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Not just a country town: Nashville’s independent radio thrives in big conglomerates era

There is a reason Nashville is called Music City. While the soul of country music lies in our town, Nashville has something to offer every music lover – even those who enjoy an alternative style of music.

These three fellas are showing off their style in the flashy Hippie Radio mobile PHOTO COURTESY HIPPIE RADIO

These three fellas are showing off their style in the flashy Hippie Radio mobile PHOTO COURTESY HIPPIE RADIO

In a market dominated by today’s most popular country songs and Top 40 hits, it can be difficult to find a niche that speaks to those who prefer a less mainstream style of music. That’s where Hippie Radio, Lightning 100 and Jazzy 88 come in, serving as unique alternatives to today’s current hits and providing Nashville with a sound all its own.

When Hippie Radio owner Anthony Didier attended a seminar a few years back, he realized that the Baby Boomer generation was not well represented in radio, prompting him to launch Hippie Radio in February of 2012 and making it the newest station to hit the Nashville market. When speaking with General Manager Barbara Deniston earlier this summer, she described the station as “not really oldies and not really classic rock; it’s kind of different from all that.” Playing songs from 1962 through the disco era, Deniston explains that the music is programmed like it was in the ‘60s, allowing the listener to feel as though they’re hearing the music just as it would’ve sounded 50 years ago.

But Hippie Radio doesn’t just play the music their audience wants to hear – they make their listeners a part of the experience. In addition to the talented and engaging on-air personalities, the station also boasts an impressive roster of programs that showcase local talent and encourage fans to partake in the music. One such show is Sunday Night Vinyl where listeners are invited to bring in their favorite vinyl album to the studio and play it on the turntable as they discuss the meaning the album has for them.

Staff members are all smiles at the Hippie Radio dance party. PHOTO COURTESY HIPPIE RADIO

Staff members are all smiles at the Hippie Radio dance party. PHOTO COURTESY HIPPIE RADIO

“They become the DJ for the hour,” Deniston said of the experience. Then there’s the Songwriters Corner, a segment that features a songwriter playing one of their tunes in the way they intended for it to sound, followed by the recorded version of the piece and a discussion about the comparisons between the two.

Perhaps the most popular and engaging program Hippie Radio has to offer is Nashville Handshake, a show that truly integrates local musicians and fans alike. Each week, songwriters from all over Nashville will submit one song on CD. A group of Hippie Radio staff get together and pore over these songs and pick one winner, whose song is then played twice a day for a week. At the end of 26 weeks, they pick an overall winner, who then performs at the Hippie Radio Groovin’ and Cruisin’ event at Fontanel.

The contest introduces the station to the vast array of musical talent in Music City, with Deniston revealing that many of the songs submitted are so well-crafted that they already sound like hit songs. “We’re trying to figure out ways to have their music heard and giving people a chance to listen to it,” she said regarding the outreach toward songwriters and listeners.

“You couldn’t do this in any other city but this one.”

Listeners are also able to hear these various original songs on the station’s website and cast their own vote for their favorites.

“We acknowledge and recognize the talent that’s here,” Deniston added. “We’re listening to them.”

Much like Hippie Radio, Music City’s wildly popular independent radio station Lightning 100 also surrounds a significant part of their identity around local artists. On the air for 25 years, Lightning 100 is Nashville’s premiere independent radio station and has consistently been voted the city’s best radio station by the Nashville Scene. In the former Local Lightning 100, the station would play two songs a day by unknown, unsigned local artists, a venture that got the attention of Yazoo Brewery, who began to sponsor the program.

Lightning 100's Live on the Green draws a massive crowd each year. PHOTO COURTESY LIGHTNING 100

Lightning 100’s Live on the Green draws a massive crowd each year. PHOTO COURTESY LIGHTNING 100

Local Lightning 100 grew substantially from there, so much so that new artists coming into Nashville were encouraged to visit Lightning 100 when asking where to bring their music. “What started as a couple spins a day turned into 30 to 40 percent of our daily program is local,” revealed Vice President of Operations and Programming Gary Kraen.

But the station didn’t set out to be independent when it first began. Broadcasting at 3,000 watts, Lightning 100 had to compete with the mainstream country and pop stations that were broadcasting at a whopping 100,000 watts. Because of the significant difference in signal, the station had to focus on a niche market that served a smaller audience, prompting them to broadcast in the adult album alternative format. “We have to do something completely different,” Kraen said about how the station’s smaller signal affected its market. “That philosophy has carried us through.”

