A sports program is coming to the most historic and iconic radio station in country music to fill the critical afternoon drive slot. 650 WSM-AM—The Home of the Grand Ole Opry and one of the primary reasons country music even exists as a popular enterprise—has hired long-time Nashville sports talk personality George Plaster to host a talk and call-in radio show from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday. The show is scheduled to begin on July 15th.
Though there’s nothing specifically wrong with George Plaster or sports talk, the announcement by WSM-AM represents an alarming encroachment upon important broadcast time for the brand of country music the station has championed over the years in the face of ever-increasing encroachment of pop and hip-hop into the format. One of the last radio stations in the country catering to classic and traditional country as a primary focus, WSM also offers interviews and live performances for both aging and up-and-coming country performers who adhere to the roots and traditions of the genre. Now, fifteen hours a week on this most legendary of country radio stations will be devoted to talking about Nashville’s emerging sports culture at the expense of important country programming.
George Plaster is a cultural fixture of Nashville himself. Having been on-the-air for the better part of 30 years in the market, he’s a local to Nashville who graduated from Vanderbilt University, and got his first sports talk show in 1989 on WWTN-FM 99.7. He’s also hosted sports programs on 102.5 FM “The Game” and 104.5 “The Zone,” as well as The State Auto SportsZone, which is a weekly television show that airs Sunday nights from August to May on WZTV. Plaster was most recently an assistant athletics director at Belmont University.
Sports is an emerging part of Nashville’s civic culture, underscored by the city’s recent hosting the NFL Draft, which both local boosters and national sports pundits were dutifully impressed with. But WSM-AM has been a bulkhead against the gentrification of country music now for many decades. Founded in 1925 and nicknamed “The Legend,” the 50,000-watt station and its broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry are one of the reasons country music became a popular music genre, and why the radio antennae has become a powerful symbol of country music, including adorning the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda in Nashville.
The owner of 650 WSM-AM is Ryman Hospitality Properties, which also owns the Grand Ole Opry, the Gaylord Opryland Resort, and is a partner of many other important properties throughout Nashville, including Blake Shelton’s Ole Red bar and venue on Lower Broadway. Ryman Hospitality has been one of the primary beneficiaries of Nashville’s recent economic boom, and recently announced the launch of their own television network with Grey Television, expected to be commissioned in mid 2020.
Undoubtedly with the rise of appeal in sports in Nashville and the following George Plaster has put together over the years, the new show will perform better than the current programming in that time slot. But there’s something to be said about keeping the mission and the programming of WSM-AM pure to its original mission, even if it means more moderate expectations on ratings and revenue. The legacy of WSM-AM is bigger than any one generation, and adding sports to the mix would be no different than tearing down an important portion of the Ryman Auditorium to erect some more financially-lucrative structure. The other concern is if this afternoon drive sports show is just the start, and eventually Ryman Hospitality will look to rebrand the station or do a format change, even if they keep the broadcasts of the Opry.
Ryman Hospitality has plenty of money, and there are better options for allocating new talent into this legacy country music radio station to attract listeners. WSM-AM is a cultural institution whose fate should rise above immediate financial concerns. With the rise of interest in traditional and independent country music and Americana, the dwindling of support for these styles of music by corporate radio, and the ability for listeners to tune in from all around the world via the internet, WSM-AM could take the lead in this space as the most legendary radio brand in country music. The rise of podcasts have proven how much people are willing to listen to substantial, in-depth programming about country music. By acquiescing to sports programming, the management of Ryman Hospitality is undercutting what makes WSM-AM unique, and what could help build on the station’s legacy moving forward for a new generation of listeners.
Let sports stations handle the sports talk in Nashville. Let WSM-AM continue to be the heartbeat of traditional country music on the radio like it has been for going on 100 years.