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Saving Country Radio

There has been many questions and much concern about the country format’s rating erosion over the last couple years. 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 over 1m listeners. No more. We even saw country radio once more leave Manhattan.

The rating erosion led to much finger pointing. “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,” “radio has become boring,” “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,” … and I could go on.

It's always easy to point out problems. It is difficult to provide solutions. The 2022 Country Radio Seminar addressed such issues and has been 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.

The talks challenged all aspects of the format including radio, labels and DSPs. Country Radio was encouraged to be more selective with music. A request was made for DSPs to share information with everyone, labels to be more selective with which songs the select to promote to radio, and there was a suggestion to examine the life cycle of a song. Country Radio needs to strive to be more creative.

Encouraged by CRB President Kurt Johnson and CRB Executive Director RJ Curtis, Shomby suggested the formulation of a Country Music Committee, supported by the Country Radio, Labels, DSPs, Trades, Artist Management and Marketers. This group worked to determine the biggest issues that country radio faces, meeting once per/month and presenting recommendations to the industry. The groups met individually and the group moderators met collectively to share what was discussed. The committee members floated in and out over the year based on their availability, but the leadership of the group did meet regularly over the last 12 months. The one-year project provided actionable steps for consideration.

RJ noted “These recommendations are a result of evolving, collaborative, and unselfish discussions among dozens of executives from every corner of our business. The burning imperative for all who participated was, and remains: to identify vulnerabilities, scrutinize current best practices, and maximize strengths.”

The four groups created were designed to allow for open and honest conversation. The objective to design solutions for consideration. The participants within the groups therefore remain anonymous. The leaders of the four groups are 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.

This digital resource would also include touring information and contact information for Booking Agents, Publicists, Trade Magazines and on-air and media & music talent who are free agents. This group also recommends providing information about label promotion teams and their artists, deliver “Brown Bag” audio for interviews, approved images, music call times/days for labels to be aware of, and to enable syndicators to post demos for their various shows.

This proposed tool seems to me to be a revenue opportunity for an entrepreneurial spirt who would have a benefit to create such a free site. The revenue objective would be to attract users to a location that is advertiser supported. The depth of such a site would be greater than anything that exists now. It would also require administrative ability to update the information housed on the site. Admittedly this is a heavy lift and requires a financial commitment.

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. Records will have more songs to offer radio the next week and the week after that. The dream would be to allow a song to get to number one on its own. Allowing a song to do so means it will be a bigger overall selling song creating financial success. Distinguish songs that are meant for radio only and list those specific add dates in the trades.

Music Discovery with Ray Mariner at the helm 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.

Music discovery is enhanced when an on-air personality, or Program Director, has a personal connection with the artists and their music. Shared experiences lift the popularity and celebrity of an on-air personality while humanizing artists. Country radio, more than any other format, is buoyed by the relationship and endorsements of country artists. The access to artists is greater at country radio than at any other format.

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 have to 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 has to be 100% designed for your market and competitive situation. Country radio, as a whole, has to break away from “sound alike” stations within a market and market-to-market. Provide actual variety and present more musical surprises. Invest in talent development and personality coaching. Encourage on-air performers to provide interesting and entertaining content. Be dogmatic in creating a better work environment and foster a positive culture for all team members.

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. Talk about what’s important to that community. Relate to the local audience and talk about what they care about. It is also advised to be everywhere and be seen everywhere in a community. That’s an important part of marketing within a community.

Living a life in the media where audience reaction has controlled my career for years, I’m used to the phenomena of being seen as smart when the ratings are good and lacking intelligence when they’re not. It’s safe to assume that my colleagues on the music side of the business experience the same thing. One of my best friends joined Monument Records as they signed the Dixie Chicks, now known as The Chicks. He was a genius for as long as they rode the ride. Sometimes timing is a benefit.

The most recent rating surveys are showing the format rebounding and building toward pre-pandemic levels. We’re not there yet, especially in regard, to cume. However, it’s fair to say that almost all audio platforms have been a part of the ups and downs on the audio rollercoaster. The pandemic changed listening locations for all formats & platforms and that changed how and where the audience heard their favorite songs.

RJ Curtis tied a bow on the project. “Next steps will be suggesting positive opportunities for every aspect of this format to improve performance, better serve listeners, and most importantly, broaden the appeal of country music. We also believe this think tank must continue into the future in order to better inform and impact the annual three days of CRS. Finally, I’m especially proud this initiative was launched during a CRS ‘22 session. The response exemplifies two key tenets of our organization: “Learn. Connect. Advance,” with the larger intention to achieve “growth through sharing.”

In the 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 actually 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 as a whole.

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 has to 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. The committees will continue through 2023 with the intention of making a presentation to the industry at CRS 2024.

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