Despite its name, Gaylord Entertainment Corp. isn’t really in the entertainment business anymore. Focused these days on expanding its presence in the hotel industry after selling off assets such as Country Music Television, the Nashville Network and its interest in the Nashville Predators as well as razing the Opryland theme park, there’s not much left entertainment-wise in the Gaylord songbook.
The venerable Grand Ole Opry is still around, but it owes its continued existence to nostalgia alone. There’s also WSM-AM and WSM-FM, devoted to old and new country music, respectively. And then there’s their little sister, a radio station thatfor better or worseis arguably the most influential radio station in the Nashville market: WWTN-FM, or Supertalk 99.7.
The latest ratings book put the station at No. 1 among adult listeners and tied for No. 1 among all listeners (with easy listening WJXA-FM, or Mix 92.9). But we’re not just talking about the ratings. We’re also not talking about the presence of the station’s most polarizing figure: morning political talk jock Steve Gill, who is a relentless self- promoter among local personalities.
No, we’re talking about the fact that, whether it’s taxes or football, politics or sports, more Middle Tennesseans care about what the folks on WTN have to say than any other broadcast outlet. This includes many of the folks on Capitol Hill, whether they publicly admit it or not. (Most don’t.) To the consternation of many, WTN has become a major media force.
It certainly didn’t begin that way. WTN was all but dead in the water just a few short years ago. First launched in January 1991, it was just a blip on the local radio scene in an era when highly respected WLAC-AM was the undisputed king of local talk, country music was booming and teen pop stations dominated the local market.
Still, the fledgling station had some quality programming. An afternoon sports talk show hosted by Duncan Stewart (now with Gerry House of WSIX-FM) had a loyal following. A financial advice show hosted by the then-obscure Dave Ramsey was also muddling through. The station had a plucky staff, both on-air and off, and decent, if not exactly luxurious, accommodations atop the 15-story 1808 West End Building in the shadow of downtown.
Money, however, was a major issue. Before Gaylord bought the station, it was severely undercapitalized. George Plaster, the current host of WTN’s SportsNight, remembers that paychecks were at best hit-or-miss propositions.
“We never knew whether we were going to be paid,” he says. “Sometimes you didn’t get checks, sometimes you did, and when you did, you had no idea whether they were any good. There was always a good chance that they weren’t worth the paper they were printed on.”
Ultimately, it got so bad that the station had no choice but to file for bankruptcy. Even when Gaylord intervened to purchase the station in early 1995, the station stalwarts had pretty much given up on any hope of WTN’s future.
“The feeling was that Gaylord was planning to completely revamp the station and make it a ‘young country’ station,” Plaster remembers. “But nobody was committing to anything, and [the staff] just sat there in limbo. Nobody knew anything.”
Taking a page from Jay Leno (who, the story goes, hid in a closet to spy on NBC officials as they debated who would replace Johnny Carson), Plaster once even removed a ceiling panel in his office, climbed into the rafters and crawled over to the office next door to listen in on station management in an effort to figure out what, if anything, was going to happen. Despite his efforts, he learned nothing.
Eventually, Plaster got tired of the dithering and decided to move to Atlanta. He lined up a job as a sideline reporter for the official station of the Atlanta Falcons, whose record of futility around that time would have made the refugee from a down-and-out radio station feel right at home.
With one foot out the door, Plaster made a last-ditch pitch for Gaylord finally to show its cards before he left for good.
“May 7 was my birthday,” he remembers. “I had decided that that would be the day that I call and ask them, finally, what they were going to do. May rolled around, and so I did. They told me that they had decided to keep the talk format. They believed there was a market in Nashville for what we were trying to do.”
Gratified, Plaster stuck around, and things took a turn for the better. Just three months later, a Texas oilman announced his interest in moving an NFL franchise to Nashville. Nashville voters approved financial support for the move the next year, coincidentally enough, on May 7. Before he knew it, Plaster was hosting a sports talk show in a full-fledged NFL city. Soon thereafter, the National Hockey League approved an expansion team for the city. In a very short period of time, the sports landscape in Nashville had expanded exponentially, and SportsNight suddenly had a lot more to talk about. A good thing, too, because the mugs of SportsNight co-hosts Plaster, Joe Biddle and Willy Daunic were appearing all over town as part of Gaylord’s huge push to promote the station, and new listeners were coming into the fold every day.
