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Lightning 100 thinks global, acts local — and bucks the trends of modern radio programming

The Sound Salvation?



Step away from your Pandora, Spotify, SiriusXM and your iTunes library, and you'll find no shortage of local Top 40, country, Christian and talk-radio options across your FM dial. But you're likely to hear the same songs, the same topics, the same corporate-directed artists scattered across multiple playlists.

Should your scan stop at 100.1 FM, however, you might hear the shock of the unfamiliar — or even the familiar made fresh by new context. Sure, you can hear Adele on other stations. Certainly you can find The Beatles on oldies, or Nirvana on rock radio.

But there's only one place to hear them as part of a mix that includes Jack White, Lucinda Williams, The Civil Wars, neo-'50s hepcat J.D. McPherson, folk-pop performer Father John Misty, torchy Nashville singer-songwriter Courtney Jaye and British soul breakout Michael Kiwanuka — all in the same hour. Perhaps you'll catch a deep cut from red-hot grunge-blues newcomers The Alabama Shakes sandwiched between an unplugged version of Stone Temple Pilots' "Plush" and the Fab Four's "Dear Prudence." Who even does this? 

Lightning 100 does. Granted, the locally owned and operated station's eclecticism is nothing new. For more than 20 years, it has defied the market-dominating dictate that listeners crave ceaseless repetition and clearly marked musical boundaries. Yet over the years WRLT-FM had settled into its own well-worn groove, relying on acts such as Snow Patrol and John Mayer as numbingly as classic-rock jocks lean on Van Halen.

In recent months, however, the station has blown the cobwebs out of its speakers. In a move that has caused excitement among listeners, artists and the city's social media, it has pledged all but unprecedented commercial airtime and attention to Nashville artists. That means you might hear Middle Tennessee acts such as The Features or Hands Down Eugene not in a local segment, but among commercial acts in drive-time rotation.

WRLT Lightning 100 isn't just taking the road less traveled in the volatile radio industry, it's practically gone off the grid.

Lightning 100 arrived two decades ago as progressive spirit began to manifest throughout the city in arts, media and urban living. While the spot at 100.1 on the FM band has been operating as WRLT-FM since 1961, the modern-day station's birth can be traced back to 1987, when the fledgling Rebel 100 blazed a trail as one of the nation's first alternative rock stations.

After a change in ownership and format caused a slight identity crisis as "Nashville's Lite 100" in late 1988, the station was reborn as Radio Lightning in March 1990. Its offices were located atop the downtown Life & Casualty Tower, the skyscraper that asserted radio's prominence on the Nashville skyline.

The station thus set about branding itself as David to the rest of the market's Goliath. Faced with bigger, better-defined competitors, the new WRLT and its comparatively weak signal adopted the amorphous Adult Album Alternative format. Also known as Triple A — yet having nothing to do with automotive services — it embraced broader playlists featuring artists outside the mainstream. Many of these artists, like Lucinda Williams, would fit within the equally loose Americana format.

In 2005, the station shifted its operations base from L&C to Marathon Village, moving closer to the street. But it wasn't until this year that "Nashville's Independent Radio" made a public pledge to renew that vow — although Lightning general manager Fred Buc insists it has never wavered.

"We've always been the outlet to expose local music, and we've always told people that we were the independent station in town," says Buc, a 20-year WRLT veteran who hosts the popular "Retro Lightning" oldies show Saturday mornings. "Now we're just screaming a little louder."

WRLT has inarguably blurred genres, helping to break hard-to-classify artists such as Ryan Adams, Train and Jason Mraz. It introduces even more acts through the Saturday night Indie Underground Hour, run by Grimey's co-owner Doyle Davis.

"Whether it's Gotye or Fun. or Ed Sheeran, you hear them first on Triple A," explains WRLT music director and assistant program director Rev. Keith Coes. "They start on our format and they find their way to other places." 

But while FM 100 has maintained a commercial toehold several rungs beneath the contemporary-hit, adult-contemporary, urban, classic rock and country behemoths that rule the market, staffers agreed overdue changes were in order if the station were to grow.

"About a year ago, we met and talked about the path of the station," recalls Gary Kraen, Lightning 100 CFO and director of programming and operations. "We're local. None of the other stations are local. It came down to, 'What can we offer the city?' "

For Lester Turner, president of WRLT's parent company Tuned In Broadcasting, it wasn't a matter of creating a different radio station but a better one.

"Our niche has always been adult alternative music, but there are a hundred ways to do that," Turner says. "We've been doing the same things for a long time, and we had a lot of things that needed fixing." He notes that most cities simply don't have the sheer number — or caliber — of independent musicians that Music City takes for granted. 

