When WXRP New York hit the play button on Randy Houser's "How Country Feels" on Jan. 21, it marked the return of country music to terrestrial radio in the nation's largest market after an absence of more than a decade.
It was a big deal in terms of its local impact, but just as important is how it benefits country nationally. The station, which will adopt WNSH (Nash FM 94.7) as its permanent call letters, will become the flagship for a Nash brand that Cumulus will roll out in numerous forms of its own media, including radio stations in other markets, plus a magazine, a Web presence and planned live events and cable TV.
But it's also likely to have a positive effect on country's impact in other media. The genre immediately becomes more visible in a marketplace where hundreds of national companies make decisions daily about how they will spend their money and what celebrities they might affiliate with.
The complete Nash branding package is "not something that will appear and happen magically tomorrow," Cumulus co-COO John Dickey says. "But over the course of time, all of these different puzzle pieces will come and fit nicely together, and I think what you've got right now is the outline of what's going to be a tapestry serving country and this life group that is going to be significant."
Questions about the makeup of WNSH remain. No PD or music director has been named yet, and the station initially aired without live personalities, leaning instead on pre-produced liners touting it as "America's country station." The air staff and programming executives will be announced "sooner than later," Dickey promises.
The WNSH playlist was, he said, based on market-driven research. The first hour mixed current singles (Brad Paisley's "Southern Comfort Zone," Lee Brice's "I Drive Your Truck") with recent recurrents (Zac Brown Band's "Free," Lady Antebellum's "I Run to You") and classic country from the 1990s (Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places," George Strait's "Write This Down").
Also heard, somewhat surprisingly, during the first day was Randy Rogers Band's "Too Late for Goodbye," which peaked at No. 47 on Hot Country Songs in 2010 but fared better on the Texas red-dirt circuit. If that was indeed chosen because of research and not just picked from a playlist at one of Cumulus' Dallas stations (Dickey said WNSH was not an adaptation of another city's library), that suggests the station could be a trendsetter, and not simply a jukebox of proven hits.
"They're pretty conservative as chains go, so I wouldn't expect them to be super-aggressive, but if something seemed to make sense for them, they may pop on something earlier," Universal Music Group Nashville executive VP of promotion Royce Risser says. "I think they're going to research the heck out of that market."
One way in which WNSH may defy expectations is in its approach to New York. Analysts have traditionally believed the target for the format is in the outlying areas of the region. Dickey insists Cumulus will go after New York's boroughs, including Manhattan and the Bronx.
"There are some natural pockets that I think anybody would look at objectively and say 'This should do well for you' -- New Jersey being one of them, Long Island being another -- but I think the format is in a different place today," Dickey says.
He points to Jason Aldean's March 2 concert at Madison Square Garden, which sold out in fewer than 10 minutes on Jan. 18, three days before WXRP flipped formats.
"That's not [just] suburban housewives in New Jersey phoning in to buy tickets," Dickey says. "To stereotype this format today would be at anybody's peril. I think this is a format that is large, growing, affluent, defined, but still continuing to define itself. It transcends just the 'burbs, and I think you're going to find the boroughs themselves are going to produce a lot of country fans."
That is exactly the scenario that WHN experienced during its successful run as a country station from 1973-1987. It amassed large enough Arbitron ratings that a second country station, WKHK, entered the market in the early 1980s.
WHN aggressively sought leadership among audience groups that were not typically thought of as country fans. It used Freddy Fender's image to target high-density Hispanic neighborhoods and made Charley Pride visible in areas with dense African-American populations.
"WHN didn't write off Manhattan," former PD Ed Salamon says. "We promoted to them, and as a result you could hear WHN in taxi cabs and in stores in Manhattan. A lot of the people who listened were new to America. And that's counter-intuitive. People say they're not a stereotypical country listener. And they weren't."
Numerically, country has a strong base from which to draw. Some 1.3 million country albums were sold in the New York Designated Metro Area (DMA) during 2012, according to Nielsen SoundScan, making it the No. 1 market for country album sales in the United States. It has been No. 1 every year since 2009, despite the absence of a country station to support the format.
But it still has plenty of room to grow. Country represented a mere 5.9% of album sales in the DMA during 2012. Only two markets -- Miami, at 5.7%, and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, 1.2% -- had lower penetration. Country maintains a double-digit share in most DMAs and exceeds 20% in a number of markets.
Dickey anticipates WNSH will draw listeners from several other stations, including top 40 WHTZ, classic-hits WCBS-FM, adult contemporary WLTW and Cumulus' own hot AC WPLJ.
"When you're in a marketplace the size of New York that has been underserved for 20 years, you've got a lot of listeners that are listening to other stations by default, not by choice necessarily," he observes.
Dickey also suspects the station will pull some audience from SiriusXM and find new radio listeners who simply turned to their own music collections when WHN and WYNY New York, which carried a country format from 1987-1996, dropped the genre.
"How many people that grew up in small towns all around our country move to New York for jobs after school?" Houser asks rhetorically. "As many times as I've played in the city live, we've seen so many country fans and very loyal country music listeners."
Indeed, Paisley, Aldean, Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts are among the acts who've sold out Madison Square Garden without the support of a country station. Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw sold 56,285 tickets for their Brothers of the Sun tour date at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., according to the tour's publicist. Some of that audience no doubt listens to country on WKMK Monmouth, N.J., which has attempted to appeal to the western edges of the New York City DMA. The eastern edge of the market is likewise touched by WJVC Nassau-Suffolk, though the city hasn't had reliable midtown country radio service since 1996.
The WNSH flip is "huge for the country music industry, our artists and our fans," Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Gary Overton says. "New York is a strong touring market for country. But this will help drive record sales and larger media attention for our artists, which they deserve."
That attention is essential for advertising rates and corporate sponsorships. Keith Urban's presence on Fox's "American Idol," Blake Shelton's breakthrough success on "The Voice," Reba McEntire's ABC sitcom "Malibu Country" and the ABC drama "Nashville" all bring some degree of focus on country music. But a station in the New York market will make the genre more real for media planners and buyers. That can only help country broadcasters in other markets-including Cumulus stations-and likely leads to more receptivity on Madison Avenue for country acts.
"When you're exposed to something and it seems successful to you where you are, then you sort of relate to how it can be successful all over the country," Salamon observes. "When it's absent from where you are, there's a question in the back of your mind for a media planner or buyer or talent booker of 'How can this stuff be that important if I don't know anything about it?'"
A 2008 Country Music Assn. research project indicated nearly 60 million adults 18-54 can be classified as country fans. Between 40 million-50 million are self-identified as country fans, Dickey says, and that's a sizable mass of people whose music of choice has been fairly quiet in the nation's media capital for more than 10 years. Which only underscores Cumulus' introduction of WNSH and its Nash media umbrella.
"That's the important component," Dickey says, "to serve an underserved, large life group and create this entertainment brand for country."