Something we’ve talked about more than a few times here is, and has to be, country music. For Nashville—especially for our music industry, and for radio, of course—it is the elephant in the room (and it’s no small feat to tailor a Nudie Suit for an elephant). Like all genres of music, there are doubts about what it is/isn’t and can/cannot contain. Country’s contents broaden more all the time—witness Taylor Swift, who can craft love songs and kill on Saturday Night Live, or Brad Paisley, who put one of his heroes in a video…Elvis? Dale? Try William Shatner. Surprising? Try this: today’s station profile is the tenth one so far, but it’s only the first one about a country station.
Station Identification: 95.5, WSM-FM, The ‘90s to NOW!
Nashville’s National Life Insurance, of course, founded that other WSM—hence the call letters (the company’s slogan was We Shield Millions; see what they did there?). National Life struck gold by investing in radio, and seeking to do so again, became early innovators, of a sort; in 1941, the company was the first organization—even before NBC, CBS, et al—to buy a brand-new offering from the FCC: a license to broadcast on the then-new FM band. This time, they were too early, and sold the license back ten years later, citing low audience numbers.
FM began to find its place in the late ‘60s (much as the Internet did in the late ‘90s), and so, National Life bought the license back in 1968, and began to broadcast at 95.5, initially as an easy listening station. The cheesy but comfortable genre gave way in 1976 to what was then labeled “soft rock”. “Soft rock”, in 1976, was more challenging than Esquivel, and less, if you will, stimulating than Kiss or The Village People (both of whom were, in 1976, the cutting edge of popular music. I’m not kidding.) The kings of the genre were the newly dubbed “singer-songwriters”, like Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chapin; as such, 95.5 was the station of choice for progressively-minded young adults—and paydirt for the number of singer-songwriters living here in Nashville.
By 1983, National Life had sold the station—and its uber-iconic AM counterpart and The Grand Ole Opry and Opryland and The Opryland Hotel and everything else Opry in nature—to the Gaylord family, publishing tycoons from Oklahoma. The Gaylords hoped to build a family-focused media conglomerate, a la Disney; they decided instead to buy one. Once bought, 95.5 was moved to studios near Opryland, and their format became country. The format stayed country, but was skewed towards a younger audience in 2004; the format change boosted ratings considerably, which Gaylord rewarded—by selling the station to its current owner, Cumulus Media.
The 5-10 AM shift is helmed by Rick Marino and Lisa Manning. While scores of people have left their hometowns to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood, Marino did the exact opposite–he is in fact a native of Hollywood, who, drawn more to music than cinema, came here, and has been on local radio since 1994. Radio was not Marino’s original goal, so much as the destination at the end of what he describes as a “long and winding road”–in other words, his is a career towards which one could point as a case for destiny. He’s hardly alone in that. Manning’s father was a DJ and owned an ad agency; her mother was, for a time, the president of AFTRA (American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, the union for DJs and television personalities); and her sister is the actress Lori Alan–or, as your kids know her, Pearl.
The morning broadcast also features Tim Ross, who is extremely familiar with both radio, and the atmosphere through which it travels. A native Midwesterner, he had (suffice it to say) a vested interest in that region’s weather, which led to a degree in Meterology; also, he’s been on the air since he was 13 years old–on a HAM radio station operated by Tim himself. He’s also been familiar on Nashville television, both on WZTV and WSMV (originally WSM; yes, Virginia, it was National Life Insurance’s foray into television). Also on board is Ashley Mann, for whom country radio is also likely a matter of fate–her grandfather performed with Roy Acuff, and she (after a turn in musical theatre) worked for Reba McEntire. Ross, naturally, provides weather forecasts; Mann provides “The Nashville Buzz”–news and notes on those her former boss proclaimed “the boys who make the noise on 16th Avenue”.
The midday shift (10 AM-3 PM) belongs to Josh Connor; speaking of country radio and destiny, Connor is also a likely example–being picked up by Charlie Daniels as a child will have that effect. Daniels, riding the crest of Johnny v. Devil, made a personal appearance at a record store in Connor’s hometown, and stood his young fan on a desk next to him during the entire event. That, combined with the piano he’d gotten as a gift from his grandfather (a balm for the unpleasant aftertaste of newborn siblings; well-played, Connor the elder!) cemented Connor’s connection to music. He wrote songs, he wrote jingles, the jingles landed him an on-air gig in Robinson, IL, which got him a gig in Cedar Rapids, which got him a gig in Des Moines…and now he’s here.
Syndicated Favorites/What No One Else In Town Offers:
Normally, of course, these are separate, but they are the same here. Why? Simple: a country station is going to opt for syndicated shows about country, and where are such shows likely to originate? (Hint: it isn’t Walla Walla, Washington.) One of the top-rated nationally-syndicated country shows originates from 95.5. From 7 PM to midnight, Cody Alan hosts CMT Radio Live, a tie-in with the cable TV station of the same name (upon which he also appears, in the enviable position of movie host). He knows his music, and his medium: Radio and Records, the trade magazine for the industry (prior to its sign-of-the-times absorption by Billboard), has deemed Alan their Music Director of the Year five times.
Sunday mornings, from 8 AM to noon, 95.5 becomes the domian of Bob Kingsley, the host of Country Top 40, the most current variation of what he has now done for 30 years. Again, he’s a case for destiny; country music is for him what movies became for Martin Scorcese. Much as movies were the option available to a young, athsmatic Scorcese, Kingsley–bedridden for a year at the age of 7–had access to one outlet: radio. At the age of 18 (and in considerably better health), Kingsley entered the Air Force, where he DJed for the first time at what is most definitely an entry-level market: the bustling metropolis of Keflavik, Iceland. After the Air Force, he landed in the genuinely-bustling metropolis of Los Angeles–or, in radio terms, one of the two most important American markets (NYC is the other, of course). It was in LA, in 1974, that he initiated “American Country Countdown”; he launched “Country Top 40” in 2006.
Kingsley’s show is something of a juggernaut, but its success, for Kingsley, stems from the degree to which it isn’t a juggernaut. His method, as he describes it on the station’s website, is to aim not for masses, but “that one person, maybe with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table or in a car driving down the road, and talk directly to him or her…hopefully they’ll share my passion”. It’s that very same process which makes it feel as though Hank and George–and Taylor and Brad, as different/similar as they may be–are singing to you, about what happened to you, and no one else. That’s where country music succeeds, and where country radio succeeds–where all radio succeeds, in this Examiner’s opinion.
That said, what happens when the familiar, engaging DJ–“the bright, good-morning voice/who is heard but never seen”, as the earlier-mentioned Mr. Chapin once put it–is not there at all? That’s a question for next time…
Next: You Don’t Know Jack (nor does anyone else)