"Nashville is a unique market — music is ubiquitous here," Turner says. "The trick is being able to program local music that is worthy, and Nashville is one of the few places that you can do that."

So Kraen, Turner and director of sales and marketing Tom Hansen devised a five-pronged approach: Give the DJs more control over the playlist. Play more independent music. Increase spins from the vast catalog to expose listeners to older, deeper cuts. Introduce Nashville to emerging artists on a national, regional and local level. And above all, allow anyone on staff to suggest new music.

They presented their initiatives to a radio consultant. "Over the speakerphone, he said, 'That's blasphemy,' " Kraen remembers, laughing. "And Lester and I said, 'Yeah! That's what we want!' "

These discussions were already under way in February when tragedy forced change sooner than expected. That was the untimely death of program director David Hall, whose on-air presence and control over Lightning 100's playlist helped shape the station's identity.

"David Hall was a part of it," Kraen says. "[He] passed away, and we knew we had to step this up." If there were any "silver lining" to Hall's loss, Turner says, "it gave us the opportunity to look outside the company for programming guidance."

That led to new WRLT program director Dave Rossi, formerly of WWMM Birmingham and WAVF Charleston. He says that while he was immediately on board with the management's egalitarian, hyper-local approach, his ambitions didn't stop at the city limits.

"When I came in, I told the staff that we have two goals: One is that we're going to break a lot of bands, and two is that we're going to be the tastemaker station in the country," Rossi says. "With all the bands, the music, the industry being here — everything we have at our disposal — there's no reason that this radio station can't be the trendsetting station in the entire country.

"And that's what we need to be. We're not going to get there playing Spin Doctors records or Goo Goo Dolls records. We're going to get there by embracing new artists, local artists. The town's on fire — it's electric. The radio station needs to assume that leadership role and tie it all together."

Thus, under the new programming guidelines at WRLT, jocks must play at least one local artist per hour. They can also cherry-pick two songs from the vast music library. That may not seem like a large number — but when you figure that an average of 16 songs are played every hour, they're curating a substantial percentage of that mini-playlist. 

This is not how traditional radio programming works.

"A DJ has turned into a button pusher, if there is an actual DJ — it's lost that human touch. If they're giving the DJs the choice of what they play, that's unheard of these days, and I commend them for that," says Louis Charette, co-owner of record store The Groove in East Nashville, who still laments the loss of Vanderbilt's free-wheeling terrestrial station WRVU-FM (aka 91 Rock) to a classical format.

"When WRVU was gone, I stopped listening to radio," Charette says. "[Lightning 100] could really fill a very important void in the local music community if they follow through with their proposal." 

As for how the station's staff-curated playlist and focus on Nashville artists could affect the local music scene, Charette believes it could result in increased sales of CDs, vinyl and concert tickets.

"If a local artist who has product on our shelves is getting airplay, I would assume that could only be a good thing," he says. "In turn, I think it will create a lot of support for the radio station from artists who are on there, or who want to be on there."

Two staffers who may be able to judge are DJs Justin Hammel and Wells Adams. They're the hosts of "The 615," a new radio hour exclusively featuring emerging local artists 7 p.m. Tuesdays. Hammel, a former WRLT intern and longtime advocate for local acts, has plans for it that extend far beyond the music scene.

"It's not just 615 Music — it's 615 local stores, venues, eateries," Hammel says. "Everybody moved here for whatever reason, but everybody knows they like music. You may not be working directly in the music business, but you still love it, and you still are a supporter of what goes on in this town." 

Adams, who also took over the late Hall's daytime shift, hopes to push up-and-coming local artists even more via the WRLT library and station-sponsored events. He shares Hammel's big-picture view of the show's potential place in the community. 

"It's bigger than music," Adams says. "We want it to encompass the whole town."

Although staffers have been toiling behind the curtain for months, the reborn Lightning 100 officially launched July 3 with an "Independence Rocks" concert at Tin Roof featuring local bands The Apache Relay, Moon Taxi, Elenowen and Humming House. With the new modus operandi intact and growth of nontraditional revenue from events, Kraen says, the station is reaping larger profits.  

Sure, they still play hits. It's radio. You'll hear some Dave Matthews Band, some Snow Patrol, and maybe a little more John Mayer than you'd care to. But you won't find this many emerging indie artists and deep cuts on any other commercial radio station. 

The public response to these changes has been overwhelmingly positive, with new advertisers, an uptick in social media activity and increased event attendance. Most importantly, WRLT 2.0 is drawing raves from loyal listeners and new fans alike.

"Radio is one of the most democratic entertainment mediums on the planet, because it is so easy to push the button," Lester Turner says. "It's unusual to see a station that has a core audience that is 50-plus and 25-minus. When parents listen with their kids, I think that's the coolest thing ever. It's our little contribution to harmony in the family."


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