Country radio is "an 800-pound gorilla," Garth Brooks told programmers during the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville Feb. 13-15. "It ain't going anywhere."   

Broadcasters themselves seem more cautious. Quite possibly, it's a former 800-pound gorilla that has dropped to 500 pounds and needs a pep talk -- plus some philosophical changes -- as it struggles to compete with a growing cadre of younger entertainment platforms equipped with user-friendly options.   

"You guys really are the underdogs," Alpha Media executive vp content Scott Mahalick told the audience at a separate panel.   

Broadcasters' issues cut deep, and they were laid out in a series of slides and presentations. The development of smartphones, digital platforms and social media has eroded attention spans. Streaming companies have created new opportunities for listeners to dodge commercials and bypass songs they do not wish to hear. Many homes no longer have a radio, and even if they do, younger consumers find it harder to operate than their phones. And country radio does not market to teens; thus as those consumers edge into the holy-grail 25-54 demographic, they are unlikely to suddenly adopt radio as a medium of choice.

Rubbing additional salt in the wounds, 68 percent of parents reported in an Edison Media Research study that their teen children have served as their technical advisors, helping them understand how to run their devices and learn new programs. As one mother testified in an accompanying video, her kid showed her how to use Spotify and an aux cable in the car, stomping on turf where terrestrial radio was once dominant.

"It's not just that young people are not turning to radio," Edison president Larry Rosin told attendees, "they're changing the behaviors of their parents."

Ten years from now, most teens will be part of country's target demo -- 15 years from now, all of them will -- and if radio intends to rebound, it needs to begin rethinking some of its approaches, suggested Rosin.

In particular, he counseled outreach to teens in their habitat by recruiting a designated ambassador at local schools, bringing artists to those schools for events and developing additional events that would appeal to parents and their kids, since 66 percent of parents in the survey indicated their relationship with the next generation is actually better than the one they had with their own parents as teens.

It's an uphill battle, since 34 percent of teens believe that radio is not a medium that suits their age group. "It's a thing of the past," said one teen respondent on video.

Despite that challenge, the pieces are in place for radio to revitalize itself. The podcast and the explosion of smart speakers have renewed interest for audio -- "Voice is the new digital revolution," Radio Advertising Bureau president/CEO Erica Farber suggested while moderating a smart-speaker panel -- and radio has been in business for nearly a century operating exclusively as an audio medium. It has historically known how to attract consumers with sound.

Sound, of course, is the medium that country's artists used in their own underdog ascent, chronicled in Ken Burns' 16.5-hour documentary, Country Music, set to debut Sept. 15 on PBS. Writer-producer Dayton Duncan delivered a preview of the eight-episode effort, following the genre's improbable rise from rural back porches to a widely accepted mainstream commercial idiom. The music originated, according to the script, within a cultural segment that "felt left out and looked down upon." The project uses 560 pieces of music and slices up more than 100 interviews with the likes of Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Marty Stuart and Willie Nelson to document country's progress through what Duncan called "songs that connect to people's lives that transcend time."

That connection is illustrated with a touching recollection by Kathy Mattea about a fan who sought an autograph, unable to speak through tears during the interaction. She had buried her mother that same day but still felt compelled to attend Mattea's concert, presumably because Mattea's "Where've You Been" so accurately captured the emotions of the moment.

Cementing that kind of heart-to-heart connection is essential for radio's future. Mahalick cited terrestrial radio's ability to provide companionship as one of broadcasters' best ways to connect, though he noted radio executives will need to adopt new recruitment strategies to find suitable on-air talent. In a previous era when gatekeepers tightly controlled broadcast opportunities, personalities had to seek out the station, where they were allowed to develop in overnight shifts. With the internet providing additional outlets and syndicated programming filling overnights at many stations, radio needs to become more aggressive in attracting talent, he said.

"Our jobs have changed," programming veteran Bruce Logan agreed.

So, too, has the landscape, which is one reason that there's disagreement about the gorilla's true size. Since the advent of the smartphone, the volume of country listening has risen among 18- to 24-year-olds, from 7 million listeners weekly in 2007 to 7.5 million in 2018, according to Nielsen. Among 25-34s, the cume increase is 16 percent, from 9.3 million to 10.8 million. But the audience is less dedicated to the terrestrial country experience. Weekly time spent listening has dropped at least 36 percent (from nine hours a week to 5.5 hours among 18-24s and from nine hours to 5.75 hours among 25-34s) as they drift among multiple audio options. "People are still listening," Nielsen Audio vp audience insights Jon Miller told the crowd, "but fragmentation is a major force."

How programmers handle that fragmentation in the coming decade will determine the ultimate size of the broadcasting gorilla. Teens lack the passion for radio that their parents and grandparents had, and the industry needs to change its perspective if it wants to bulk up to the figurative 800-pound mark rather than atrophy. Apple and Pandora regularly advertise to younger listeners, observed a college student during a Q&A session, while radio is simply off the radar. Radio's outlook about changing trends will ultimately determine the outcome.

"If your mind-set is 'We're screwed,'" said DMR/Interactive vp marketing strategy Doug Smith, "good luck."


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