- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. The radio station that created the Grand Ole Opry and broadcast it for 76 years is considering dumping the country music format for sports.

Sources within Gaylord Entertainment who spoke on the condition of anonymity say executives are discussing syndication of its weekly Opry show, the longest continuously running music show on radio. Gaylord would keep the rights to the show but sell it to other stations for broadcast.

That would leave the company free to switch the format for WSM-AM radio currently marketing itself with the slogan "Committed to Country Always Have Been, Always Will Be" to all sports.

WSM's signal can be heard at night nationwide. Today, it reaches 38 states and is the last clear-channel station not to convert to news, talk or sports. Beginning at dusk, listeners in Maryland, Virginia and the District can pick up the station at 650 on their AM dials.

Founded in 1925, WSM was one the nation's original clear-channel stations radio stations that have exclusive nationwide rights to a given frequency. It was started to advertise insurance by the National Life and Accident Insurance Co. WSM stands for "We Shield Millions."

Gaylord executives met Thursday with employees, who were instructed not to discuss details with reporters. They also set up two telephone lines to handle the questions streaming in from fans.

Colin Reed, Gaylord's president and chief executive officer, said no decision has been made.

"We're not at a point yet that we have determined absolutely, unequivocally we are going to migrate from classic country music on WSM-AM at this stage," Mr. Reed told the Nashville Tennessean newspaper. "At the end of the day, we may not convert WSM-AM to anything other than what it is today."

He confirmed that the company has talked with ESPN about sports programming but said no definitive agreement had been signed.

The station's first official broadcast day on Oct. 5, 1925, included live entertainment by two orchestras and speeches by dignitaries as well as some of America's leading radio personalities.

Originally, the station played mostly light classical and dance band music. To the dismay of upper-class Nashville, a program featuring old-time folk fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson proved wildly popular. The program, called the WSM Barn Dance, first aired about a month after the station debuted, but it didn't get the name Grand Ole Opry until 1927, a play on the Grand Opera segment that preceded the show.

The show grew to become the most influential in country music, helping to make stars of honky tonk king Hank Williams Sr., Patsy Cline and Minnie Pearl. Today, current Opry members include Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood.

Thousands of radio listeners across the country still get a taste of a 1930s big-production radio show every Friday and Saturday night.

Gaylord Entertainment is in the midst of a major restructuring to focus on its more profitable convention hotel and hospitality business.

Gaylord plans to build a 2,000-room hotel and a 400,000-square-foot convention center at National Harbor, a project being developed in Prince George's County next to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Gaylord announced a third-quarter loss of $45.1 million in November, and it has sold several assets and closed divisions during the past year, including two film divisions, a sports-management division and two record labels.

Gaylord bought WSM, the Grand Ole Opry, TNN, Opryland and related properties in 1983. Its other holdings include music-publishing companies and part of the Nashville Predators professional hockey franchise.

Donna De Marco contributed to this report from Washington.

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