Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
You know those days we talk about here where everything seems to fall together perfectly? Here’s one of them in Nashville from our Radio Show visit last September, where we got to see three of the market’s commercial radio clusters all in fairly quick succession (and two of them just a short walk apart!)
The one that’s not walking distance is Midwest Communications’ group of three stations, housed in a three-story building tucked away in a hilly mixed-use neighborhood just off the interchange between I-440 and Nolensville Pike a few miles south of downtown.
This cluster was the big gun in the Engelbrecht family’s South Central arsenal before they sold the group to Duke Wright’s Midwest in 2014, and the big gun in the cluster here has always been AC WJXA (Mix 92.9), often the top-rated station in town.
Its studios are down on the ground floor, nestled near top-40 WNFN (“i106.7,”) a Cumulus spinoff that joined the family here just a few months before our visit, and “Jack” WCJK (96.3 Murfreesboro).
There’s a Boston-market connection to be made here – i106.7 APD (now PD) Joe Breezy came to Nashville with his fiancee (now wife) Danielle Vollmar, who moved from Boston’s WCVB to become chief meteorologist at Nashville’s WKRN.
In last week’s installment, we showed you the Cumulus “NASH Campus” just south of downtown – but that’s not where the local NASH stations and the rest of the local Cumulus cluster are to be found.
We find all of them a mile or so to the west of downtown, in the Music Row neighborhood that’s been home since the 1960s to much of the city’s legendary music business.
The Cumulus building at 10 Music Circle East, hard by the I-40/65 freeway loop, has a long history in Nashville broadcasting: this was the studio home of WLAC radio and TV from the 1950s through the 1970s, when WLAC-TV became WTVF (Channel 5) and built new digs near the state capitol, while WLAC radio stayed put near Music Row.
The current version of this building is a fairly recent renovation, featuring an airy atrium at the entrance. To the left on the ground floor, where the TV newsroom and studio used to be, there’s now a live performance studio shared by all the stations here.
We have to go upstairs to see the big row of studios, lined up for the most part along the back wall of the second floor. News-talk WWTN (99.7 Hendersonville) was a prominent early FM move-in in the 1980s, co-owned for a time under Cumulus with WSM (650) and WSM-FM (95.5); today, it’s still the big talker in town as “SuperTalk WTN.”
The next pod of studios as we move down the hall belongs to WKDF (103.3), the former rocker that became a country station, yielded up its old studio location to become the new “NASH” campus, and in the process became Nashville’s “NASH FM” outlet. While its morning show comes from over at the campus, the rest of the day comes from here at the Music Circle studios.
The next stop down the hallway is the urban signal in the cluster, WQQK (92.1 Goodlettsville), where we get a peek through the window before moving over to the other NASH-branded signal in the cluster, “NASH Icon” WSM-FM (95.5). The NASH Icon branding has been a successful one for WSM-FM, which had been struggling in the ratings for some time but has now been beating its two big country competitors as often as not.
The rack room faces the long studio hallway – and across from NASH Icon is the studio cluster for WGFX (104.5 Gallatin), which was a Dick Broadcasting sister to WKDF before both stations went to Citadel in 2000 and then into Cumulus hands a little over a decade later. Today, WGFX is a big sports voice in the market as “104.5 the Zone,” flagship for the Tennessee Titans, by far the biggest franchise in town. (Sorry, Preds fans…)
The big WGFX talk studio overlooks the atrium – and as we head down the stairs outside (and past the studio across the hall that originates the Titans network), it’s just a quick turn to the left and a walk across Music Square (which is really two parallel pieces of 16th and 17th Avenues South) to the iHeart Radio studios at 55 Music Square West.
This building came together in two pieces – an initial cluster in the 1990s under SFX that brought country WSIX-FM (97.9) and modern AC “River” WRVW (107.5) together, followed in quick succession by news-talk WLAC (1510), its FM sister that became WNRQ (105.9) and urban WUBT (101.1 Russellville KY), a move-in from the Bowling Green market. The older part of the building is now accompanied by a newer office section that’s built over the parking garage next door – and when we dropped by, the lobby had (a) just finished a renovation and (b) was under siege by teenagers waiting for a live performance from 107.5, which is now a CHR station.
That performance would happen an hour or so later in the performance studio just past the renovated lobby, all done up with Nashville-chic wooden benches and tables and nicely outfitted (as one does these days) with video and lighting capability.
Back in the older part of the first floor, a studio at the core of the building is now used by syndicated Fox Sports talker Steve Gorman, who’s still perhaps better known as the drummer for the Black Crowes.
Around the back corner of the building is the studio for Bobby Bones, the top-40 jock who went country and is now iHeart’s nationally-syndicated morning talent for many of its country stations. He was done for the day, which meant that programming for his Nashville flagship WSIX-FM was coming from the adjacent studio, which is very heavily sponsored by Jack Daniel’s, just in case you couldn’t tell.
That’s middayer Amy Paige on the air in the WSIX studio, and no, you cannot have the Shure SM-5 she’s using, no matter how nicely you ask. (And we did!)
Upstairs, two more well-branded studio clusters belong to hard rock WNRQ (105.9 the Rock) and to top-40 WRVW (107.5 the River, complete with the blue and green coloring of sponsor Acceptance Car Insurance); WUBT (“101.1 the Beat”) is around the corner in a newer cluster of studios near the main stairway.
The front corner of the older building is where we find WLAC, the 50,000-watt giant that’s now mainly a repository for iHeart/Premiere syndicated talk. (Not long after we were there, even WLAC’s morning hours went syndicated as home to Nashville-based sports show “Outkick the Coverage.”)
There’s still a small newsroom here, and the studio adjoining the WLAC control room still has turntables in it, a nod to the station’s onetime role as a major hub for R&B music in the late-night hours. (The music heritage lives on here for just a few hours every Sunday night, when Eldon Thacker takes the WLAC airwaves to play classic country.)
The traffic operation for iHeart Nashville comes from a studio over here, too – and traffic is a big deal in this booming city, so local traffic coverage matters a lot.
Think we’re done? Not even close: in next week’s installment, we’ll show you some Nashville transmitter facilities, including a big shortwave installation. And in two weeks, we’ll visit a few more heritage studios and then wrap up with that certain other 50,000-watt ambassador of Music City. Don’t miss it!
Thanks to Midwest’s Jason Cooper, Cumulus’ Troy Pennington and the staff of iHeart Nashville for the tours!
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Next week: Nashville transmitters, from shortwave to FM