WMOT Celebrates Five Years Of Roots On The Radio
Five years ago this week, in a public ceremony at the Country Music Hall of Fame, WMOT as we know it today was born. The NPR affiliate station flipped its longstanding jazz/classical format to a new Roots Radio concept, giving a new lease on life to a financially challenged 89.5 FM signal that had been part of Middle Tennessee State University life for going on 50 years. And it set the station on a path to become a champion and tastemaker in the Nashville-centered field of Americana music.
This Thursday, Sept. 2, the station celebrates its birthday with a triple-bill benefit show that exemplifies the format and vision, featuring star songwriter Rodney Crowell, Shannon McNally and Carlene Carter at the City Winery. It will be a chance for the station’s team, its membership community and the musicians who call the station home to reflect on the trajectory of WMOT, which is unique in recent American broadcasting.
“I knew that American roots music wasn’t getting the attention or airtime it deserved in the one place it ought to - Nashville - where a good share of Americana is written, recorded and mixed,” says WMOT Executive Director Val Hoeppner. “Deciding on American Roots music was easy, building the library fell to Jessie Scott our program director.”
Scott came to WMOT with decades of experience in innovative, independent music radio and was a founding member of the Americana Music Association. For almost a decade, she programmed the pioneering national signal X Country at XM Radio. Few have as good a handle on the essence and diversity of Americana as she does.
“The philosophy is interesting, as it is based on the melting pot of American music,” Scott says. “The big bang came from the overlaying of different traditions - Black, Native American, and European, melding together. That gives us a lot of ground to cover, from folk to gospel, blues to southern rock, rockabilly to western swing and the modern twists of neo-soul and roots rock.”
WMOT Roots Radio was born as a partnership between MTSU’s College of Media and Entertainment and Music City Roots, the Americana variety show that had been curating live roots music since the fall of 2009. Rather quickly, WMOT developed home-grown shows as well. Finally Friday is a showcase for local and touring artists playing short sets at lunch in the live venue 3rd & Lindsley. Though it had to go virtual during the pandemic year, it is set to return to in-person shows when safety allows. Words & Music, an interview and performance show hosted by Scott, has been a hit on NPR Music, the national consolidator of public radio programming. Wired In has been a vehicle to build community with shows for station members, a community that now numbers over 1,600. Music City Roots took a hiatus at the beginning of 2018 but will return in 2022 in a new custom-built barn venue in Madison, TN.
Also during the past five years, WMOT launched 895 Fest in Murfreesboro, a Spring event that has plans to return when Covid-19 is behind us. It has hosted multi-day AmericanaFest day stage parties at a variety of venues around the city, including historic War Memorial Auditorium. And it’s been a platform for a new generation of roots talent who’ve climbed from newcomers to national star status, including Yola, Billy Strings, Katie Pruitt, War & Treaty and more.
But the day-to-day heartbeat of WMOT comes from its recorded music catalog, which has grown to more than 10,000 songs, and a programming approach that emphasizes discovery over repetition. While important current artists may be heard several times per day on the station, they’ll be different songs from a new album, giving listeners a chance to truly experience the artists’ vision. Classic catalog from country, bluegrass and blues is in the mix. And Scott says she’s refined a way to keep audiences engaged and inspired.
“The biggest challenge of crafting a format around music that is not known - and in many cases, even our core artists are not exactly household names - is that we need to have points of entry so an audience member is not looking at a wall of unfamiliar,” Scott says. “So there are lots of known songs in the mix, though they may be a bluegrass cover version. And there are plenty of familiar voices: Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt. We dig deep into these folks' music.”
With a management team of women, it’s perhaps not surprising that the station dedicated itself from the outset of the Roots Radio concept to an accurate and appreciative picture of roots music, with parity and inclusion for women and artists of color. Americana is even more diverse today than five years ago, thanks in part to the programming approach Scott has pursued. And nobody gets that like the station’s fans.
“It’s so refreshing. The music is so broad,” says Nashville listener and WMOT member Sunny Stephens, artist manager for EG Kight. “I think my favorite thing is the new music discovery. I don’t know how many times I’m sitting here working and I hear something and it makes me stop. And I have to go find out who was that? It’s really broadened my awareness.”
As a member of a listener-supported radio station, Stephens has attended numerous WMOT events, from the open-to-the-public Finally Fridays shows to members-only Wired In showcases. So has Carol Anderson, who relocated to Nashville in 2014 and who found WMOT soon thereafter as a hub for her music passion.
“I feel like WMOT is really invested in the artists and bringing new talent to the ears of its members,” Anderson says. “It seems much more like a family affair than a business when I come out to events and see everyone. It’s fun to walk into a room of like-minded people who have an affinity for this music. You get to know them. You recognize one another and know that you’re among friends.”
“I wanted to get our audience close up to the music,” Hoeppner says. “I wanted to introduce artists and fans. It’s become a huge part of our identify, especially shows like Wired In and Finally Friday. Our audience and membership is made up of music lovers, looking for new music to love. Creating intimate performances where our audience really gets to know an artist is so important to building our music community on and off the air.”