Innovation is at the core of AIG’s business, and the development of the WSM-AM radio station in Nashville serves as an example of the creative and visionary leadership that runs deep within AIG.
In the mid-1920s, radio stations broadcasted prizefights and baseball games, but they had not yet become a mass communications staple. The Nashville-based National Life and Accident Insurance Company (“The National”) recognized the marketing potential of the airwaves and in an unorthodox move, launched its own radio station in October 1925. The goal was to provide the public with an outlet that disseminated dependable information alongside radio entertainment. The call sign, WSM, stood for the company motto: “We Shield Millions.”
WSM’s first days were far from the 24/7 broadcasting that the world is accustomed to today. The station aired music starting at 6:30 in the evening before hosting a live show in its studio.
The programming schedule shifted a few months after launch, when WSM created the Grand Ole Opry, a weekly country music stage concert. Country and western musicians performed live, attracting audiences on the radio and at the venue. The Grand Ole Opry introduced millions of people to country music over the years, and has made legends out of artists such as Johnny Cash, George Jones and Patsy Cline. It is still the nation’s longest-running radio program, and on the back of its success, WSM became a national sensation itself.
In 1932, the station’s owners at The National built a 50,000-watt transmitter, which was the tallest tower in the nation at the time, to expand WSM’s reach. During World War II, the tower provided backup for the U.S. Navy submarines in case ship-to-shore communications were compromised.
WSM became a class 1-A clear channel, reaching areas of the country that had little to no radio coverage. The radio station was a beacon of pride for The National’s sales force, which considered it and the Grand Ole Opry a key marketing advantage that no other insurer could match at the time.
Today, WSM is still on the air, although The National, which became part of AIG in 2001 through the American General acquisition, has long left the radio business. But the innovation that drove WSM’s early success has guided AIG as well as it continues to tell its story to the many millions it serves.