The Middle Tennessee station decided to shift its format to Americana-only to speak authentically to an already crowded radio market and the results show the community agrees.
Amidst the scenic backdrop of Middle Tennessee, WMOT broadcasts American roots music with a focus and expertise you tend to only find on noncommercial radio. This wasn’t always the case, explains Val Hoeppner, the executive director at the station located in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Newly on the job, Hoeppner came to a frank assessment. “When I was hired, we had a hundred thousand watt radio station in the heart of Middle Tennessee, and we didn’t have great listenership. We were a classical jazz news talk station,” recalls Hoeppner. “Just kind of a hot mess in my opinion.”
The resolute shift towards a solely music-centric format was born from a keen understanding of Middle Tennessee’s unique musical landscape, and understanding it actually lacked something you’d find performed all over the area, especially in nearby Nashville. “The one thing that is made here in Middle Tennessee and was not represented on the radio dial was American roots. Most of these artists live here,” says Hoeppner. This clarity ushered in a format flip on September 2, 2016, a move she cherishes as an “incredible journey” given the overwhelming community response that followed.
While Hoeppner can’t share the exact numbers, she assures that even in a crowded market of 44 stations, they’ve gone from the bottom to one of the most respected stations in the area, especially because of their commitment to the genre. “We’ve really grown our listenership both here in Middle Tennessee and nationally because WMOT is something that you don’t find anywhere else, which is 24/7 Americana roots music,” notes Hoeppner.
At the core of this metamorphosis was the strategic appointment of Jessie Scott as the program director. “She’s one of the people that helped create the Americana genre. She was one of the first board members of the Americana Music Association. She started XM’s X Country Channel,” Hoeppner elaborates, emphasizing the critical nature of having a team that resonates with the genre’s ethos as deeply as the Middle Tennessee community does.
The community’s embrace extended beyond local boundaries, especially during hallmark events like the Americana Fest, where they curate the day stage programming every year and broadcast from all day long during the festival. “People from all over Middle Tennessee, from all over the country are coming to this Americana Fest, popping into our events. And it’s wonderful to see those folks. First, they start streaming us once they leave and then they become members,” Hoeppner reflects, having just finished up this year’s event.
For Hoeppner, who also serves as the director of the Center for Innovation in Media (CIM) at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), finding new people the station can support and help starts even earlier than that. The CIM is actually the main home for WMOT, which is licensed to MTSU. Students at the university take part in a wide array of media opportunities that Hoeppner and WMOT anchor, like on-air training, their own station (WMTS), and a student-run record label, Match Records that helps shape students from broadcasting talent to a deeper immersion in the wider music world. It’s a role Hoeppner takes seriously. “The CIM job is a dream job, really,” she said to MTSU News when starting the position in 2014. “I get to spend my days helping student journalists find their voice and pursue a career as a storyteller.”
From students to new listeners, WMOT continues to reach for new horizons. Next, they will be expanding from their MTSU studio into an additional, much-anticipated studio located right in Nashville. Hoeppner’s excitement is palpable as she shares, “We’re going to have a live radio and a video studio at Riverside Revival, and it’s really exciting. We are going to be able to broadcast from there every day.” This venture is envisaged to bridge the spatial gap between the artists and the station, fortifying WMOT’s community-centric ethos. The space’s first major event is set to bring people together on Public Radio Music Day 2023, properly highlighting its motto, “Building Community Through Music.”
On the horizon is an inclusive country station initiative, which Hoeppner regards as a significant stride towards celebrating the uncelebrated country artists. Hoeppner points to issues over the last few years, like all-women groups such as The Highwomen not getting played at country stations or organizations like the Black Opry not getting the focus they deserve. “It’s to showcase people who make country music but don’t get airplay on pop country stations. There’s so much of that, and we really want to create sort of a top 40 format that looks at real honest-to-God country music in the tradition of country music, the story, the song,” Hoeppner articulates around the attention she’s giving to a more diverse channel, both on-air and in what they feature online.
Diving deeper into the ethos of WMOT, Hoeppner also touches upon the essence of storytelling that forms the backbone of their musical curation. “What we build our community on is that tradition of what country music was a story,” she says, reinforcing the station’s commitment to preserving the narrative spirit of country and Americana. “It is based on that idea of the story,” From local music to the archives to finding new musicians on the forefront of the genre, the station has built out its schedule to reflect that story. “The most traffic on our website continues to be our playlist because it’s so expansive,” explains Hoeppner. “These listeners are just hungry to know: Who are these people? What was this album? Where did this come from?”
As WMOT’s tunes continue to resonate across the hills and valleys of Middle Tennessee, they echo a larger narrative, one where music is not just a solitary experience but a communal journey, where each side is listening to each other and offering up something the community needs. “So I think for us, just looking at that open space on the dial and going, okay, well, there’s this great genre of music that is completely unrepresented here. And so we really want to expose the community to these artists, but also to try and help those artists find new fans and find new ways of support. And by doing that, also really preserving the heritage of that music,” Hoeppner notes. WMOT is now part of that story of the Americana genre, nurturing a musical sanctuary where the roots are as cherished as the tunes that stem from them, where every strum, every note, and every voice contributes.