Founded by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, WSM first went on the air on Monday, October 5, 1925. WSM stands for the National Life and Accident Insurance Company’s slogan, “We Shield Millions”. Less than 2 months after it went on the air, it debuted the WSM Barn Dance on Saturday night, November 28, becoming renamed “The Grand Ole Opry” in October of 1927 by original host George D. Hay.
In 1928, WSM was moved to 650 AM, the frequency it still occupies today. In 1932, WSM expanded to 50,000 watts as a clear-channel radio station, which means that it broadcasts with the same wattage day or night. WSM has one of the largest daytime signals in the country, being receivable as far southeast as Chattanooga, TN, as far northwest as Evansville, IN, and as far northeast as Lexington, KY. At night, however, due to atmospheric conditions allowing the signal to bounce off of the ionosphere, WSM can be received over the eastern two-thirds of the United States as well as in parts of Canada. WSM also broadcasts online, from wsmradio.com, allowing all of its programming, including the Grand Ole Opry, to be heard literally anywhere around the world.
WSM’s transmitter was manufactured by Blaw-Knox and is built in an unusual but stylish narrow diamond shape. The transmitter is located close to the interchange of Interstate 65 and Concord Road (exit 71, Tennessee State Route 253) south of Nashville. The transmitter originally had a height of 878 feet until being reduced to 808 feet in 1939 when it was discovered that the taller tower was causing self-cancellation in the “fringe” areas of reception of the station.
In 1941, National Life and Accident Insurance Company launched a companion FM station, originally known as W47NV, later being re-branded as WSM-FM in 1943. The FM station, however, went dark in 1951. 17 years later, a National Life subsidiary purchased Nashville FM station WLWM and renamed it WSM-FM, being located at 95.5 FM. In 2003, Cumulus Media bought WSM-FM and ended the joint sales agreement with WSM-AM in 2008. Despite having the same call sign, the two stations are no longer owned by the same company.
In 1950, WSM-TV (now WSMV) went on the air on channel 4 and is the NBC affiliate for middle Tennessee.
Despite hosting the Barn Dance/Grand Ole Opry since 1925, WSM didn’t become a full-time country music station until 1980.
From 1982 to 2000, WSM-AM broadcast in the experimental C-QUAM AM stereo format.
During the late 1990’s, WSM began broadcasting online, allowing it to be heard anywhere in the world.
In 2001, WSM management was considering turning WSM into an all-sports station. Word was quickly leaked to other media resulting in protests, including longtime Opry personalities and country music singers, outside the station’s studios. Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed, and management decided to let WSM remain as a classic country station, which it still is today.
In 2008, WSM received the Marconi Award, the radio broadcasting industry’s highest honor.
Notable former WSM on-air personnel in addition to George D. Hay include the following:
- Ralph Emery (1933-2022) was WSM’s overnight on-air personality from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. After stepping down from the role, he solidified his career as an interviewer of famous country stars.
- Pat Sajak (born 1946) was WSM’s afternoon on-air personality during the mid-1970s. He also served as a voice-over announcer and was the weekend meteorologist and substitute host of a talk show on WSM-TV. After leaving WSM and WSM-TV, Pat became chief meteorologist for KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. In late 1981, Pat became the host of TV’s Wheel of Fortune after original Wheel host Chuck Woolery left the show.
- Grant Turner (1912-1991) joined George D. Hay and the staff of Grand Ole Opry announcers in 1944, later becoming the Opry’s chief announcer for many years.
- Grand Ole Opry star Ernest Tubb (1914-1984) hosted the Midnite Jamboree from his record shop following each episode of the Opry from 1947 until his death. The Midnite Jamboree has continued from the record shop since his death, with other hosts.
- Eddie Stubbs (born 1961) was WSM’s evening host and served as the Grand Ole Opry’s chief announcer from 1995 until his retirement in 2020.