On The Same Wavelength: The Row & Radio
By David Ewing
Jack DeWitt, Jr. was Nashville’s Thomas Edison. He did more to advance the early days of Nashville radio and to establish the technology that made Nashville programing possible than anyone. Due in large part to his efforts, country music became popular and accessible via radio nationwide. Born in 1906, DeWitt spent his childhood exploring the use of new technology and radios. Jack was inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1986 for his great contributions to WSM, one of America’s most famous radio stations.
At an early age, Jack was fascinated about how electrical items worked. When he was seven years old, he repaired his neighbor’s doorbell. By the age of 12, Jack had made his first crystal receiver with wire wrapped around the family’s wooden kitchen rolling pin. Using this receiver, Jack would capture distant signals from ships’ broadcasts at his house on Fifteenth Avenue near Music Row.
The first commercial radio station in the United States was KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The station sent out its first broadcast on November 2, 1920, announcing the election returns of the 1920 presidential race between Warren G. Harding and James Cox. Dr. Frank Conrad, an engineer for Westinghouse, was part of this historic broadcast at KDKA. Jack DeWitt, who would later listen to Conrad’s programing on his crystal receiver in Nashville, was inspired to work at a radio station one day.
In 1921, 15-year-old Jack was already the secretary of Nashville’s newly-formed Radio Club and was chairman of their Electrical Committee. On the equipment he created, Jack was able to receive President Harding’s message on George Washington’s birthday for The Tennessean newspaper in 1921. Even at age 15, Jack DeWitt was one of the most knowledgeable people in Nashville about this new radio technology. He studied higher-order mathematics and electrical engineering in his spare time to learn more about his then-hobby. Similar to today with computer and internet technology, teenagers made up a large portion of the people who embraced this new invention and were the most knowledgeable about its use and applications.
In 1921, Jack DeWitt and a friend created his first radio tower in the backyard of his parent’s house. The nearly 60-foot tower consisted of a wire antenna strung on a pole up to the roof of his house. The antenna was destroyed when his neighbors brought in a mule to dig a swimming pool. The mule tripped over the wires, which brought the entire antenna down. DeWitt rebuilt his antenna, and he was able to transmit a signal for the first time. He sent out Morse Code signals of sounds which the military used, and his transmission was heard in Illinois, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Jack would stay up at night making new friends across the state of Tennessee and other locations by communicating with them through this new wireless technology.
In May 1922, 16-year-old Jack DeWitt made Nashville history when he created and installed a 20-watt transmitter at Ward-Belmont, where Belmont University is today. WDAA went on the air as Nashville’s first radio station. The station was created to promote the all-girls school and was on the air infrequently for six months. The new station featured guest speakers and would often play music from Ward-Belmont’s Victrola record player.
Jack DeWitt left Nashville in 1924 after graduating from high school to take a job on the S.S. Ellis as its second radio operator. After getting seasick on the ship which transported bananas from Central America and Cuba to the United States, DeWitt returned home to Nashville to enroll at Vanderbilt University. At the time, Vanderbilt did not offer the kind of specific classes related to radio and broadcasting he was interested in. Freshman could not enroll in electrical engineering courses, and Vanderbilt’s offering of classes in civil engineering and trolley car electrical systems did not interest him. Continuing to teach himself by building radios in his spare time, Jack did not concentrate on his classroom studies and failed out of Vanderbilt. He then enrolled at the University of Tennessee, but instead of spending time in a classroom studying, Jack went to a local broadcasting station and learned more about radios, how to build them and how electrical circuits worked.
WSM is Born
Once again, Jack’s love of radio was greater than his love of the classroom. He dropped out of UT to return to Nashville in the summer of 1925. He had an opportunity to work at a brand-new radio station in his hometown started by the insurance company National Life Insurance. The company which had offices and a sales force in many states wanted to use the new technology.
Edwin W. Craig of National Life Insurance launched the new radio station and was determined to get the best talent to make it a success. In the early days of radio, a station’s call letters were often branded with the name of the company or a company slogan. For instance, department store giant Sears Roebuck and Company owned WLS out of Chicago, and its call letters stood for “World’s Largest Store.” Craig wished to have the radio call letters “WSM,” which stood for “We Shield Millions”— representing the fact that the Nashville-based insurance company had millions of insurance policies. Unfortunately, the WSM call letters were already taken by a U.S. Navy ship’s radio station, so Craig asked the Secretary of Commerce to transfer the call letters. Future President of the United States Herbert Hoover, who was then the U.S. Commerce Secretary, granted the request.
Jack was hired as WSM’s chief engineer in 1932 and was responsible for creating WSM’s famous radio tower in Brentwood that boosted the station’s signal from 5,000 to 50,000 watts, carrying the signal to more than 40 states. By 1947, Jack DeWitt was the president of WSM Radio.
