Jason Aldean

Jason Aldean performs during his sold out 'Night Train Tour 2013' at Madison Square Garden on March 2, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

Rick Diamond, Getty Images

Country radio is cool again for younger listeners.

Attracted by an edgier, more energetic sound, listeners aged 18-34 are flocking to country stations in droves. Already radio’s dominant destination among 25-54 year-olds, country is now second only to top 40 in the 18-24 demo, up from fifth place two years earlier, according to new Arbitron ratings data from the top 48 markets. Country’s share of 18-24 listeners grew a whopping 41% from fall 2010 to spring 2012, while 25-34 ratings experienced a 27% increase. In an encouraging sign for the format’s long-term growth prospects, 18-34 year-olds now make up nearly one third of the country radio audience.

A wave of rock-flavored songs with a dash of country’s rebellious roots are attracting a new generation of young listeners without sacrificing the format’s core older audience, programmers say. “There is a very distinct changing of the guard in terms of the style, texture and themes of what country is right now,” says Clear Channel executive VP of programming Clay Hunnicutt, who also serves as brand manager for the company’s country stations. Albright, O’Malley & Brenner partner Becky Brenner says the consulting firm’s research shows “high passion” among the Millennial Generation for new country artists, such as Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Eric Church, among others. “They’ve brought an energy and vitality to the format, with lyrics that speak to that younger listener,” she says.

The rock structure prevalent in much of today’s country music is helping turn more rock radio listeners on to the genre. Half of active rock’s weekly audience also tunes to a country station, up from 44% in 2010, according to Scarborough data. In fact, the top five formats that share their 18-34 year-old audience the most with country are all some flavor of rock, and each is sharing significantly more with country than two years ago.

With a bumper crop of mass appeal acts bringing more young people in the door, programmers are shoring up station personalities and imaging to convert them into long-term country listeners. Last month Clear Channel took the unusual step of moving one of its most successful top 40 morning hosts to Nashville to launch a new nationally syndicated country morning show. “The Bobby Bones Show” is now heard on roughly 30 Clear Channel country stations with more expected. The company is betting that Bones, a 31-year-old country music fan known for candidly discussing the trials and tribulations of his personal life on-air, will translate with country listeners. “He talks openly about coming from a troubled family past with drug and alcohol abuse -- a theme prevalent in country music,” Hunnicutt says. With easy access to Nashville’s artist community from his new base at WSIX (The Big 98), Bones is also making artist interviews and in-studio performances a cornerstone of his new show.

Country’s growing grip on the demos advertisers spend the most money on is making the format more competitive. Roughly half of the top 25 markets now support more than one country station, turning markets like Atlanta, Seattle and St. Louis into heated country radio battlegrounds. For the first time in 17 years, New York has a country station that covers the entire market. At stake are the $1.3 billion spent on country radio by advertisers in Arbitron-rated markets in 2011, according to media financial analysis firm BIA/Kelsey.

The format’s increasingly wide cross-generational appeal has raised the question of how much longer it can appeal to both ends of the 18-54 spectrum. Unlike rock, top 40, AC and urban, country hasn’t fragmented into sub-formats. “The challenge going forward is keeping that wide swath of audience on the same station,” Arbitron director of programming services Jon Miller says. “No other music format has figured out how to do that.”

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