Nashvillians were also treated to Dave Ramsey’s visage on buses and billboards around the city. In rather improbable fashion, the heretofore unknown Ramsey had begun making a very real name for himself in radio by repeating the same thingdon’t spend beyond your meansover and over and over again. With this message, Ramsey attracted followers from all walks of life.
With afternoons and evenings covered by Ramsey and the sports crew, and the 9 a.m.-to-1 p.m. slot filled by syndicated talk show host, ex-con and Watergate ringleader G. Gordon Liddy (whose top market in the nation is Nashville), only the morning drive time, the bread and butter of radio stations everywhere, remained in flux. The slot had been held by the mercurial, but sometimes entertaining, Darrell Ankarlo, who had a contract dispute with WTN and left the station in a huff. Drive time on WTN began to flounder until the station approached WLAC’s Steve Gill with an offer.
Gill, a lawyer and twice-failed Republican congressional candidate with no substantive radio experience before joining WLAC, hosted a show with the reputation of getting stellar guests. And along with WLAC station colleague Phil Valentine, Gill was at the forefront of the budding state income tax controversy.
Gill made the jump to WTN seamlessly in January 2001, and the station finally had the solid daily consistency that had eluded it for years. Its eventual conquest of the radio ratings books was just around the corner.
It certainly didn’t hurt that talk rival WLAC was imploding. Out of nowhere, WLAC’s parent company unceremoniously canned sport talkers Bob Bell and Bill King, whose long-running early evening show had been a Nashville institution. WTN’s SportsNight rushed in to fill the vacuum, picking up many of Bell and King’s listeners, as WLAC offered up only non-local syndicated fare at night.
Mornings at WLAC were no better, as its morning show was a shadow of its former self without Gill, who had, in any case, taken the lion’s share of his listeners with him to WTN.
Only afternoons remained constant at WLAC. Over the years, Phil Valentine has maintained a core group of listeners for his 3 p.m. show (which now runs to 7 p.m.), and national talk show king Rush Limbaugh has been a mainstay in the 12 p.m.-to-3 p.m. slot. But unfortunately, WLAC has managed to screw up even Limbaugh’s show, airing him with a one-hour delay. This is as much an affront to his dedicated listeners as delivering the Sunday Times a day late would be for Long Islanders. It may also have something to do with the surprising fact that WTN beats Limbaugh in all of his show’s three hours. Even the last hour of the four-hour G. Gordon Liddy Show, usually the most tedious, beats the first, fresh hour of Limbaugh in Nashville.
Having bumbling competition doesn’t hurt, but it’s the special chemistry within WTN that probably has played the biggest role in its change of fortune. There’s a manifest esprit de corps among the station’s crew and staff, especially those who remember what it was like before the stars were shining down on them. One effect of this is that there is no apparent stratification among station personalities and station employees. They treat each other as equals, and, in many cases, the personalities are as active as anyone in promoting the station and getting sponsors. WTN sales director Chris Kulich notes with pleasure that Plaster, Gill and others often accompany staff on sales calls, pitching in wherever needed. It’s a situation not unheard of at other stations, but it’s not exactly common either.
This involvement of station personalities and, of course, WTN’s position atop the ratings heap, is probably the reason the station is awash in advertising riches. Indeed, WTN sold out its entire 2002 inventory of ad space in September, a fact it trumpeted in a self-congratulatory spot early in the fall. (One of the fringe benefits of working at WTN is that whatever employees do well probably will be shared with the listening public. During station breaks, listeners are as likely to hear a sound clip congratulating a staff member on his or her new baby as they are to hear a paid commercial.)
And then there’s the on-air chemistry, which is most palpable on SportsNight. It’s rare anywhere in the country to come across a sports talk show quite like this one. In many markets, sports shows are populated by former or wannabe jocks who amuse themselves by shouting their opinions to anyone who will listen. They yell, they scream and they tell callers what idiots they are.
Enter Plaster, the very antithesis of a jock andthough he would never admit itthe heart and soul of the station. Plaster is, for lack of a better description, a goober. A very nice goober, but one nonetheless, with all the athleticism of a candied yam. What’s more, he makes no bones about it, joking on the air about his utter inability to hit a golf ball, as well as his chronic bad back.