Grand Ole Opry
Over a month after WSM first went on the air on November 28, 1925, a new Saturday night show debuted on WSM called the WSM Barn Dance. The show was broadcast from the top floor of the National Life Insurance Building in Nashville and featured what was considered “mountain music.” This show grew through the decades and became known as the “Grand Ole Opry.” As the longest-running radio broadcast on the air today, the Grand Ole Opry is more than a successful, well-known country music program today. It has featured stars like Uncle Dave Macon, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, DeFord Bailey, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Little Jimmy Dickens, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, George Jones, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley and continues to provide a source of entertainment for its fans and a place of performance for both legends and rising stars.
WSM and Opry
During the 1930s, many Americans purchased radios to listen to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats during the Great Depression. In the 1940s, radio was a common way to listen to information about World War II. As soldiers were transported to military bases in the South, many heard country radio for the first time. The war also increased the audience of country music, as stars of the radio and Grand Ole Opry entertained the troops during the war.
New Country Sound
As country music evolved, the music went from traditional country vocals and introduced new stars with mainstream appeal. As a result, more radio stations across America joined the country music format. WSM and the Grand Ole Opry actually helped shape the country music industry we know today. National Life Insurance would always celebrate the Opry’s birthday and started a celebration that turned into a yearly gathering in Nashville of disc jockeys, music executives and other radio station personalities. The Country Music Disc Jockey Convention started in 1951, and many ideas were generated out of these gatherings. One of these such ideas was the creation of the Country Music Association, which was organized in 1958. As the popularity of country music increased, this annual gathering continued to grow and future ideas from the convention included the Country Music Hall of Fame, the CMA Awards and even Fan Fair, now known as the CMA Music Festival.
A Radio Empire Starts on Music Row
In 1997, brothers John and Michael Dickey of Atlanta purchased 92Q and WVOL, two urban Nashville radio stations. Michael moved the stations to the penthouse of the United Artists Tower, the tallest building on Music Row, because he wanted to gain a higher profile for the stations and gain potential new advertisers with a Music Row address.
From that view, Michael was the owner and general manager of the three top urban stations – 92Q, 106.7FM and WVOL. WVOL is the very radio station that a young school student in Nashville got he first job in broadcasting – a young Oprah Winfrey worked at WVOL in 1970 while a student at East High School.
The Music Row address and visibility worked well for the Dickey brothers as the company continued to grow. In 1998, Cumulus media went public and owned over 200 radio stations at the time. It was on Music Row where the brothers turned the two radio stations they had just purchased into a company that would eventually own 460 radio stations in 90 cities, with Cumulus Media now ranked as the second largest radio company that owns and operates radio stations in the country.
Radio on the Row Today
Today on Music Row, iHeartMedia, the largest radio station company in America and owner of 850 radio stations, owns a number of Nashville radio stations, including WLAC AM, 105.9 The Rock, 107.5 The River, 97.9 WSIX, 101.1 The Beat and 98.3 The Big Legend. They all broadcast from studios on Music Row. A Music Row address is still important for artists, producers, songwriters, publishers and radio stations alike.
CMA Awards Honors Radio’s Best
Radio still is an important part of the artist and fan experience, and its impact is honored annually at the CMA Awards held in Nashville. The live telecast show honors performers, new artists, music videos and radio stations. The Country Music Association Awards present four awards to radio stations across America in four separate categories: major market, large market, medium market and small market. Honoring stations that introduce artists and help musicians’ debut their music to a large following is important to the industry.
Country music still dominates radio station formats across the United States. The May 2016 Nielsen Audio data listed country music as the No. 1 format, with 1,882 stations. News and talk radio came in a distant second at 1,315 stations. In third place were religious radio stations, with 722 stations – then adult contemporary at 587 and sports stations at 582. These numbers show the popularity and demand of country music. Despite the increased popularity of downloading music and digital streaming services, it is clear that country music fans still hear a lot of their favorite artists on a local country radio station.
Satellite radio has also joined the race, broadcasting country music as well. Sirius/XM Radio has eight country channels, including The Garth Brooks Channel, The Highway broadcasting today’s country hits, Kenny Chesney’s Music Channel, Prime Country with hits from the 1980s and 1990s, Willie Nelson’s Classic Country, Outlaw Country featuring its more rebellious artists, Y2K Country with hits from the 2000s and Bluegrass Junction featuring bluegrass music. Beamed through satellite instead of radio waves, the reach of these channels are worldwide and can be picked up anywhere in the United States.
No format of music has been more influenced by radio than country music. The Grand Ole Opry has been broadcast every Saturday night from Nashville since 1925 and is the world’s longest-running radio show. Country music fans still listen to their favorite artists on the radio, and the industry honors stations every year. As its popularity increases, there are more country music stations in the United States than any other format today.