according to the last Arbitron ratings of 2001. Add to that the fact that WSM-AM, which carries the Opry shows, is finding itself catering to an aging population, not the prized 18-34 demographic. And then there's the problem that WSM-AM is an AM radio station, which bodes ill for almost any music format. Gaylord executives contend that WSM would be out of business had they not purchased it, especially considering the station lost $1.5 million in 2001.

Gaylord's CEO says he wants to syndicate the Grand Ole Opry, a move he says would make up for the music fans who have abandoned AM radio over the decades. Given the Opry's aging demographic, though, there might not be that much interest among country music radio stations, according to a report by the Nashville City Paper. More important, country music radio stations are suffering from the same radio blandness that's blanketing rock stations, namely: a very few number of artists getting exposure, all of them targeted at an optimally young demographic in hopes of satisfying the bean counters. Many of these stations aren't interested in the Opry, which they consider "old" country. It doesn't help that some "hot" country acts such as Shania Twain tend not to play the Opry.

From Opry fans' point of view, the WSM-AM format change culminates Gaylord's systematic amputation of its country-music holdings. In a letter to The Tennessean, Shannon Leigh Snow (daughter of country legend Hank Snow) notes that Gaylord in recent years has "chipped away" at Opryland USA, which it acquired in 1983. For example, Gaylord closed the Opryland theme park in 1997 and has replaced it with a "shopping-entertainment complex" called Opry Mills, consisting of 200 stores/restaurants/etc. and 1.2 million square feet of leasable space. Will the mall draw people better than the theme park did? "I don't believe thousands will travel to shop," Shannon writes.

Gaylord also has morphed TNN from "The Nashville Network" to "The National Network," packing it with non-country programming such as Star Trek: The Next Generation. TNN continues to air the Grand Ole Opry live and will do so until at least September 2002, but should the Opry lose the TNN broadcast, that'll take it one step closer to the gallows.

Gaylord might be right that it's bad business to keep the Opry on WSM-AM. But you have to consider the way corporate mergers work: It's very, very easy to create the illusion that the "old way" was unpopular. You buy a property such as a radio station, you cut its marketing and staff, you intentionally mismanage it -- and within a year or so, you can point to the property as a failure. It's been done before, one famous example being the Los Angeles trolley system. I'm not saying Gaylord is doing this to WSM ... but Shannon Leigh Snow is hinting that that's their MO. Given the way the radio business runs these days, it wouldn't surprise me if she was right, particularly given that WSM-AM was profitable up until 2001.

Really, some say, a better way to save WSM's ratings would be to provide something that isn't available on corporate radio. They suggest the station could focus exclusively on "heritage" acts (i.e. oldies) or could start featuring lesser-known but worthy artists, much as college radio does.

The ironic thing is that Gaylord's all-sports format might flop worse than country music. I'm guessing that they think a sports station would tap into Tennessee Titans and Nashville Predators* fans -- but those are relatively new teams, and a peek into any sports market will show you that the novelty of a new team fades over time. Gaylord might find that an all-sports WSM might need yet another format change in just a couple of years.

*Gaylord owns 19.9% of the Nashville Predators.

Sources: (some newspaper archives may be inaccessible after Jan. 2002):

  • -- Shannon's letter: http://www.tennessean.com/opinion/nashville-eye/archives/02/01/12060211.shtml?Element_ID=12060211
  • -- Nice overview of the situation: http://www.tennessean.com/business/archives/02/01/12327432.shtml?Element_ID=12327432
  • -- Syndication possibilities (Jan. 13, 2002): http://www.nashvillecitypaper.com/index.cfm?section=9&screen=news&news_id=9474
  • -- NY Times report (you'll need registration and payment, ugh): http://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/10/arts/music/10ARTS.html
  • -- SEC filings, particularly the 10-Ks, under http://www.sec.gov
  • -- Easiest way to keep up with the ongoing story: Country Nation: http://www.countrynation.com/