WSM Radio

Nashville Broadcasting "The Book"
Early Radio History
WCBQ Radio
WSM Radio
WLAC Radio
WSIX Radio
WKDA Radio
Television History
Nashville's Radio and TV Personalities
Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame
Contact Us
Nashville's First Successful Radio Station

   To say the show's format was informal would be an understatement. Most of the music was unwritten; somebody would call a tune and away the musicians would go. The programs were almost exclusively instrumental and featured a marked emphasis on fiddle tunes.

Photo courtesy of WSM
The earliest days of WSM radio

   The driving force behind the creation of WSM was Edwin W. Craig. Craig had joined his father's company, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, as a field representative fresh out of college and by 1922 he had risen to vice-president. It was around this time that Craig began tuning into the pioneer radio stations which were popping up around the country.

In time, Craig began corresponding with a number of broadcast personalities, anxious to learn more about radio's possibilities. He was soon convinced a radio station would enhance National Life's identity while also providing a valuable public service to the community. The board of National Life readily agreed, and appointed Craig to serve as the liaison between the parent company and its fledgling offshoot.

Craig was determined that the call letters of the new radio station would be "WSM" to reflect National Life's motto: "We Shield Millions." Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy had already been assigned those letters. Undeterred, Craig successfully petitioned the Secretary of Commerce to transfer the call letters and thus was born WSM.

With characteristic foresight, Craig and National Life sought out the best and the brightest to build and operate their new enterprise. Thomas L. Parks, a former ship board radio operator, was hired on as the Chief Radio Engineer. Parks and his brilliant young Assistant Engineer John H. DeWitt (who would later go on to become president of the station), installed the first thousand-watt transmitter at the antenna site on Fifteenth Avenue, South in downtown Nashville.

WSM's first official broadcast day was October 5, 1925. As the eight o'clock opening ceremony approached, hundreds of intrigued Nashvillians gathered beneath the loudspeakers mounted on the corners of Seventh and Union. Others crouched over their improvised radio sets at home listening over their ear pieces. Meanwhile, upstairs in the National Life Building, a group of company executives, government officials and invited guests were busy getting ready for the hallmark event.

Beasly Smith with Orchestra While the dignitaries applied last minute polish to their prepared remarks and dedication speeches, two orchestras provided "live" entertainment over WSM via remote lines: Beasley Smith and his Orchestra played in the Hermitage Hotel ballroom while Francis Craig serenaded diners at the Andrew Jackson. Fittingly enough, both bandleaders would come to be closely identified with WSM's early programming.

By eleven o'clock, the speeches had been made and the evening took a lighter turn. National Life had invited America's leading radio announcers to enliven the inaugural broadcast, and a parade of ad-lib talent entertained those insomniacs who chose to stay up all night with their radios. This all-star cast of personalities included the man who had just been awarded the "most popular radio announcer" title from a radio publication poll, George D. Hay of Chicago's WLS. Hay, who worked under the pseudonym "The Solemn Old Judge", was a 30-year-old former newspaperman with a keen wit who took an instant liking to WSM and its surroundings. Apparently the feeling was mutual, and within a month George Hay was hired on as the station's first Program Director. Hay wasted no time in creating new shows. While the station relied mostly on classical and dinner music for its programming fare, the night of November 28, 1925 would change all that forever.
Early WSM studios were in the National Life building in downtown Nashville

   WSM Barn Dance Saturday was traditionally "come to town" day in the South and the courthouse lawn was usually the designated gathering place, attracting musicians and gossips alike. WSM's Barn Dance on Saturday night was becoming the new courthouse of the airwaves, with Uncle Jimmy's fiddling serving as the clarion call to come to the WSM studio to play and/or listen.

And come they did. In fact, so many people turned up at the small National Life studio that a new auditorium soon had to be built to accommodate the overflow crowds. "We Shield Millions" had rapidly become "We Seat Many".

The WSM Barn Dance was based on a program Hay had hosted in Chicago, and although the Chicago show had been successful, no one could predict how triumphant the new incarnation would be. Two years later Hay would rename his show "The Grand Ole Opry" and it wasn't long before the Opry became known as one of the most entertaining country music shows on radio.

Certainly one reason the Opry is so popular is the caliber of performers it has attracted over the years. Whether it was Opry members from the past like Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe, or contemporary members like Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire and Alan Jackson, being part of the Opry cast has always been considered the highest honor and the crowning achievement in a country performer's career.

Today, WSM's Grand Ole Opry stands as both the premium country music showcase and the longest running, live radio show in history. On the air now for over 70 years, the Opry combines the pace and charm of a 1930's big-production radio show with the excitement of modern country music. Every Friday and Saturday night hundreds of thousands of radio listeners across the country and thousands more in the Opry House audience savor this unique blend of the old and the new.

The Air Castle of the South

Country wasn't the only music to be found on WSM, however. In addition to playing the pop music of the day, WSM also featured a healthy mix of classical and dinner music.

