Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
If you’ve been with us for the last few weeks of Site of the Week installments featuring our Nashville trip from last September, you’re probably wondering two things: “did we sleep at all?” (not much), and “where the heck is WSM?”
Nashville’s legendary 50,000-watt radio station may not be a huge force in ratings or revenue anymore, but WSM remains a Music City institution, and of course we weren’t about to leave town without paying our respects to the legend.
We’d never been inside the WSM studio, which had been through some big adventures in the last few years. A massive flood in 2010 that devastated the Nashville area wreaked particular havoc on the low-lying piece of land where the Opryland Hotel sits northeast of town. As the water rose into WSM’s showcase studio near Opryland’s main entrance and hotel guests were evacuated, engineers and programmers loaded music and equipment on a bell cart and drove away to set up a temporary studio at the station’s transmitter site 15 miles south in Brentwood.
It took more than six months before things were dried out and WSM was ready to come home to Opryland, which it did in late 2010 – and it’s that rebuilt studio that we had the pleasure of visiting on our last day in town.
As a broadcast ambassador of sorts for Gaylord, the resort/entertainment company that owns the station, WSM has a prominent place at the Opryland complex, its main air studio visible behind windows right near the main entrance, right next to an elaborate wall display of the station’s more than nine decades of history.
The entrance to the studio complex is hidden inconspicuously around a corner, built into what had once been an ordinary Opryland hotel room, now converted into a rack room and vestibule for an adjacent production room.
From there, a door leads into the main studio complex, which consists of a talent area set down a few steps from the control console at the back of the room. This showcase studio was just wrapping up Bill Cody’s morning show when we stopped by; that’s Cody’s morning sidekick Charlie Mattos at the board across from Bill.
Before WSM moved its studio into Opryland itself in the 1990s, it spent a little more than a decade operating from a low-slung building adjacent to the Opryland entry road alongside McGavock Pike. When WSM came here in 1983 from its previous location on Knob Road (shared with WSM-TV, now WSMV, as we saw in the first installment of our Nashville series), this was already a building with plenty of its own radio history.
For many decades, this site on McGavock Pike was the transmitter home of one of WSM’s competitors, WSIX (980), which used this building from 1942 until it moved out in 1974 to make room for the Opryland development. (WSIX moved to a new site on Neelys Bend Road and eventually became present-day WYFN, part of the Bible Broadcasting Network.)
Even after the WSM studios opened inside Opryland, the station’s offices remained in this building at 2644 McGavock Pike, which were renovated (not “demolished,” as Wikipedia erroneously states) after suffering flood damage in 2010. There are still production studios in this building, too, using the former WSM and WSM-FM air studios.
And that brings us to our final stop on our Nashville trip, because how can you not finish off with the big one? WSM’s 800-foot tower is a landmark along I-65 south of Nashville, just as it was a landmark for the trains that used to pass by this site in Brentwood back in the day.
Inside, this building sparkles, from the “WSM” shield (from National Life’s “We Shield Millions” slogan, of course) inlaid in the front hall to the historic displays that fill the front hall and the old engineering office to the right. There’s still a functioning kitchen off to the left, too – but we head straight back to the transmitter room, where a DX50 and 3DX50 face off across the big transmitter hall.
There’s more history on display all over this room, including old tower beacons and tunin coils on one side and consoles on the other – and in the middle, the desk that served as the WSM air studio for much of 2010 while the Opryland studio was being rebuilt!
Downstairs, it’s just as pristine, including a vintage boiler room, a fallout shelter from the Cold War era and a fully-functional machine shop.
And out back, we get the closest look we’ve ever had at the mighty Blaw-Knox beast, from the tuning house right out to the very base of this majestic tower, which turns 85 this year.
From here, it’s a drive through Nashville afternoon traffic back to the airport and back home, but with wonderful memories of a splendid week in the Music City and a promise to be back soon to see (and eat!) even more.
Thanks to Jason Cooper for the tour!
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Next week: Durham Region, Ontario