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So Long Grand Ole Opry, Hello Sports?

Radio: Station that is 'committed' to country and has broadcast the music for 76 years may switch formats. Its legendary weekly show could live on in syndication.

January 05, 2002|JIM PATTERSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NASHVILLE — The radio station that created the Grand Ole Opry and broadcast it for 76 years may dump the country music format for sports.

Sources within Gaylord Entertainment who spoke on condition of anonymity say executives are strongly considering syndication of its weekly Opry show, the longest continuously running music show in radio. Gaylord would keep the rights to the show but sell it to other stations for broadcast.

That would leave the company free to switch the format for WSM-AM radio--currently marketing itself with the slogan "Committed to Country ... Always Have Been, Always Will Be"--to all sports.

Gaylord executives met Thursday with employees, who were instructed not to discuss details with reporters.

They also set up two telephone lines to handle questions streaming in from fans.

Colin Reed, Gaylord's president and chief executive officer, said no decision has been made.

"We're not at a point yet that we have determined absolutely, unequivocally we are going to migrate from classic country music on WSM-AM at this stage," Reed said in Friday's editions of the Tennessean. "At the end of the day we may not convert WSM-AM to anything other than what it is today."

Reed confirmed that the company has talked with ESPN about sports programming but said no definitive agreement had been signed.

WSM, founded in 1925, was one the nation's original clear-channel stations--radio stations that have exclusive nationwide rights to a given frequency. It was started to advertise insurance by the National Life and Accident Insurance Co.--WSM stands for "We Shield Millions."

Originally, the station played mostly light classical and dance band music. To the dismay of upper-class Nashville, a program featuring folk fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson proved wildly popular. The program first aired about a month after the station debuted, but it didn't get the name Grand Ole Opry until 1927, a play on the Grand Opera segment that preceded the show.

The show grew to become the most influential in country music, helping to make stars of Hank Williams Sr., Patsy Cline, Minnie Pearl and scores of others.

WSM's signal could be heard coast to coast at night for decades. Today it reaches 38 states and is the last clear-channel station not to convert to news, talk or sports.

The company is in the midst of a major restructuring to focus on its more profitable convention hotel and hospitality business.

Gaylord announced a third-quarter loss of $45.1 million in November, and it has sold several assets and closed divisions over the past year, including two film divisions, a sports management division and two record labels.

Gaylord bought WSM, the Grand Ole Opry, TNN, Opryland and related properties in 1983. Its other holdings include music publishing companies and part of the Nashville Predators professional hockey franchise.

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