By the time WSM observed its first anniversary, plans for increasing the station's power to 5,000 watts were already in the works. (In those early days of radio, WSM's original 1,000 watt signal could already reach listeners as far away as Nebraska and Puerto Rico.) With the increase in power came an affiliation with the NBC Network, which allowed the station to expand its broadcast day to a full eight hours.

The increase in hours necessitated the addition of more staff members including Harry Stone, a young businessman from a competing Nashville station who was appointed as General Manager in 1928. Stone's tenure marked WSM's official entry into commercial broadcasting with the signing-on of numerous local sponsors.

By late 1932, WSM had joined a small, elite group of maximum-power, Class 1-A, clear-channel broadcasters. The station's new 50,000 watt status, coupled with the low 650 kilocycle frequency, made WSM a nation-spanning giant. (Clear-channel status meant it was the only station in the entire U.S. permitted to broadcast on the 650 frequency.) At the heart of this expansion was a diamond-shaped, vertical antenna which was 878 feet high, the tallest tower in North America at the time.


   Executives of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company felt that WSM radio and its early programs and personalities would help their sales agents have an easier time selling insurance when they knocked on doors in the rural southern states. So ads for the company included their ownership of WSM.

Photo from Author's Collection
WSM aired the Pan American's passing by its transmitter and tower

   The passenger train 'Pan-American' regularly passed by the WSM transmitter and tower site near Concord Road in Brentwood. The station made it a regular part of its programming to air the blast of the train's whistle as the engine approached its location, which was always at 12:00 noon. For a while, the station actually placed announcers on the train with remote broadcasting equipment, and they would describe to listeners what they saw as they came closer to Nashville and the WSM transmitting tower.

WSM was proud to be called "The Air Castle of the South"

From the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture

   WSM was the marketing idea of Edwin Craig of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. In the early 1920s Craig, son of National Life founding partner Cornelius Craig, watched the nationwide phenomena of radio develop into an advertising source for station owners and sponsors. Craig capitalized on this potential with the creation of a company radio station.

The fifth floor of the new National Life building on Seventh Avenue in Nashville housed an up-to-date radio station in 1925. The one-thousand-watt station was equaled by only one other in the South and was stronger than 85 percent of the stations nationwide. The selected call letters stood for "We Shield Millions."

The radio station gave National Life advertising potential, community service opportunities, and support for the company's "field men" (salesmen) while promoting company identity. The first aired program included Tennessee Governor Austin Peay, Nashville Mayor Hillary Howse, National Life President Craig, and noted radio announcers from around the country.

Early programming broadcast a variety of classical and popular tunes and included a quintet from Fisk University. Jack Keefe served as the radio announcer until WSM hired George Hay from the Sears station, WLS, in Chicago. Hay had begun his career broadcasting with WMC (the Commercial Appeal station) in Memphis prior to working for Sears.

Early radio broadcast signals were unlimited, and WSM transmitted to both coasts. Hay understood this broadcasting potential and the popularity of the barn dance programs with rural audiences. On November 28, 1925, he tested old time music with Uncle Jimmy Thompson performing an hour of fiddle music. Hay found an enthusiastic audience. On December 26, 1925, WSM formally began broadcasting an old-time music program every Saturday night. Dubbed the Grand Ole Opry in 1927 by Hay, he would continue to expand the hillbilly theme.

As live audiences outgrew the original fifth floor studio of the National Life Building, the show moved to the Hillsboro Theater. Tickets for the free show became a tool for National Life agents to attract new customers. After several additional moves, the show began performing at the Ryman Auditorium, later known as the Grand Ole Opry House, before moving to its present stage at Opryland in 1974.

To help fill the programming hours WSM began a subscription to the National Broadcasting Company in 1927 when the station increased its power to five thousand watts. Public service remained a part of the station's mission, but promotion of National Life was prominent. The Grand Ole Opry helped to increase life insurance sales to rural customers through a new premium payment plan based on monthly rather than semiannual payments. During World War II, the station and the company contributed to the war effort. In 1950 WSM brought the first television broadcast to Nashville. A continuing leader in country music, WSM promoted the industry by helping to develop the Country Music Association. The radio station still broadcasts The Grand Ole Opry on Friday and Saturday nights.

Lauren Batte, Nashville

   Although there were several radio stations in Nashville which went on the air before WSM, the station owned by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company was the earliest broadcaster which is still on the air today. Hitting the airwaves for the first time in 1925, WSM was to arguably become this city's most prominent and successful radio station, joining the NBC network and originating the Grand Ole Opry, as well as going on to also become Nashville's first television station.


  It was the middle of the "Roaring Twenties" and "The Jazz Age". All across America, folks were buying radio sets by the thousands, anxious to become part of the new "miracle" which brought entertainment directly into the living room. While radio today may be considered just one more of technology's modern conveniences, it was quite the opposite in the mid-1920s. Back then, radio was a wondrous, big-as-outdoors marvel, filled with magic and mystery. And it was in this spirit of wide-eyed amazement that the groundwork for WSM was laid.

photo courtesy of WSM
A young Minnie Pearl on WSM

   With the station's jump in power came an uncommonly talented group of on-air personalities, staffers and technicians, all of whom contributed originality, inventiveness and skill to the operation. Their efforts garnered much attention for WSM and in particular the Grand Ole Opry. Even Hollywood took notice, and in 1940 Republic Pictures produced The Grand Ole Opry, a full-length feature film starring Judge Hay, Uncle Dave Macon and Roy Acuff along with other members of the Opry cast.

