The Grand Ole Opry and Broadcasting
Story by Xavier Mastin and Zoe Haggard, MTN Reporters
The Grand Ole Opry has been a staple in Nashville since the show began on November 28, 1925.
From the first crackling broadcast of Uncle Jimmy’s fiddle to today’s live stream of pop country, the Opry has seen some history. But more importantly, the Opry has made history of its own.
Now having celebrated its 95th Anniversary on the first weekend of October 2020, this oldest country music show reveals its impact on broadcast and Nashville’s music scene today.
It began with the pioneer of Nashville radio and television broadcasting, Jack DeWitt Jr., who aired WSM’s first broadcast at the age of 20 on October 5, 1925.
“When you talk about broadcasting as a whole and not necessarily radio, that was born out of WSM,” said Jason Cooper, head broadcast engineer of WSM.
“We Shield Millions,” the slogan of the station’s first owner, National Life and Accident Insurance, became the call sign. Over the years, DeWitt grew the station from 5,000 watts to 50,000, according to Cooper.
“The radio engineering community back then had to work together, and WSM really brought it to the table...above and beyond in their contributions,” said Cooper.
Since the initial birth of WSM came out of the outreach to rural America, said Cooper, it made sense to play music that reminded listeners of home.
Radio personality and Opry founder, George D. Hay named the show, which followed the program Grand Opera, saying, “For the past hour we have been listening to music taken from the grand opera. From now on, we will present the Grand Ole Opry!” That was 1927, according to Jen Larson, archivist manager for the Grand Ole Opry.
“The Opry has always balanced tradition with innovation...This is part of a larger fabric of activity that’s going on across the country in major urban settings,” said Larson.
In 1939, NBC picked up WSM. This provided the Opry with a bigger platform and a national audience and played a huge role in the popularity of the Opry growing. It was also a draw for talent who came to the Opry to be seen on a national stage.
And today, upcoming country music stars and current stars alike look to the Opry as cornerstone to their performance careers.
The Opry has taken place at many different locations. Its predecessor, WMS’s Barn Dance, was first broadcasted in the National Life Building in Nashville, near 7th and Union Street. Today, the show is stilled occasionally aired from the Ryman Auditorium and from the Grand Ole Opry House in the Opry Mills area.
“So many things came out of WSM...the first commercially licensed FM station in 1941...a lot of people confuse that with KDKA in Pittsburg, which was the first commercial AM station,” said Cooper.
This is a key part of why the Opry is the way it is today.
“The advertising component and the economic component can’t be overlooked…that was the whole driving force,” said Cooper.
When the commercialized FM station came into play the Opry could now sell commercials to support the Opry. This in turn helped the economy and is credited for aiding in the growth of Nashville.
For example, Nashville’s publishing industry came out of WSM when after World War II the station became a recording studio, according to Larson. As a result, talent didn’t have to travel to Chicago, New York, or Atlanta. They just had to make it to Nashville.
“It’s really apparent that WSM holds a central place,” said Larson.
And it’s safe to say that if the Opry and WSM did not work together Nashville may have been a lot different.
The show must go on
In its 95-year run, some may forget that the Opry has faced challenges before, like the Great Depression, World War II, and decades of political unrest. Or like in May of 2010, when Nashville experienced a 1,000-year flood that cost millions of dollars in damage.
“A lot of the artifacts were literally submerged under water,” Larson said. “Eventually the collection was cleaned up, and what could be restored was restored.”
The flood in Nashville presented the Opry and the city with unique challenges. It took the Opry nearly five months to recover from the damages.
But the Opry did eventually continue as Larson and Cooper recount the show which aired those months after the flood.
“We did a test and—oh gosh—we’re not getting signal,” Copper said.
The Opry show was to be aired on a Tuesday night in late September, and it seemed that it was expected of them to put on a show no matter what.
The Opry has never missed a show before, according to Cooper, and no one at the company wants to be responsible for the show not airing.
“We never missed a show, but it was a challenge,” said Cooper.
The Opry was aired that night on Sept. 28, 2010 on a 3G connection, according to Cooper. The connection was only found by an upstairs window of the War Memorial Auditorium.
Many can see why the Opry’s has its success and popularity, especially since the production team and artists continue to work in such intuitive ways as when the show first aired nearly a century ago.
Today, in this time of COVID-19, the Opry has yet again found new ways to adapt with all shows being live streamed in addition to recently opening to a live audience.
“They were just having a good time enjoying their music, and I think that’s what made it work,” said Cooper.