While a regular station may select songs based on charts or what is most popular, Lightning 100 follows a unique system of music selection. Each week, the station will receive a multitude of CDs from various record companies. Every Tuesday, the staff gathers together to go over what music they liked and believe would be well received by its listeners. In doing so, Kraen puts the staff in the role of music director. Interestingly enough, Lightning 100 is credited as being the first commercial station to play Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” quickly becoming a hit in the area before launching into national success and garnering a Grammy nomination for “Song of the Year.”

On-air and promotions staff member Justin Hammel explains what makes a station like this so successful in Nashville. “We’re in a unique situation in Nashville where we have so many talented artists that can sound right at home next to a national or major label artist,” he said. “We’re giving local artists a home.”

Lightning 100 incorporates numerous environmentally-friendly tactics throughout their signature event, Live on the Green. PHOTO COURTESY LIGHTNING 100

Lightning 100 incorporates numerous environmentally-friendly tactics throughout their signature event, Live on the Green. PHOTO COURTESY LIGHTNING 100

Perhaps the station’s most defining feature is its yearly Live on the Green event in Public Square Park, described as a “celebration of Nashville’s passion for music and community.” But this is not just any event. Keeping one’s carbon footprint in mind, Live on the Green is about as “green” as it gets, utilizing numerous energy-efficient tactics such as LED lights, merchandise created from eco-friendly materials like organic cotton, vendors that meet specific sustainability standards and much more, making it “Nashville’s premiere environmentally-friendly music festival.”

They also partner with Green Village Recycling, Walk/Bike Nashville and several other local organizations that aim to create a healthy atmosphere for both attendees and the environment. True to Hammel’s statement, the event also unites local and national artists, with performers ranging from Lennon & Maisy of “Nashville” fame to Matt Nathanson, Cage the Elephant, Alabama Shakes, The Wallflowers and countless others.

While Hippie Radio and Lightning 100 place much of their focus on local artists, Fisk University’s Jazzy 88 incorporates the local community in a different way. Students began discussing the idea of starting a radio station at the university in 1969, with an official launch in 1973, using WJZZ in Detroit as a pilot for the Fisk station. From the get-go, students, volunteers and numerous community members have been at its backbone. “It really has been instrumental in keeping this station going,” General Manager Sharon Kay said. “So many people in Nashville have been a part of the station over the years.”

Kay joined the station in 2005, making her the first woman on staff since its inception. It serves as the first African-American FM station in Nashville, in addition to being one of the oldest HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) radio stations in the country. Needless to say, Jazzy 88 is an integral part of the university’s identity. “This station has been as significant as the university,” Kay said, adding that it has given the African-American demographic a voice over the years.

WFSK Program Director Xuam Lawson in the Control Room during the station's 48-hour Radiothon. PHOTO COURTESY VANDO ROGERS

WFSK Program Director Xuam Lawson in the Control Room during the station’s 48-hour Radiothon. PHOTO COURTESY VANDO ROGERS

A veteran of corporate radio, Kay made many changes to the station but has always kept the spirit of jazz music alive. “I had to create something that would sustain itself,” she said. Though catering to the jazz audience, the station adheres to no cultural boundaries and has been home to a mix of multicultural programming, from Spanish and African music to a Haitian Creole talk show that discussed issues going on in Haiti.

Today, the university station continues to cater to the jazz audience in Nashville. During her 10 years at the station, Kay says she has “made it a lot more cohesive,” such as uniting smooth and contemporary jazz. She also has many connections within the music industry, bringing in such big name artists as Kirk Whalum, Gerald Albright and Jonathan Butler to the station for interviews.

Just like the music itself, Jazzy 88 leaves a powerful impact on its many listeners. Though broadcasted from Fisk University, its influence reaches far beyond the campus line. “There’s a certain level of soul that comes through here,” Kay said while telling the story of a listener from Franklin who came to the station out of the blue one day – just to tell the staff how much he loves the station. “There’s something about the music you’re playing that is positive and uplifting,” she quoted the fan as saying.

A common thread weaving throughout Hippie Radio, Lightning 100 and Jazzy 88 is their connection to our local community and desire to make the people of Music City an integral part of their sound and foundation. “We are totally devoted to the music lover,” Kay says, a statement that rings true of all radio stations in Nashville.