From Bro to Blah: Is Country Radio's Shift in Younger Listeners a Crisis or a Driver?

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Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line perform during the 48th annual CMA awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 5, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee.

There was a significant moment at the "State of the Music" panel at last week's Country Radio Seminar when WXTU Philadelphia PD Shelly Easton declared that she was not ready for country radio's 18-34 success of recent years to be over. In a market where 25-54 is crowded, "18-34 [and 18-34 are] driving us," said Easton. 

For most of its 30 year history, WXTU was the most AC-leaning radio station in the country format, driven by a belief that country in the northeast especially was an upper-demos format. Easton joined WXTU from the more aggressive WCTO Allentown, Pa., but if WXTU is concerned about its younger end, that's still a major attitude shift.

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The good news about the "State of the Music" panel is that PDs didn't rush home to make the format more upper-demo-friendly as they did in 1994, effectively ending country radio's Garth Brooks-era boom of the early '90s. But despite good panelists and a candid discussion, country's historical ambiguity about 18-34 remained mostly unresolved, to the point where moderator Lon Helton ended by asking, "So what we've decided here is to 'play the hits'?"--a reference to the anodyne programming strategy that often masks not having a programming strategy.

There'll be no such diplomacy here. Some thoughts on country's tangled relationship with 18-34s, as it now stands.

Other Formats Would Like This "Crisis": Some of this discussion has stemmed from last week's release of a Nielsen Audio format analysis that declared the format's 8.6 share of 18-34 listening in January to be the "lowest non-holiday book share since January 2013," and from a similar analysis of the holiday book. Now recall that in January 2013, the format was already doing better at the young end than anybody could have imagined. An 8.6 share is still an 8.6 share, and still outperforming the format's 7.5 25-54 share. It's an inevitable leveling off, but not an inevitable collapse, because…

Format Cycles Have Been Cancelled Until Further Notice: Prevailing format wisdom once required that Mainstream Top 40 put together about five good years, before entering an extreme phase (disco, rap, Linkin Park) and then doldrums. Format wisdom also held that country could only excel when top 40 was weak. Over the last decade, neither of those things have played out as expected. So who says that country's younger demos have to move on?

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Format Cycles May Have Always Been A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Anyway: When top 40 PDs panicked in the early '90s over the amount of R&B, dance, and hip-hop on the charts, they had only Wilson Phillips and Amy Grant to replace it with. Some listeners probably left top 40 over hip-hop. Others, as likely, left over too much AC music. While it's tempting to link any 18-34 decline to an overabundance of "bro country," some younger listeners may be responding to the somewhat more sober feel of the format over the last six months.

"Bro Country" Could Be A Red Herring: As Helton noted, it's not just 18-34 numbers that are down. While 25-54 is up this month, the two demos have moved largely in the same direction. There's not just an abundance of midtempo hip-hop inflected beats, there's a lack of tempo in general, which is likely being felt by everybody. 

There Is Not Another Movement Upstaging Country: Some of the early speculation has country's numbers affected by the resurgence of urban radio and by the advent of '90s-based "throwback" hip-hop and R&B formats in particular. Those stations are still a relatively limited phenomenon and in the throwback's current showplace market, Indianapolis, both country stations are actually up.

… But There Could Be: It's probably too soon to call what's happening at adult top 40, also cited in the Nielsen analysis, as a musical movement that's distracting 18-34s. But country was upstaged in the '90s by artists like Sheryl Crow and Hootie & the Blowfish who became the initial calling card for top 40's resurgence. It's too soon to say that Milky Chance and George Ezra are having the same impact, but adult top 40 is the format most specializing in the new acoustic music; (except in those few places where a mass-appeal triple-A is available). And they do have a new Taylor Swift album to play.

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Younger Demos Are a Stalking Horse: If top 40 were only an 12-24 format, it would still be the niche format that few major groups wanted to participate in as recently as the early '00s. Whatever the ostensible target the format, top 40 has thrived because of its mother/daughter coalition and its once-unheard-of 25-plus numbers. In the cume-conscious world of PPM ratings measurement, listeners (sometimes in the secondary demo) bring in other listeners (often in the primary one). PPM is full of stations whose single-demo success story (especially 18-34) is obscured by low 6-plus numbers. 

In the late '90s/early '00s, country radio was often typified by medium-weight records with some tempo, but no texture, as well as a prevailing belief that 35-plus was the natural setpoint of the format. Country's current product isn't by any means as faceless or generic as the music of that era, but there is starting to be some musical resemblance: not "bro country" but "blah country." Country PDs shouldn't choose to usher younger demos out for a number of reasons, but when the product is at its least passive, they rarely have to make that decision anyway.