Behind Radio's Country/Pop Convergence in Charleston, West Virginia

May 4: Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, and Austin Mahone pose in Club Red. Swift played the first of 13 North American stadium dates on The RED Tour at Ford Field in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 48,000 fans in Detroit, Michigan.

Getty Images for TAS

“No. They didn’t legalize marijuana in West Virginia. We’re doing this on purpose.”

That's a WKAZ (Tailgate 107.3) Charleston, W. Va., liner anticipating some of the likely responses of any radio people who might be listening to this new country/pop hybrid. If you were familiar with “radio law” and nevertheless decided to play Enrique Iglesias’ “Bailando” next to John Anderson’s “Swingin’,” you might go for the pre-emptive strike, too. Or Ja Rule’s “Livin’ It Up” into “Black Betty” by Ram Jam. Or Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” to The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” Or Motley Crue’s “Same Ol’ Situation” in a music image promo.

More First Listens

Tailgate 107.3 launched earlier this month, and the organizing principle is "Party Songs for Party People." The "iPod on shuffle" analogy, so often used to describe Bob- and Jack-FM stations a decade ago, has been invoked on-air and elsewhere as well. You could also call it an update of the country/classic rock mix that stations have been trying for 20 years. Co-owned country WKWS (The Wolf) Charleston has come closer than most to pulling this particular gambit off at various times in the past.

But mostly, Tailgate 107.3 is the mix you hear between sets at every country concert (or, as was the case earlier this year, during the commercial breaks at the Academy of Country Music awards). In markets like Houston, where country became an all-ages format 20 years before the rest of America, it was a mix that you could hear in various dance clubs as far back as the '90s -- today's pop hits, today’s country and miscellaneous party songs.

A few pop/country hybrids have existed successfully (for a while) in the past. Consultant Lee Randall’s Hot AC stations in Midland/Odessa, and other Texas markets, in the ‘80s. Calgary’s Kiss-FM in the ‘90s, a big enough success that the same owners tried it again in mid-‘00s. But neither top 40 nor country were at their current apex then, not to mention that those formats weren’t then sharing the same young listeners.

Tailgate pushes beyond the boundaries of those stations. There are ‘80s country titles positioned as “an American classic” and dedicated to the Armed Forces. There was a ‘80s pop title, staged as a “summer classic.” It’s not just acknowledging the current kinship between pop and country, but the ties between today’s country and ‘90s rhythmic pop, which has become a format unto itself elsewhere.

Hybrids are always in danger of adding one dimension more than listeners can keep up with. Both “Bailando” and “Swingin’” are in my personal library, but even in the industry, I’m wondering how many readers can hum every song in this article’s opening paragraph. There are only a handful of country songs in a given hour, but some of them are new and developing titles. (The Wolf, for its part, is also aggressive -- it is one of the few country stations on the current song by country rapper Colt Ford.)

There is never a point, however, where any of this sounds bad together on the air, largely because of the energy and enthusiasm of the presentation. Not since the first U.S. Bob- and Jack-FMs of the mid-‘00s used production in lieu of an air-staff has imaging worked this hard to explain and buttress the music. “If you knew what was coming next, it wouldn’t be as much fun,” says one stager.

There’s also a certain “Sons of Skynyrd” ethos to the presentation as well. The legal ID refers to the market as “Charleston, West, by-God, Virginia.” The first promotion involved trips to Sturgis, S.D., for Motorcycle Rally Week.

I haven't counted, but it feels like I haven’t written that many "First Listen" columns lately. A glut of FM "translators" -- micro-stations that are allowing operators to add another low-power station or two to already burgeoning clusters -- is emboldening some owners to experiment, but for the most part, there haven’t been many unique stations worth discussing.

So there is some encouragement in having both Tailgate 107.3 and the major-market debut of the QuickHitz format (also, as it happens, in Calgary) within days of each other. There is less encouragement in QuickHitz' format of edited pop songs having been forced off the air within a few weeks by various industry groups. So let's be glad somebody tried something different on an actual, by-God, FM signal.

Here’s the playlist of Tailgate 107.3 just before Noon on Aug. 21:

Luke Bryan, “All My Friends Say”
Ed Sheeran, “Sing”
John Pardi, “What I Can’t Put Down”
Jason Derulo, “The Other Side”
Miranda Lambert & Carrie Underwood, “Something Bad”
T.I., “Bring ‘Em Out”
Alabama, “Song of the South” (staged as an “American Classic” and dedicated to the troops)
Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)”
Chris Lane, “Broken Windshield View”
Magic!, “Rude”
Tom Petty & Heartbreakers, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise” (without Nelly)
Kris Kross, “Jump”
Weezer, “Buddy Holly”
Bleachers, “I Wanna Be Better”
Parmalee, “Must Have Had A Good Time”
Rick Springfield, “Jessie’s Girl” (staged as a “Summer Classic”)