17 ottobre 2007

La principessa decaduta del C&W

A poco più di dieci anni dal 2020, centanario dell'industria della radiofonia, questo mezzo di comunicazione dà la sensazione di essersi lasciato alle spalle la sua epoca d'oro. Lo scrive sul Wall Street Journal il recensore della "biografia" di una delle stazioni radio più antiche d'America, WSM di Atlanta, aggiungendo che ormai nell'immagine mentale dei consumatori, immersi nella nuova realtà fatta di lettori MP3, telefonini e computer palmari, sono diventate altre le fonti di approvvigionamento di notizie e intrattenimento musicale.
In "Air Castle of the South" la storia della incredibile avventura musicale e imprenditoriale di Nashville, Craig Havighurst racconta di come il rampollo di una famiglia di assicuratori (proprietaria della National Life and Accident Insurance, "We shield millions") convinse un consiglio di amministrazione alquanto scettico a diversificarsi in quello che nel 1925 doveva sembrare un mercato avventuroso anche agli occhi di investitori meno prudente e conservatore. Ma Edwin Craig era un "wireless buff", un patito della prima radio e riuscì a vendere la sua idea. National mantenne il controllo dell'emittente fino al 1982, quando la compagnia venne ceduta e le sue proprietà mediatiche confluirono in un gruppo specializzato. La storica stazione oggi è solo quattordicesima nella classifica Arbitron di Nashville.
Probabilmente nel contesto attuale Craig non sarebbe riuscito a convincere i suoi azionisti ad affrontare un'avventura come la radio digitale o quella satellitare. Ma questo il libro non lo dice, secondo la recensione il testo eccede in sentimentalismi e non indulge mai in una analisi convincente. L'unico obiettivo sicuramente centrato è aver dimostrato che un tempo, tanti anni fa, sulla "scala parlante" c'erano dei giganti.

