Home station of the Grand Ole Opry radio show, WSM was an early Nashville radio station, the marketing idea of Edwin Craig of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. In the early 1920s Craig, son of National Life founding partner Cornelius Craig, watched the nationwide phenomena of radio develop into an advertising source for station owners and sponsors. Craig capitalized on this potential with the creation of a company radio station.
The fifth floor of the new National Life building on Seventh Avenue in Nashville housed an up-to-date radio station in 1925. The one-thousand-watt station was equaled by only one other in the South and was stronger than 85 percent of the stations nationwide. The selected call letters stood for “We Shield Millions.”
The radio station gave National Life advertising potential, community service opportunities, and support for the company’s field men while promoting company identity. The first aired program included Tennessee Governor Austin Peay, Nashville Mayor Hillary Howse, National Life President Craig, and noted radio announcers from around the country.
Early programming broadcast a variety of classical and popular tunes and included a quintet from Fisk University. Jack Keefe served as the radio announcer until WSM hired George Hay from the Sears station, WLS, in Chicago. Hay had begun his career broadcasting with WMC (the Commercial Appeal station) in Memphis prior to working for Sears.
Early radio broadcast signals were unlimited, and WSM transmitted to both coasts. Hay understood this broadcasting potential and the popularity of the barn dance programs with rural audiences. On November 28, 1925, he tested old time music with Uncle Jimmy Thompson performing an hour of fiddle music. Hay found an enthusiastic audience. On December 26, 1925, WSM formally began broadcasting an old-time music program every Saturday night. Dubbed the Grand Ole Opry in 1927 by Hay, he would continue to expand the hillbilly theme.
As live audiences outgrew the original fifth floor studio of the National Life Building, the show moved to the Hillsboro Theater. Tickets for the free show became a tool for National Life agents to attract new customers. After several additional moves, the show began performing at the Ryman Auditorium, later known as the Grand Ole Opry House, before moving to its present stage at Opryland in 1974.
To help fill the programming hours WSM began a subscription to the National Broadcasting Company in 1927 when the station increased its power to five thousand watts. Public service remained a part of the station’s mission, but promotion of National Life was prominent. The Grand Ole Opry helped to increase life insurance sales to rural customers through a new premium payment plan based on monthly rather than semiannual payments. During World War II, the station and the company contributed to the war effort. In 1950 WSM brought the first television broadcast to Nashville. A continuing leader in country music, WSM promoted the industry by helping to develop the Country Music Association. The radio station still broadcasts The Grand Ole Opry on Friday and Saturday nights.
J. Fred MacDonald, Dont Touch That Dial! Radio Programming in American Life, 1920-1960 (1991); Powell Stamper, The National Life Story: A History of the National Life and Accident Insurance Co. of Nashville (1968)