WSM could face changes, Gaylord says
By Craig Havihurst & Brad Schmitt
Staff Writers, Tennessean Newspaper

Gaylord Entertainment Co. is exploring changes among its three radio properties, including syndicating the Grand Ole Opry and possibly modifying the formats of WWTN-FM, WSM-FM and the historic WSM-AM.

Gaylord Chief Executive Officer Colin Reed said the company is evaluating the operations of its three radio stations, and that classic country WSM-AM is the least profitable of the three.

Reed said the key goal of the Gaylord efforts is to maximize the value of the Opry to the company.

''We are always looking at ways we can improve the profitability of our businesses,'' Reed said. ''We have challenged our management to find ways to do that.''

Those instructions started a ripple of speculation about possible changes at the three stations, including changes in formats. But Reed said several other decisions have to be made before Gaylord would consider a change in format at any of its stations.

Concern over a possible format emerged at a closed two-hour meeting at WSM-AM radio yesterday. WSM General Manager John Padgett told the on-air staff that management was ''considering options'' about the station operation.

Among those present were morning man Bill Cody; midmorning personality Allen Dennis; midday DJ Keith Bilbrey; Opry announcer and WSM host Hairl Hensley, a member of the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame; nighttime host Eddie Stubbs, a seven-year veteran; newsman Ron Jordan; overnight shift host Matthew Gillian; and director of operations Kyle Cantrell.

Some of the on-air staff suggested involving country singers in a grass-roots effort to preserve the format, but station managers said no, essentially telling the personalities to stay quiet on the issue, those in attendance said. Padgett told the meeting that selling the station is not under consideration, according to those there.

Padgett, a sales manager for more than 15 years before becoming GM last year, spoke for some 30-45 minutes, and the radio personalities stayed an hour and a half beyond that to air feelings about the possible change.

Grand Ole Opry General Manager Pete Fisher said that the Opry is close to negotiating a deal that would return the program to a syndicated network for the first time in decades.

''We've received very strong interest from the nation's leading syndica- tors,'' Fisher said. ''And we hope although we don't have any details to report at this time to do that in the near future.''

Fisher added that the deal would place the radio program in ''millions'' of homes where it is not available, and that he believes Gaylord's commitment to the show has never been stronger.

Since taking over as president and chief executive officer in April, Reed has strived to put Gaylord back on a profitable course. He has repeatedly promised to shed unprofitable assets. Nearly a month ago, the company agreed to sell Word Entertainment to Warner Bros. for $84.1 million. Word had long been a drain on corporate earnings.

WSM-AM is an icon of country music history, and the prospect of a format change would be alarming to Opry artists, WSM-AM staffers and traditional country music fans.

Last year, Radio & Records, a leading radio trade publication, chose WSM-AM the country station of the century. The station went on the air as a promotional venture of the National Life & Accident Co. on Oct. 5, 1925. Less than two months later, station manager and host George D. Hay allowed an elderly fiddle player, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, to play for an hour on a Saturday night to fill a slot for a no-show performer.

Response to old-time music from WSM's many rural listeners was so strong that the show was institutionalized and elevated into a live show with an audience. After 1932, when WSM built the nation's tallest broadcast antenna, the Opry reached the entire East, making stars of dozens of country music artists.

In the 1950s, WSM employees were crucial to launching Nashville's recording studios, talent booking agencies and music publishers. The station was acquired by Gaylord in 1982, after National Life was acquired by a larger insurance company. WSM adopted an all-country format in 1983. Before that, it was a variety station.

Dave Alpert, regional vice president for Clear Channel, which owns 20 stations in Middle Tennessee, said WSM still has great potential as a classic country station.

''If you manage it right, it doesn't have to be a money loser. It potentially could be a money maker. The heritage is just unbelievable. From the facility standpoint, it's a dream signal,'' he said.

''I would like to see 650 AM stay because of its heritage and what it does for the Opry. What the Opry does for country music is excellent for the country music industry and it helps all country stations,'' Alpert said.

Staff writer Richard Lawson contributed to this report.
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