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In 1948, when Martha White Foods' advertising budget was $25 a week, Martha White flour sponsored a show on the Grand Ole Opry on WSM-AM in Nashville.

Since then, Martha White has sponsored more than 2,000 broadcasts of the Saturday night radio program and is the show's oldest continuing sponsor.

Martha White founder Cohen E. Williams "believed people who ate biscuits got up early in the mornings," said Hank Dye, president of Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence, Martha White's public relations agency in Nashville. "So, in 1941 he started advertising his baking products on WSM radio on a 5:45 a.m. show that was an extension of the Opry program. [Neither] Martha White, nor anyone else, could get on the real Opry broadcast. So Mr. Williams had to settle for another show until a spot opened up on the Grand Ole Opry."

Today, said John Padgett, WSM general sales manager, the standing room only sign is still out.

There are more than 20 sponsors of the two nights of programming-one show Friday night and two on Saturday. Sponsorships range from $50,000 to $100,00 a year. Each of the 30-minute sponsors of the 21/2-hour programs gets three 60-second spots. The 15-minute sponsors get two 60-second spots. Other sponsor perks include excellent seats and the opportunity to take customers backstage and possibly meet the stars.

In addition, each company's logo is visible to the live Opry audience of 4,400. Another 30,000 listen to the show in Nashville, and it's estimated millions more across the U.S. pick up WSM's 50,000-watt clear-channel signal.

Mr. Padgett said only about one Opry sponsorship changes a year. Core sponsors also include Coca-Cola Bottling Consolidated Co. (40 years), Standard Candy Co. (34 years) and Shoney's (25 years).

The Grand Ole Opry began at the Ryman Theater in downtown Nashville but moved in 1974 to the Opryland musical theme park. The Ryman Theater decayed until 1993 when parent Gaylord Entertainment Co. spent $6 million to renovate the building. (Gaylord also owns WSM and TNN, the cable TV network that broadcasts the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday.)

After the renovation, Martha White came full circle, even though the Opry remains at Opryland, and sponsors a bluegrass night on Tuesdays. "We are back where it all began," said Brad Wiersum, VP-marketing.

Why do companies line up to get on the Opry and stay so long?

"We are on the Opry because the Grand Ole Opry and the first word of the sponsoring candy, Goo Goo Cluster, have the same initials," said Jimmy Spradley, president of Standard Candy, which pays $80,000 for its sponsorship. "Other than that, we don't know why we are doing it. But we are scared to get off because we know there is someone behind us who will pay more for our spot. And, it is virtually impossible to get back on."

While Mr. Spradley is reluctant to leave, he did say the program doesn't give marketers any research to prove why they should continue their sponsorships. "You can forget justifications with this buy," he said. "You just do it."

Mr. Wiersum said the Opry's heritage is the attraction for Martha White. "This show, which went on the air in 1925, connects our brand with its past."

From Coca-Cola Bottling's point of view, the Opry is a piece of Americana. "An icon," said Jim Bailey, senior director of advertising for the Charlotte, N.C., company. "And, we have a wonderful relationship with Gaylord as we are the soft drink of Opryland, the General Jackson pleasure boat and Opryland Hotel."

Twenty-five years ago, Shoney's stood in line for two years before a sponsorship opened up. "We are glad we got on when we did," said Sara Griffin, marketing manager.

The program can be heard hundreds of miles away, but no rating service "can give us the numbers outside of Nashville," Mr. Padgett said.

Ms. Griffin said the fact that Nashville is a tourist destination for country music fans, and Shoney's has 47 restaurants in the area, are reasons enough.

"If we gave up our sponsorship, there are 100 companies to take our place," she said. "And we won't get it back."

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