Nashville classical station will go Triple A in bid for bigger audience

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Elle Turner/Nashville Public Radio

Nashville Public Radio is looking to grow its audience with the launch this month of a Triple A station, a shift that will remove classical music from a primary FM frequency.

The station’s 91.1 FM will switch Monday from 91Classical to WNXP, “Nashville’s Music Experience.” Its format will focus on genres including indie rock, classic alternative and hip-hop, along with some pop, soul and electronic music. Nashville Public Radio will continue offering classical music in an online stream and on an HD Radio channel.

The station launched 91Classical in 2011 after ending classical music on WPLN, now its all-news frequency. But the classical station was drawing a monthly audience of 40,000–60,000 listeners in a market of more than 2 million people, a performance that Nashville Public Radio CEO Steve Swenson says is unsustainable. WPLN draws 150,000–180,000 monthly listeners.

The classical station had also accumulated a net loss of $2 million from 2011 to 2019. Nashville Public Radio was siphoning $250,000 annually from WPLN’s revenues to prop up 91Classical, Swenson said.

“Since our goal is to grow our news station, we can’t afford to be taking $250,000 out of it to support another asset,” he said. 


Nashville Public Radio laid off three of 91Classical’s four staffers in August and moved the fourth to WPLN. It has alerted  audiences over the airwaves and online to ease the transition, prompting some pushback from listeners. “We’ve got the kind of reaction that we would expect,” Swenson said. “Not overwhelming, but also not no one responding.” 

Citing the success of “music discovery” stations around the country, Nashville Public Radio executives analyzed opportunities in the market in late 2019. They felt that Triple A could appeal to listeners ages 18 to 49, particularly younger listeners who are not served by existing stations in the Nashville market.

Swenson said that he expects a larger audience for WNXP will generate more income, helping meet his goal of doubling WPLN’s news staff to at least 25 employees by 2024. The executive team expects to break even on WNXP within its first year.

WNXP will also provide a platform for new music from popular and undiscovered local artists. The station will air some national shows on weekends, including All Things Considered. Locally programmed music will broadcast daily 6 a.m. to midnight.

Nashville Public Radio will boost its reporting on the music scene as well. Jewly Hight, a local music writer who has contributed to NPR, will be WNXP’s music director. Hight will host middays on WNXP and continue to contribute reporting to WPLN. Nashville Public Radio is also adding a music, arts and culture beat and will launch “Music Citizens,” a new segment in which hosts spotlight the Nashville music industry through the lens of non-performers. 

Music journalism has been a gap in WPLN’s coverage, Swenson said. “In one of my first looks at our station, I felt very strongly that if Nashville’s number-one industry is music, we need to be reporting on it,” he said. “… So I think this is going to be great for us and for the city.”

7 thoughts on “Nashville classical station will go Triple A in bid for bigger audience

  1. This is devastating! My elderly mother listens to the classical station all day every day. And I am always comforted listing when I can. Today we couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t on. She doesn’t do online or hd radio. I am so sad and angry. Our civilization is lost with out classical music. That may sound dramatic but true. Wow! Can’t believe it. 2020 has been bad enough now this ???

  2. The new format isn’t something I’m interested in, but I never donated to the station, so I don’t really have the right to complain. I just wanted to give a belated “thanks!” for all the wonderful music over the years.

  3. I have contributed sometimes, but not enough to make up the $250,000 shortfall every year that WPLN suffered because of its classical music station. I am so sorry now I did not give more.

    91.1 classical provided a great service to young people, the elderly, and people of modest means by giving them a steady stream of classical music. Ordinary, low-tech people could hear the greatest classics. The station was an education for anyone who just turned it on and let the music play. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, WPLN classical music broadened my knowledge immensely. As a priest, I have loved the beautiful Christmas music that filled the night air with glory for the days before and after Christmas. I will miss this terribly. I may spend the money to get HD radio, but what about low tech people and the elderly? They probably won’t take the trouble or expense, and the overall cultural loss will further erode our civilization. Excellent music will be found by those who really seek it, but it will become less accessible for those who do not yet know what to look for. I am very sad for Nashville, so-called “Music City.”

  4. So I was truly disappointed to hear that the classical music station is no longer playing the classical they are noted for! How sad for Music City to no longer have classical music over the air! I turned on my radio and found the new format distressing and unwelcoming! I know you have to make money with your advertising but I for one will not listen to the music you are currently playing on your station and will return to my collection of albums for my music! It is truly a sad day for Nashville without your old format! I have had your new music on while I was typing this and have no desire to continue to listen to it! So for now or until you bring back classical music to the air I’ll say goodbye!

  5. Three months into the format, I would say WNXP is a failure. The station currently had a 0.2 rating. It left the classical format with a 1.2. Also…the audience has dropped below 20,000. Half of what it had as a Classical station. As someone who worked in radio and tv for 20 years, I thought it was a bad decision to begin with. There is no way this station is going to make money and break even its first year.

  6. I thought for a bit I was just having bad luck and only getting news reports when I searched for classical music on the radio. To discover I have NO OPTION at ALL for classical music over traditional airwaves is a travesty. I can’t buy an HD radio. I can’t listen online in the car. It seems you purposely cut out your most likely listeners.
    My oldest child would only listen to classical in the car. She called it the “pretty music.” I wanted to share that kind of experience with my youngest. But I can’t and that makes me sad.

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