The Sound of Nashville Selling
October 17, 2007

With scarcely a dozen years left before the 100th anniversary of commercial radio in 2020, the industry is battling a sense that its best days are long in the past. And radio's future is hard to discern through all the static in the air: Changing consumer attitudes and the introduction of new technologies such as the MP3 player and souped-up cellphones have undermined the medium's role as the dominant provider of audio news and entertainment.
In the midst of commercial radio's struggles comes a reminder of its glory days, when stations' soaring transmitter towers seemed like monuments to the broadcasters' influence. "Air Castle of the South," by Craig Havighurst, tells the story of one such station, Nashville's WSM-AM. It was central to the popularization of country music and helped spawn Nashville's entertainment industry, which was valued at $6.38 billion annually in a Belmont University study last year.
While Mr. Havighurst, a music journalist and documentarian, is most interested in the station's cultural import, "Air Castle of the South" also presents a fascinating case study in the rise of commercial broadcasting. From its inception, WSM was about selling -- selling everything from insurance policies to baby chicks, from baking flour to the wonders of Nashville itself. But especially insurance policies.
WSM was the brainchild of Edwin Craig, a "wireless buff" whose family held a major stake in the Nashville-based National Life and Accident Insurance Co. (Motto: "We Shield Millions.") In 1925, Craig sold his radio idea to a skeptical board as an innovative promotional tool -- an efficient way to raise the company's profile in the countless small towns where footsore National Life "Shield Men" worked door-to-door sales and collection routes. Craig positioned his new shiny thing as a public service of National Life. The station offered a mix of popular and classical music along with lectures and sermons by local worthies -- all of it live and, initially, without commercials.
Just a few months after its debut, WSM filled a Saturday-night gap in its schedule with a "barn dance" program that would become known as the "Grand Ole Opry." Clearly the foot-stompin', fiddle-driven show was an instant hit in rural middle Tennessee: Throngs of rustics jammed WSM's hallways every Saturday night hoping to catch a glimpse of the performers on the broadcast.
The reaction inside the city gates was less enthusiastic. Nashville's aristocracy, which fancied its town "The Athens of the South," got a severe case of the vapors when previously refined WSM began featuring what was then known as "hillbilly music." But Edwin Craig was the only member of the elite whose opinion mattered, and he quickly recognized that the "Opry" gave National Life a powerful entrée with rural customers. To boost the show's credibility with that important market segment, "Opry" bosses early on ordered performers to ditch their suits and dresses for overalls, floppy hats and checkered shirts. Established bands were rebranded with "cornball clichés," Mr. Havighurst writes, such as "The Fruit Jar Drinkers" and "The Possum Hunters."
By the 1940s, with WSM an NBC Radio Network affiliate, the "Grand Ole Opry" was heard coast-to-coast. The show's weekly live broadcasts from Ryman Auditorium in Nashville drew sell-out crowds, who clapped and laughed along with the likes of Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and Minnie Pearl. (How delightful to discover that Miss Pearl -- she of the price-tag-adorned straw hat and gingham dresses -- was played by a genteel woman named Sarah Cannon who worked tirelessly to mend the rift between Nashville's showbiz folk and socialites. How disappointing to learn that her signature "How-DEE!" greeting was suggested by a New York ad agency.) The "Opry" moved tons of product for both local and national advertisers, thanks in large part to live commercials delivered by beloved cast members.
The selling didn't stop at the end of the show. Shield Men learned to walk through their assigned neighborhoods on warm Saturday nights and make note of houses where the "Opry" broadcast was playing. On Monday, the salesmen would knock on those doors, introduce themselves as being "from WSM" and proffer a National Life sales brochure featuring pictures of "Opry" performers.
Country musicians, who in the early days made most of their money by performing, as opposed to selling records, quickly recognized the radio show's power to fill a tour schedule. In the anything-goes early days of the "Opry," fiddlers were known to travel hundreds of miles at their own expense hoping for a few minutes of on-air playin' and pluggin'. As the "Opry" grew more professional and influential, every string-band musician aspired to become a cast member, a status that guaranteed steady work, both on the Saturday broadcasts and at outside gigs arranged by the show in a brilliant scheme to generate publicity and revenue -- for itself and for the appreciative musicians.
WSM's ability to attract, develop and hold talent of all types was crucial to Nashville's rise as the center of country music. Station employees and alumni started the city's first record labels, opened recording facilities and founded song-publishing ventures, including the renowned Acuff-Rose Music. In 1955, WSM management, irked by the outside influence and money amassed by "Opry" director Jim Denny, barred employees from moonlighting in the music business.
As a result, many experienced staffers left the show and WSM to start or expand their own enterprises. The edict was akin to blowing on a dandelion that has gone to seed -- a pivotal act of creative destruction that greatly diminished WSM's influence over country music but set the stage for the explosive growth of Nashville's recording industry. By 1960, according to one count, Nashville had 160 song publishers and 15 recording studios.
National Life skillfully rode the country-music wave across the century, cashing in on every new technology and marketing opportunity. The company's entertainment holdings eventually grew to include WSM-FM, WSM-TV, cable television's The Nashville Network and the Opryland USA theme park, which surprised experts by developing into a major tourism engine for Nashville.
When National Life was acquired by American General Corp. in 1982, those properties (minus WSM-TV) were sold to Gaylord Entertainment, which later sold or shuttered all of them. Gaylord held on to WSM-AM and the "Grand Ole Opry," where an invitation to perform remains a powerful affirmation for a rising country-music star.
As for WSM-AM, it began a slow downward drift in the 1980s, losing listeners and revenue to narrowly targeted FM music stations. (Despite its close assocation with country music, WSM did not go all-country until the late 1970s.) While other AM powerhouses managed to pull out of similar death spirals -- typically by adopting an all-talk format -- WSM was weighted down by a history of insularity and an abhorrence of change. It can be argued that WSM settled its own fate in the mid-1950s when station management refused to add rock 'n' roll to its wide-ranging playlist and turned Elvis Presley away from the "Grand Ole Opry" after one appearance, fearing that his rockabilly sound and swiveling hips would alienate old-time fans. Today WSM-AM is a niche player, offering a twangy alternative to modern country music. The station, which a few years ago adopted the motto "Too Country and Proud of It," was ranked 14th in Nashville in a recent Arbitron ratings report.
As history, "Air Castle of the South" is engaging but less than definitive. It's long on anecdote and sentiment ("demanding that WSM live or die by the media economy's new rules feels a bit like asking your grandmother to work at Burger King to make ends meet") but short on analysis. Recent years have seen the dissolution of Gaylord's "Opry"-centered media empire and the final stage of WSM's descent from broadcast powerhouse to radio curiosity. More thorough contemporary reporting would have helped buttress the book's contention that Gaylord's corporate strategy -- which included the much-criticized closing of the Opryland USA theme park in 1997 after attendance began slipping -- has endangered Nashville's future as a major hub of the entertainment industry. Still, Mr. Havighurst has done a service in preserving the colorful and instructive history of WSM -- and in reminding us that giants once lived on the radio dial.

By Craig Havighurst
(University of Illinois Press, 279 pages, $29.95)

Mr. Bloomquist is the program director of news/talk WGST-AM in Atlanta.
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