Started by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company in 1925, WSM has been one of the most influential and exceptional radio stations in the history of broadcasting and country music.
The driving force behind the creation of the station was National Life and Accident Insurance Company executive Edwin W. Craig, son of one of the insurance company’s co-founders, C.A. Craig. Believing that a radio station would enhance National Life’s identity, the younger Craig convinced the company’s board of directors to invest in the new technology. He chose the call letters “WSM” to reflect National Life’s motto: ‘We Shield Millions.”
WSM officially began broadcasting on October 5, 1925. The show that would become The Grand Ole Opry aired for the first time a little more than a month later. The WSM Barn Dance was the brainchild of George D. Hay. Nicknamed “The Solemn Old Judge,” Hay was a 30-year-old former reporter for the Memphis Commercial Appeal and announcer for the National Barn Dance on Chicago’s station WLS.
WSM hired Hay as its first program director shortly after the station went on the air. He 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, changed all that forever, when Hay introduced a 77-year-old fiddler named Uncle Jimmy Thompson.
Saturday was traditionally “come to town” day in the South. Nashville’s courthouse lawn was the designated gathering place attracting musicians and gossips alike. WSM’s Barn Dance became the courthouse lawn of the airwaves, and Thompson’s fiddling served 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 eventually, a new auditorium was built to accommodate the overflow crowds.
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 after the initial Barn Dance broadcast Hay would rename his show The Grand Ole Opry. To say the show was the most popular radio entertainment program of its day would be an understatement. The genres of country and bluegrass music were literally shaped over the WSM airwaves and in turn helped shape the business and culture a city.
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 878 feet high, the tallest tower in North America at the time.
Country wasn’t the only music found on WSM, however. In addition to playing the pop music of the day, WSM featured a healthy mix of classical and dinner music played live in studio and from remote locations. Entertainers such as Snooky Lanson, Kitty Kallen, and Dinah Shore all started at WSM. Today, 650 AM WSM continues its tradition as “The Legend” by not only broadcasting classic country music, but exploring all styles of country including Americana, bluegrass and roots music.
WSM played an integral part in establishing Nashville as a recording center. Prior to the 1940s, Southern musicians had to travel to New York, Chicago, or other cities to record. This all changed when WSM engineers expanded their radio studio into a recording facility and Eddy Arnold made the first modern country recording there in 1944. Then 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, nephew of National Life founder C.A. Craig.
WSM’s early recording successes convinced others that Nashville had a viable future as a music industry center. Before long, record labels set up shop in Nashville around 16th and 17th Avenues, an area that would become known as “Music Row.” Expansion there eventually would earn the city the nickname “Music City USA.” In fact, WSM personality David Cobb came up with the title. Also, the man generally considered the father of Music Row’s recording industry was a former WSM musical director, Owen Bradley.
While the musical legacy of WSM is certainly a rich one, it’s not the only part of the programming day that has earned the station a national reputation. Since 1925, generations of Americans have depended on WSM as their source of news and information, with good reason — WSM is serious about its news operation. By combining seasoned, professional journalists with state-of-the-art technology, WSM ensures its audience gets the fastest, most accurate information available. The station is dedicated to providing full coverage of national as well as regional events.
WSM was founded on the principles of good will and public service. It continues to uphold those same standards today, more than 85 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.