‘Roots and Branches’: The history of WMOT and its future in Americana

Sep 2, 2016

WMOT staff, Rhiannon Gilbert

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- For nearly half a century, WMOT-FM has served Middle Tennessee State University and the region with music and news. Now, with the launch of its Americana format, the award-winning station aims to reach listeners with innovative programming that showcases the various roots of this increasingly popular music..

The first seed of WMOT was planted on Middle Tennessee State University’s campus in 1968, when Lane Boutwell of the Speech and Theatre department proposed the idea of an on-campus radio station. On April 9, 1969, WMOT signed on the air with only 780 watts on a 100-foot tower.

At this time, the station was located in the Speech and Theatre department, and it was primarily run by a large number of MTSU students. They covered the university’s arts, sports and campus news, and played only Classical music. In 1970, NPR was established, and WMOT became one of its earliest member stations.

“We were one of the founding members of NPR’s morning and evening news shows,” said WMOT Program Director Greg Lee Hunt. “We picked up a lot of NPR programming, and did a lot of NPR playhouse (plays, spoken word things, etc.). Programming was more focused on straight educational purposes.”

In 1971, the station increased its power to 50,000 watts on a 300-foot tower. During this decade, the student-run station now known as WMTS was developed, but WMOT continued to employ and train students professionally. Both studios worked side-by-side on the second floor of the Ned McWherter Learning Resources Center.  

In 1982, WMOT moved its programming focus from MTSU content and started playing what it’s best known for: Jazz.

“As [WMOT staff] looked at the radio landscape across the mid-state, Jazz was about the only thing that wasn’t being done at that time, so it was natural to populate what wasn’t there,” Hunt said. “And there was a good listenership for it – that and NPR news.”

The listenership response was so good, in fact, that the station decided to go to an all Jazz/news format, and it stayed that way until the early 2000s. Through the decades the station was nominated for “Jazz Station of the Year” several times, and won multiple awards from the Tennessee Associated Press Broadcaster’s Association. By 1996, WMOT was broadcasting 24 hours a day and operated at 100,000 watts with a new tower height of more than 600 feet. The increased power was a big deal for the station, since they had been wanting to reach as far as Nashville for a long time.

“We were pretty much Rutherford County-centric,” Hunt explained. “The point of a lot of giving for listeners throughout the years was to get us to 100,000 watts and closer to our location in Nashville.”

In 2009, WMOT broadened its programming to its current arrangement of Jazz, Classical, NPR and MTSU sports. However, this made for inconsistencies in listenership, which the station hopes to combat with its new Americana format.

“Right off the top, it’s going to be an improvement because we’re going to streamline and clarify the nature of WMOT,” said Greg Reish, director of the Center for Popular Music at MTSU, and host of the show “Lost Sounds” to be aired weekly on the new format. “It’s still going to be an NPR affiliate, but [most] of the time it’s going to be music programming, music news or talking about music, with an emphasis on the music that connects to this region and its history.”

  Jazz listeners needn’t worry. WMOT is not giving up what it is best known for. The station will continue to play 24-hour Jazz on its HD channel, as well as 92.3 FM in Murfreesboro and soon on 104.9 FM in Brentwood.

Station coordinators are eager to see how this new chapter in WMOT’s long-running history unfolds.

“It’s exciting,” said Hunt. “[Americana] is just right for Nashville, and Nashville is ready for it. The music is happy to receive a big megaphone, and they’ll have it with WMOT.”