Plaster and his crew run their show not like a group of men trying to out-do each other, but as a light and open forum. New ideas are welcome, as are women, who ironically comprise a surprising number of callers to this male-oriented station (see “Radio For Men” sidebar on page 28). In fact, SportsNight is the least testosterone-laden show on the station. Last year, for example, it sponsored a “Football Fundamentals for Women” class to raise money to fight domestic violence. The show also brings a proper perspective to sports in general. None of the hosts is happy on Mondays after the Titans lose, for example, but no one’s jumping out of windows either or indiscriminately calling for people’s heads just to stir up listeners.
The same holds true for Total Sports Experience, a weeknight show hosted by Plaster protégé Willy Daunic. Daunic is obsessed with sports, but, if anything, he’s even more laid-back than the SportsNight gang.
And let’s not forget the guests. WTN consistently has the best slate of guests in the area. SportsNight, for instance, gets weekly visits from John McClain, a sometimes jolly, sometimes cynical Houston Chronicle columnist who knows more about NFL football than Paul Tagliabue. During winter, the show hears from The New York Daily News’ Dick “Hoops” Weiss, who knows more about NCAA basketball than John McClain knows about football.
It’s the Steve Gill Show, though, that has the real knack for booking star-studded guests. In the past year alone, Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, author Scott Turow, KISS crooner Gene Simmons, political strategist Dick Morris, CBS’ Dan Rather and ABC’s Cokie Roberts all have been guests on Gill’s show, which is well-known among Washingtonians. Gill, in fact, was the second talk show host in the country to interview Vice President Dick Cheney after his inauguration. (Limbaugh, not surprisingly, was the first.)
The conservative Gill regularly even manages to attract resolute liberals to his show, including Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift and Alan Colmes, Sean Hannity’s cannon fodder on the Fox News Network.
The secret to getting great guests is simple, Gill says. “I feel like I treat guests very fairly. When I’m alone on my show, I’m an editorial page, but when I have a guest, I treat them like a guest in my home. They get to have their say. Then they tell others about their fair treatment on the show. And that means even more guests for later on.”
Internal chemistry, on-air chemistry, excellent guests and little real competition. All of these things have conspired to lift WTN from the bottom of the heap to where it is today. But there’s the age-old problem that all ultimately successful endeavors havenamely, the bittersweet question of “What do we do now?” With no hills left to conquer and a cushy perch underneath the Gaylord umbrella, will WTN lose the scrappy, ruffian personality that fuels its spirit? Will it plateau and become complacent? Will it, in short, eventually become just like most other talk radio stations in the worldlistless, dull and predictable?
There’s always a chance. Governor-elect Phil Bredesen has pledged to make the state budget a non-issue in the next legislative session. The prospect of a state income tax has done as much to boost local talk radio as a thousand station promotions. If Bredesen manages to kill the issue, it will put to rest WTN-sponsored rallies at Legislative Plaza, leaving the station to look for other kinds of self-promotion.
Meanwhile, Dave Ramsey is now syndicated and is expanding his reach across the country. For all intents and purposes, he’s outgrown WTN. The station’s sports shows are now on so many hours of the day that they risk becoming repetitive. Furthermore, the younger generation of WTN sports co-hosts is more in the traditional mold of sports talkers. Not having been part of the early years at WTN, they lack some of the “we’re-just-thrilled-anyone’s-even-listening-at-all” demeanor that is one of the most charming traits of old-timers like Plaster and Daunic.
For these reasons, WTN has some potential pitfalls to avoid in the future. For now, though, the employees of Gaylord’s fair-haired radio station are just enjoying the fruits of an improbable run from bankruptcy to cash cow in just a few short years. Program director Doug Killett, who came aboard in the spring of 2001 and brought some needed stability to the station, sees clear skies ahead.
“What we have at WTN is a group of people who are dedicated to making this station the best it can be,” he says. “They really, truly and passionately believe in what we’re trying to do and will work to make it happen.”
In other words, for the foreseeable future anyway, WTN’s here to stay. Whether we like it or loathe it, we might as well get used to it. While we’re at it, we may as well have some respect for those who were there from the beginning, the ones who stuck with the station when things looked their bleakest.
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