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Country Radio’s Revival

When the Country Radio Seminar (CRS) wrapped-up a week ago, more than one person who recognized me as a Board member of Country Radio Broadcasters, commented on how they wished all formats had such a valuable learning & sharing experience as that of the Country format. My first CRS was 1994 and I remember being amazed that competitors came together, set aside their rating wars for three days, and focused on how to grow the format’s audience.


The format, since the early 90s, has exploded and grown from what was once a niche format into a mainstream format. Desert Storm seemed to propel the interest in the format as pride and patriotism took over the nation. Today’s legends were new country artists then. Garth, Reba, Strait, Shania, Trisha, Tim McGraw, and The Dixie Chicks … now known as The Chicks. There was Young Country, references to Hat Country, Texas Country and in 1998 The Wolf was born in Dallas, Texas.


Country has never been more mass appeal with crossover songs from such a wide variety of artists as it is today. There was a time when country PD’s feared that they’d lose an artist to Pop or to the AC formats. What those crossover artists have done, providing they don’t abandon the format, is make it more mass appeal at a time when music is consumed in a multitude of ways. Music exposure is everywhere coming from Radio OTA (over-the-air), streaming (Radio and/or DSP’s), Satellite Radio, smart speakers, YouTube, social media, and on-demand.


Like all things in life … to everything there is a season. That’s according to both Pete Seger who wrote the song Turn, Turn, Turn (recorded by The Byrds) or the book of Ecclesiastes, from where he took the first eight verses of the third chapter of the Biblical story. Country has seen seasons of up and down ratings. The format reaches a point of saturation and multiple stations launch into Country. Then we hit a down cycle and we have recently seen stations change formats away from Country.


Despite some individual stations remaining strong and showing their durability, the format was on a four-year eroding trend until just recently. There was a time when several country radio stations in the largest markets in America had a cume of over 1,000,000 listeners. No more. We even saw a repeat of country radio once again leaving Manhattan when WNSH went out of format in late 2021.


The rating erosion led to much finger pointing and blame. “It’s the music,” “rating sample size,” “the market make-up has changed,” “too many choices and more competition for listeners,” “no marketing from corporate,” “the labels push us to change our music too quickly,” “country music is too pop,” “country music is too country,” “the charts move too slowly,” “the charts move too fast,” “radio has turned its back on new music discovery.”


Last year the 2022 Country Radio Seminar addressed such issues and this year’s agenda committee continued working toward solving them. John Shomby is the Owner/CEO Country’s Radio Coach and Vice President of the Country Radio Broadcasters. He led a TED Talk at last year’s seminar, which was well received and encouraged collaboration between Records and Radio. That session began a discussion that continued into this year’s seminar at the urging of CRB Executive Director RJ Curtis.


Shomby led a volunteer task force, made up of Radio, Records, Trade and Digital participants. The group met regularly over the last 12 months. The one-year project provided actionable steps for consideration. The journey was chronicled in the most recent March 2023 Radio Ink print issue. Actionable steps were presented and detailed. Recommendations, suggestions and a sharing of experience provided a map.


Four groups were formed. The participants within the groups, because of their positions, remain anonymous. The leaders of the four groups; WCJW/Warsaw, NY PD and Morning Personality Jimi Jamm, Ray Mariner who serves as Manager Radio & Streaming for Warner Music Nashville, Music and Entertainment Marketing Strategist Billy Ray McKim and myself. John Shomby provided oversight. The groups themselves focused on Industry Collaboration, The Lifecycle of a Song, Music Discovery, and Programming & Ratings.


Industry Collaboration was led by Jimi Jamm. The participants from all walks of the country music industry focused on creating a cornucopia of tools. They recommended a format-wide online living directory that includes contact for programming tools for stations, website/social suggestions, Label information as well as that for radio stations (all markets and not just reporters), DSPs, Artist Management and their rosters as well as the same for the labels.


The Lifecycle of a Song group, headed-up by Billy Ray McKim, analyzed two of the sides of the music industry. The group that included researchers, music, radio, DSP and industry journalists. They arrived at a destination where they could recommend that radio, moving forward, should commit to the songs that work for their market and drop those that don’t. Don’t hang onto songs that aren’t performing. When committed to songs, provide reasonable daytime exposure to develop familiarity.


