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July 7, 2022

How We Crafted a Unique Tourism-Builder on a Legendary TV Show

Tony Treadway

Song of the Mountains marketing strategy article.

Creative Energy is a pioneer in crafting one-of-a-kind solutions for promoting tourism and economic development for our clients. The most recent example is the transition of a 17-year-old TV show into a nationally broadcast radio show. Take a couple of minutes to read about this amazing story.

Song of the Mountains® is one of the longest-running music-based programs which is broadcast on more than 170 public broadcast TV stations across the country. In its history, the bluegrass and old-time country music show has welcomed the likes of Dr. Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, and Tom T Hall to its stage at the Lincoln Theater in Marion, VA. The brainchild of some community leaders who wanted to put the theater and the Town of Marion on the map, the brilliance of their vision has drawn thousands of tourists to the town for almost two decades. Each month, they fill the seats of the theater to watch the live performances of the show that are recorded, then shared via its network of PBS stations. Yet, for all its success as a TV program, it was never promoted as a radio show.

Dr. Ralph Stanley on stage with microphone
Dr. Ralph Stanley is just one of the music legends who have graced the Song of the Mountains stage.

Creative Energy was asked to serve as a promotional consultant by Song of the Mountains’ board of directors. Our first step was to share an opportunity with East Tennessee State University (ETSU) in Johnson City, TN, just 80 miles from the Lincoln Theater stage. The link between Song of the Mountains dates to the very first broadcast that included a performance by an ETSU bluegrass band. Yet a conversion of the TV show’s soundtrack into a radio show had never been explored.

ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band performing on stage
An ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band performance.

ETSU is famous for its Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Curriculum that has seen the likes of Kenny Chesney graduate to stardom to become a country music icon. The university is also the repository of the region’s history at its Center for Appalachian Studies. One example of the center’s research into a religious sect was the origin of the HBO documentary called Alabama Snake. The school offers a degree in storytelling, in theater and dance, media and communications as well as a shiny new performing arts center. It’s the ideal platform for a Song of the Mountains alliance.

Creative Energy introduced leaders of the school to those of Song of the Mountains and recommended the first step in the alliance be the conversion of the TV show into one for public radio via the school’s FM station, WETS. The station is a member of PRX, a distributor of programming to more than 500 public radio stations nationwide.

Next, Creative Energy sought underwriting donations from the Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau and ETSU’s own marketing department to help subsidize the usage fees for PRX stations to download and broadcast Song of the Mountains nationwide. The opening and close announcements for Johnson City and ETSU will be shared with listeners in up to 60 markets around the nation each week to grow tourism and enrollment at the school. Likewise, the awareness of the monthly performances at the Lincoln Theater will grow ticket sales for the theater and to hotels and restaurants in Marion, VA.

“These broadcasts offer the opportunity to invite listeners across America to learn more and visit or move to the region,” says Brenda Whitson, Executive Director of the Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, the founding underwriter of the broadcasts.

“Song of the Mountains is a wonderful platform for sharing information about the unique educational programs offered by our university,” says Jessica Vodden, ETSU’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for ETSU, which will also underwrite the broadcasts. “The agreement also reflects the strong bond between our university and the heritage of bluegrass linking East Tennessee with Southwest Virginia.”

Other opportunities are being explored that can enrich the lives of ETSU students through the new alliance with Song of the Mountains because of the region’s rich heritage in roots, bluegrass, and country music. Many claim that country music was born here with the likes of Jimmy Rogers and the Carter Family recordings made in a Bristol hotel. Today, the Smithsonian-backed Birthplace of Country Museum is just one example, whose Rhythm & Roots Reunion music festival draws thousands of tourists to the region each year. Stitching together a patchwork of independent, yet aligned, tourism assets can build a quilt for a powerful tourism branding opportunity.

For now, listen in as you will hear the beautiful sounds of our region broadcast to America each week on public radio stations (WETS-FM, 89.5, will broadcast the show Saturdays at 1 pm). Leveraging a 17-year archive of existing programs, and new ones produced each month from the Lincoln Theater stage, Song of the Mountains is a new ambassador for tourism and economic development for Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. If you are in search of crafted brand-building opportunities for your region, we’re a great resource and would love to start a conversation.