First Listen: Radio Disney Country Knocks Down Format's Traditional Walls

Kelsea Ballerini and Taylor Swift perform onstage during The 1989 World Tour live in Nashville at Bridgestone Arena on Sept. 25, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. 

John Shearer/LP5/Getty Images for TAS

Radio Disney Country was one of those radio station ideas that instantly made sense from the moment it was announced to Billboard in June. Let mainstream country stations dither on whether country's youth movement is desirable or sustainable, or whether Taylor Swift was ever good for the format. A month later, Kelsea Ballerini's "Love Me Like You Mean It" went to No. 1, making it clear that even if Swift was no longer country's youth ambassador that, there is still a need for the position.

Radio Disney Country launched Nov. 4, timed to arrive with the CMA Awards. Unlike its "family top 40" namesake, Radio Disney Country exists online only for now, and if there's a station made for online radio's infinite dial, it's this one, but so far this is a test of what a true pureplay can accomplish. It is, at least, starting out with Radio Disney's cume and publicity unmatched by any Internet radio station besides Beats 1.

Radio Disney Country to Launch This Fall: Exclusive

In an opening day interview, Radio Disney GM Phil Guerini told the Washington Post that Radio Disney Country will go beyond country's traditional walls. It would be easy now to do an "acoustic pop for younger listeners" format that goes from Ballerini into Vance Joy. Radio Disney Country isn't that, but in the first 24 hours it was possible to hear EDM artist Audien's current pop hit with Lady Antebellum on lead vocals, or pop-era Taylor.

As with Radio Disney itself these days, there are long stretches where its new country sibling doesn't sound so much like "the other." Unlike the early ‘00s, Radio Disney doesn't have to manufacture that much of its own pop music now. There is a presence of young artists from outside radio's walls here, but not a preponderance. Both stations also have a number of songs that aren't particularly youthful in focus, but aren't inappropriate for a family radio station either. So you'll still hear Darius Rucker's "It Won't Be Like This For Long," one of those acceptance-of-adulthood songs that very much marks mainstream country at its most, well, mainstream.

You also won't hear that much Swift; it took me two-hour stretches of listening before she made her first appearance. In fact, until I heard Danielle Bradbury's "Friend Zone" -- one of the Radio Disney Country songs that you won't hear on mainstream country -- that I finally heard a song that takes high school as its theme, which Swift brought to the format for the first time nearly a decade ago.

One of the best, most notable aspects of Radio Disney Country is its strong concentration of female artists (and yes, consecutive female artists). Ballerini's No. 1 hit was, in part, an industry make-good for the dearth of female acts, and an attempt to put the great Nashville nightmare of "saladgate" behind them. On Radio Disney Country, Maddie & Tae play next to Jana Kramer.

It's also worth noting that, across two listening sessions roughly twelve hours apart, I heard a vastly different station. The opening night broadcast featured Betsy Spina and artist interview audio to tie in with the CMAs. There was a lot of Radio Disney Country-specific imaging including a custom song intro from Hunter Hayes. The next morning, Radio Disney Country was jockless and the imaging was actually all from Radio Disney itself.

These are station launch hiccups -- as was the song I heard twice in the course of a half-hour on the first day -- but if there's anybody whose side channel shouldn't and doesn't have to sound like an Internet side channel, it's a Disney property. Like Sirius XM's The Highway, there is significant "national superstation" potential here, if properly taken advantage of.

Here's Radio Disney Country on Nov. 4 at 8 p.m. ET:

Lindsay Ell, "By The Way"
Darius Rucker, "It Won't Be Like This For Long"
Rae Lynn, "Better Do It"
Big & Rich, "Run Away With You"
Luke Bryan, "Play It Again"
Sam Hunt, "Break Up In A Small Town"
Dan + Shay, "Nothin' Like You"

Maddie & Tae, "Shut Up And Fish"
Big & Rich, "Run Away With You"
Rae Lynn, "God Made Girls"
The Band Perry, "Live Forever"

Audien f/Lady Antebellum, "Something Better"
Lucy Hale, "You Sound Good To Me"
April Kry, "Fireflies"
Hunter Hayes "Still Fallin'"

... and here's the channel on Nov. 5 at 6:20 a.m. ET:

Hunter Hayes "Still Fallin'"
Thomas Rhett, "Crash And Burn"
Rae Lynn, "Better Do It"
Tim McGraw, "Top Of The World"
Brothers Osborne, "Stay A Little Longer"
Hunter Hayes, "21"
Danielle Bradbury, "Friend Zone"
Rascal Flatts, "Rewind"

Maddie & Tae "Fly"
Jana Kramer, "I Got The Boy"
Kenny Chesney, "Save It For A Rainy Day"
Lindsay Ell, "By The Way"
Taylor Swift, "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together"