Labels moving forward need to understand that for radio to be a good partner, it doesn’t mean playing everything. They need to be accepting that it’s okay for a station to pass on playing songs that don’t work for them. Distinguish songs that are meant for radio only and list those specific add dates in the trades.


Music Discovery with longtime radio & records veteran Ray Mariner at the helm … this group hit at the heart of the erosion that radio is experiencing centered around the benefit of music discovery. Touched on in the Collaboration group, there is a need for Radio, DSPs, and Labels to create systems to share pertinent song information weekly. This should be a two-way street.


There is clearly a need for education between the various factions of the industry when it comes to understanding metrics. Country radio needs to understand streaming statistics and their value … which equals the facts. Identifying which tools are most useful and how to maximize their use is also important.


Programming & Ratings is the group that was under my guidance. This committee was larger than the others, mainly because of the enthusiasm of programmers, on-air talent, trade journalists and a former market manager who participated. The immediate realization among our group members was how different each market is and how the competitive situation is so different city to city. Music playlists and selection must be 100% designed for your market and the competitive situation that you’re facing. A factor faced by country today is the changing makeup of many markets where there are census changes.


A stations music must be 100% designed for your market and competitive situation. Country radio has to break away from “sound alike” stations within a market and market-to-market. Personalities need to be genuine. They should embrace transparency and vulnerability. Local connectivity is important for a station. That remains true be the talent local, voice-tracked or syndicated. One of the benefits of local radio is that it connects locally regardless of the content’s origin.


The mandate from Country Radio Broadcasters Executive Director, R.J. Curtis, was to provide actionable steps. He urged us to deliver to CRS attendees’ actionable information. In that interest of improving country radio ratings and regrowing the format, the four groups as a collective, offered these action steps:


Radio: Communicate your core music rules and criteria to the labels opening and honestly. That doesn’t mean giving away secret criteria, but it does mean that if a song needs to reach a certain chart level or research criteria drives your choices, share that there’s a method to the choices you make. By sharing that criterion, it enables a label representative to have a goal line to work toward. That transparency should enable the programmer to be able to point to the trigger when a song is ready for airplay.


Don’t aim for conformity. Get away from sound-alike radio. Create a sound that evokes emotion and memorability. When there are multiple country stations in a market, and they all sound alike, there’s no differentiation for the audience to factor into the listening choice they make. It can drive listening down for a format. Arguably that is a problem at present in many markets. It damages the audience’s perception of the format.


Labels: Learn the rules of each company/station and work to create a better, more open and communicative partnership within those rules. My personal experience is that label reps ask for guidelines that enable them to know when you’ll consider a song and when you’ll add a song. “We don’t play anything ‘til it hits #30 on the chart.” That’s a benchmark. It then enables the rep to understand when to pitch and when to pass on pitching a song to a station.


Set measurable and realistic goals for performance of a single. Recognize more quickly what’s a hit and what isn’t a hit. The expression “fail fast” is thrown out in discussions about music, but few labels are prepared to fail the expectation of an artist or their management. If a song displays analytics that are not promising, be conscious of the impact on the chart and overall, the format.


Labels and DSPs: Find understandable and valuable ways for analytics/statistics to inform everyone and tell meaningful stories. The industry has many analytics available to it, from valuable sources, and sharing across radio, DSPs and labels should provide guardrails in following trends that show the changes in attitude and usage of music by the country music consumer. We encourage collaboration and sharing of information.


Everyone: Ask questions. Don’t settle for the status quo. The turnaround of the country format must start with the acknowledgment that country radio has seen audience erosion over the last several years. Take solace in the audience rebound that the format is starting to experience. Don’t leave it to chance that this growth trend will continue. Be a part of a conscious decision to make a difference in country radio to improve on what’s been done in the past.


The journey isn’t finished. Country Radio Broadcasters has made a commitment to continue with these committees through the remainder of 2023 with the intention of making a presentation to the industry at CRS 2024.

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