Not only was WSM instrumental in bringing country music to the world via film but the station also played an integral role in establishing the city of Nashville as a recording center. Prior to the 1940's, Southern musicians had to travel to New York, Chicago or other cities to make their records. This all changed when engineers at WSM decided to expand their radio studio into a recording facility.While WSM continued to spread the word that Nashville was a great town for music and musicians, the station's engineers were now beginning to record that music. For some time WSM had been making discs of their music programs in a manner very much akin to making a record. It was only a matter of time then that these pioneering engineers would began to conduct actual recording sessions in the station's studios.

Although RCA Victor had recorded in Nashville as early as 1928, the first modern country recording was made at the WSM studio in 1944 by Eddy Arnold. In 1947, one of the first million-selling records to come out of Nashville was made in WSM's studio "C"; "Near You" by pop bandleader Francis Craig and his Orchestra.

Later, these same WSM engineers would look to other locales to perfect their recording techniques and they soon fashioned a studio out of the ballroom of the now defunct Tulane Hotel. Dubbed "Castle Studio" (after the station's nickname "Air Castle of the South"), it was the busiest studio recording country music in the early 1950's. Another favorite recording location was the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. Aside from being known as the Mother Church of Country Music, the Ryman is also world-famous for its extraordinary acoustics making it an ideal locale for live recording, a practice which continues there to this day.

The initial success of WSM's early recording efforts was enough to convince others that Nashville had a viable future as a music industry center. It wouldn't be long before record labels set up shop in Nashville on what was to become "Music Row", marking the beginning of an expansion which would eventually earn the city the nickname "Music City USA". In fact, it was WSM personality David Cobb who came up with the nickname. And the man generally considered the father of Music Row's recording industry was WSM's former musical director Owen Bradley.


The First Commercial FM Station in America

By the late 1930s, the communications industry was in the throes of rapid change. WSM's Chief Engineer "Jack" DeWitt had been following the progress of "high frequency" broadcasting closely, as he had an eye on eventually expanding the station's holdings. Finally, in 1941, WSM continued its role as an industry trailblazer by giving America its first commercial FM station at an assigned frequency of 44.7 megaHertz. DeWitt, who had manned the audio controls at the first Opry broadcast, was the driving force behind this new venture.

WSM's FM operation first went on the air under the designation "W47NV." The call-code was a combination of the "W" (radio) prefix, the number forty-seven for the last two digits of the assigned frequency, and the letters NV representing Nashville. The station operated with an effective radiated power of 65,000 watts and cast a healthy signal into Kentucky and Alabama.

In 1947, the Federal Communications Commission reappraised its pre-war rulings and moved the commercial frequency modulation to 100.1 Mhz. In the process, the station re-designated itself "WSM-FM". Four years later, DeWitt saw greater promise in the new medium of television and WSM-FM and its all-classical programming format went off the air.

Continued Growth

WSM's absence from the FM airwaves, however, was temporary, for in 1968 WSM purchased an existing station, WLWM-FM, and used the frequency to return to the FM band at 95.5 Mhz. Soon after WSM AM and WLWM-FM's move to the Opryland complex in 1982, WSM Radio and the Associated Press launched the Music Country Radio Network (MCRN). MCRN was a late-night programming service broadcast via satellite.

WSM became Nashville's first AM stereo station on December 6, 1982 before WSM-FM made its debut as "Nashville 95 FM - "The New Country" the following month.

Excellence in Broadcast Journalism

While the musical legacy of WSM is certainly a rich one, it's not the only part of their programming day which has earned the station a national reputation. Since 1925, generations of Americans have depended on WSM as their source of news and information and with good reason -- WSM is serious about its news operation and it shows. By combining seasoned, professional journalists with state-of-the-art technology, its audience is ensured of getting the fastest, most accurate information available. It's dedicated to providing full coverage of national as well as regional events, and often furnishes the only radio coverage in the area.

Maybe that's why WSM stands as one of the most honored news operations in the country. In 1995 the station received the coveted George Peabody Award (the Pulitzer Prize of broadcast journalism), the Scripps-Howard Foundation National Journalism Award, and the Edward R. Murrow Award...all in the same year. And it doesn't end there. In fact, WSM News has received over 100 awards since 1984.
As nice as it is to be recognized by the music industry though, it's even more important to give back to the community. WSM News prides itself on taking an active role in helping to solve the issues we cover. A five-part series "A Stalker's Prey" for instance, has been requested by numerous domestic violence shelters, and is currently being used in their educational programs.

WSM was founded on the principles of good will and public service, and it continues to uphold those same standards today, over seventy years later. Many radio stations have come and gone since 1925, but WSM remains a nationally-known leader and major influence in the broadcast industry. WSM...three letters that stand for the best radio has to offer.