WSM Radio: 100 Years in the Making
by Susan Marquez
Before television, the internet, or streaming platforms, people heard the newest music and most up-to-date news via the family radio. Usually found in the living room, families would gather around the enormous radio, turn the dial, and tune in to hear their favorite musical artists. People in the Nashville area began tuning in to the National Life and Accident Insurance Company’s WSM, a small AM radio station that first went on air on October 5, 1925. Less than two months later, WSM’s show, the Grand Ole Opry, debuted, and fans were so excited about it that they began to visit the studio for the live shows. It was the show that would one day make country music famous. The show moved into the Ryman Auditorium, the former Union Gospel Tabernacle, in 1943.
WSM had a frequency of 650 kilohertz, maximum power at that time. In 1932, the station erected a diamond-shaped vertical antenna just south of Nashville, and the station’s new 50,000-watt transmitter allowed the station to broadcast beyond the Nashville area. On clear nights, the station had a nationwide reach, driving country music into homes nearly everywhere in the country.
As country music continued to grow and flourish throughout the 1950s and 60s, WSM did the same. In the late 1960s, plans developed to build a theme park and a new Opry House. Opryland, USA, opened in 1974. Nashville became a recording industry mecca thanks to WSM. Because of the station’s incredible reach, musical acts came to Nashville from across the eastern United States in hopes of performing on WSM.
As a child, J Patrick Terrell enjoyed traveling with his parents to Opryland, USA, from their Waverly, Tennessee home. He fell in love with the music and developed a fascination with radio.
“I went to work at a country station in Dixon, Tennessee, WDKN, in 1996. I hosted the swap and shop show, which became the number one show on the station. It was my first time on the microphone, and it went horribly. I cut callers off and got confused on the board, but in time I figured it out.”
J Patrick dreamed of being a morning show guy, but the programming side of radio also appealed to him in time. “I studied radio programming philosophy and even developed my own theories.”
He moved from one station to another, playing pop, classic rock, and country. “I always felt most at home in a country music station.” In 2017, WSM made J. Patrick the station’s digital content manager, putting him in the very place he so enjoyed visiting as a child. “I am at the Opry house every day, and I love it.”
As times, and technology, have changed, J Patrick has worked to keep the station relevant for listeners. “WSM is coming up on one hundred years on the air in a few years. We are the longest-running radio station in the United States. We have had over five thousand Saturday night broadcasts. We did a podcast with a historian who said the Grand Ole Opry is the most important radio show in the United States. We want to continue to be important – we are not a museum piece.”
The lineup of shows on WSM is well-rounded. “We start with Bluegrass Breakfast each morning and move into Coffee, Country & Cody,” says J Patrick. Several monthly shows include Dailey & Vincent and Chuck Mead’s Face the Music. “We try to get artists involved directly with our programming,” he says. When so many artists were at home during the pandemic, J Patrick developed a show where he asked artists if they crafted their playlist, what would be on it? “WSM Playlists became a top-rated show. Artist came on the air for one hour, and we played the songs they chose for their playlist. I even did a show, as did some of our other staffers. We had Lanie Wilson, Carly Pearce, and many others. It was a beautiful amalgamation of country stars.”
While the show is no longer on the air, J Patrick says it will most likely make a comeback.
Because the station closely ties to the Grand Ole Opry, it gives airplay to new artists who become Opry members.
“I want us always to be the station of the Grand Ole Opry,” J Patrick says. “We are a worldwide brand inside of country music. It is a legacy we must keep, preserve and perpetuate.” To that end, the station plays new and current music while also allowing space for yesteryear’s music. “We try to design our workdays around contemporary country, be we are careful to add some of the classics. I try to offer a wide variety with an emphasis on the Opry.”
WSM went online in the 1990s, making it more accessible to listeners worldwide. There are now three digital streams under the WSM umbrella. Roots 650 features 24/7 roots, Americana, and bluegrass music. Opry Nashville features new country, today’s Opry starts, and archived music. WSM remains the primary station. “Folks can now download the WSM app. We can be heard live on radio, the phone, and television, with our Circle TV, available on Dish and a myriad of other platforms, including Roku and Peacock. We are embracing technology and programming for the consumer of today.”