One of the most important segments of the Billboard Country Music Summit June 4-5 in Nashville will be the closing radio block, in which national decision-makers in broadcasting take a hard look at their industry.
The sessions -- a consultant panel and a keynote Q&A with Clear Channel Media & Entertainment chairman/CEO John Hogan -- are essential because radio remains the most important marketing vehicle in the country genre, and because the medium is going through fundamental changes as the growth of the Internet alters the way the public consumes music.
Clear Channel, as the largest radio chain in the U.S., is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room. The San Antonio-based firm owns more than 850 radio stations - including 120 country signals - in addition to Premiere Radio Networks, which syndicates 90 shows. As the No. 1 chain, Clear Channel also gets the most criticism for broadcasting's rapid elimination of jobs and decreasing localism. It is, Hogan says, a necessary step as radio fights for its cultural position.
The 3rd Annual Billboard Country Music Summit -- featuring in-depth artist Q&As with Luke Bryan and Willie Nelson and two days of country music business programming -- takes place June 4 and 5 in Nashville. Head here to register and get more information, and Billboard.biz readers can get a 15% discount by using promo code BIZ12.
Bob Pittman, widely recognized as the founder of MTV, became Clear Channel CEO last fall and has taken steps to better synchronize the heritage medium with its newer digital properties, including iHeartRadio and an artist integration program that places content on multiple platforms.
Hogan spoke with Billboard Country Update in advance of the Summit. The interview has been edited to fit the available space.
Clear Channel has been treated like the big hairy monster in the room basically ever since deregulation. I'm sure you knew that when you took the job. I'm curious how you change that perception? Do you even try?
Hogan: We definitely try. Consolidation -- or deregulation and then consolidation -- had never been done before. There was no blueprint.
When you talk to people in the radio business, oftentimes the conversation is tinged with 'we wish things were better.' And at Clear Channel we're really focused on making things better. A lot of it is uncomfortable for people -- particularly the traditionalists -- but we're really excited where the company is today. We're really in an exciting place and are very, very forward-looking.
I'm assuming that this artist integration program is one of the ways that is manifesting itself now. We've seen that with the Carrie Underwood album release and the Kenny Chesney duet with Tim McGraw. I'm wondering if you can elaborate on what you've learned from it here early on.
What we've learned is our audiences have an incredible appetite for that kind of programming. There's a real deep desire among music fans for more information, more insight and a stronger connection to the performers. We've also learned that it's beneficial to the artists, it's beneficial to the labels, because it allows us to share things with our audience that we might not otherwise share. It helps accelerate the appeal of an artist or work that they're doing, and we've learned that it's really helped us improve and expand and enhance the partnership we have with artists and labels.
Clear Channel is claiming 10 million registered users for iHeartRadio. What can you tell from their early usage? Are they going to their favorite stations and slapping them onto their mobile phone? Or are they gravitating toward the custom stations?
The 10 million registered users represent people that are using the custom application. They don't have to register to participate and enjoy our broadcast streams. So the 10 million is really additive to what we're seeing around the broadcast streams.
The digital distribution piece and the digital platform is still a very, very small piece of overall audio consumption. It's about 5% of the total listening. But we want to be everywhere our listeners want us to be with what they expect from us, and as digital becomes more of a choice for consumers, we're going to be there.
It's no secret that payrolls have been trimmed. How does that affect what you're able to do in terms of integrating radio and websites?
I think there's a little bit of a misunderstanding. The environment in which we work and perform has changed and continues to change, and so we're working to change right along with that. Unfortunately, we have had to trim our payrolls in certain areas, but we also have added 250 people in the last two years to radio stations all across the country who work on digital programming or who work on web content or who work on digital sales. I know that there's a lot of attention focused when people are let go, and it's really unfortunate -- hate to do it. What doesn't get reported and what hasn't been talked about is the significant investment we're making to build for the future and to make sure that our brand can be heard on a variety of different distribution platforms and that they're as robust and compelling and resonant as they can be.
So there's fewer employees in one area, but more in another area…
Absolutely. And that's because circumstances have changed. There was this enormous hue and cry when in-studio orchestras were replaced by vinyl. People said it was the end of the world -- some people, especially the studio musicians, right? It allowed for a better product for the consumer, but we had to change. It's a terrible sort of fact of life in every business that as things change, some people have a positive outcome and some people have a less-than-positive outcome. The ones who can evolve and grow and sort of look around the corner are the ones who succeed. Look at the newspaper business. They didn't change. They didn't evolve. They didn't hire people for their digital business. They're gone, for all intents and purposes. I think that radio has been at an influxion point, and those that don't grasp the opportunity as we have run a real risk of becoming irrelevant.