Country Radio Goes Pop: How Formats Shift When Genres Cross

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Ed Sheeran attends his live concert at the Mercedes Benz Arena on March 7, 2015 in Shanghai, China. 

It's not often that radio stations do something distinctive enough to get other radio people talking, but at least two reached out to me within a few minutes of each other on Monday and all it took was the addition of a few pop titles to two different country stations. For country KSCS Dallas, it was playing Ed Sheeran's "Don't" and "Thinking Out Loud' as well as Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney's "FourFive Seconds." And Cumulus sister WNSH (Nash 94.7) New York had been heard playing '90s and '00s gold from acts like Daughtry, John Mayer and Plain White T's over the weekend. 

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Ironically, the alerts came in as I was starting to write a profile of top 40 KSXY (Y100.7) Santa Rosa, Calif. That station recently shifted to an all-current format, adding both alternative and country titles not usually heard at CHR. The latter included current hits from Brett Eldredge, Jason Aldean, Cole Swindell, Darius Rucker, Thomas Rhett, Miranda Lambert, Kelsea Ballerini and more. 

In addition to the handful of pop titles heard, WNSH is also playing at least a half dozen gold titles from Taylor Swift that were either off the station or, in the case of songs like "Should've Said No" and "Fifteen," were never played there as oldies in the past. There have also been appearances by Hootie & the Blowfish (now better known as country core artist Rucker's former act) and, according to a Nielsen BDSradio monitor, the Kelly Clarkson solo version of "Because Of You."  

Pop/country crossover is a discussion that goes back to the early days of both formats. Cumulus' WSM-FM Nashville went through a period of including classic rock titles in the mid-'00s. It tends to fizzle out during times when country radio is healthy and even a few pop titles would have been a few more than most PDs wanted to acknowledge. But recently, the simultaneous success of both formats with 18-34 listeners has been hard to ignore. WKAZ (Tailgate 107.3) Charleston, W. Va., launched last year with a broad format spanning country, top 40, hip-hop and active rock.

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Presentationally, KSCS set up Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" with a liner along the lines of "if it's new and it's hot, you'll hear it on KSCS." Nash has been heard going into Swift with a stager about "all of today's hottest country." Listener response on Twitter has been mixed: a listener complaint about Ellie Goulding on KSCS, but several thank you tweets for Sheeran, including one hash-tagged "#PleasantSurprises.

It is important to note that this is an hours-old experiment involving a handful of titles. Forays of this sort have been known to end quickly, or even be diversionary tactics for some other change. But the ongoing scrutiny of country and pop radio's relationship is real. So the following is worth noting.

The Connection is Acoustic Pop: Country radio finding 18-34 and even teen fans was a surprise, but so is the young-end success of artists like Sheeran in the first place. In the past, the acoustic mantle has gone back and forth between country and pop -- Garth Brooks brought James Taylor and Billy Joel fans to country; Hootie & the Blowfish and Sheryl Crow helped repatriate them. At this moment, however, acoustic pop is a significant part of both formats. In an "everybody listens to everything" age, why would young listeners necessarily understand Sam Hunt and Sam Smith as two different genres?

18-34 Is In Play, Maybe: A month after Country Radio Seminar, Nielsen has issued another monthly format report again showing country's 18-34 listening off. "February's 8.4% [share of national listening is the lowest non-holiday-book 18-34 result for the format since December 2012." But that 8.4 share is still good for second place among 18-34s. By contrast, country is second 25-54 with a 7.4 share and third overall with a 7.6. Whatever the motivations of KSCS and WNSH (and playing Counting Crows would seem to go beyond courting younger demos), this is likely to be seen in the context of the ongoing 18-34 discussion.

Hybrids Are Harder In Execution: Programmers have struggled for more than 25-years with the idea of a country/classic rock hybrid. It seems obvious, but there's never quite the depth of enduring crossover to make the blend work. There are always a few acoustic pop songs that would seem to fit. ("Ho Hey" just happened to be by a Triple-A act. "FourFive Seconds" sounds like "Ho Hey" and just happens to be by Rihanna. But Sheeran's "Sing" and "Thinking Out Loud" are two very different songs.) But there's never quite enough for a category without digging.

New York Has Always Been Different: WHN New York, the station that defined country in non-lifegroup markets in the late '70s, was known for playing pop crossovers. But so was WYNY in the late '80s, when "End of the Line" by the Traveling Wilburys was a country hit in New York. Starting with its name, New York's "Nash-FM" was determined to treat New York as just another country market. Two years later, it's still trying to reach beyond the two-share core. I'd be more inclined to Ed Sheeran than Counting Crows, but some pop material is probably right for this particular market.

Negotiating Swift Currents: Among younger fans, country quickly became more than just Taylor Swift. For some PDs, Swift was always confounding. But Swift was certainly where the momentum started for many listeners. And it didn't go unnoticed by country PDs that top 40 and hot adult contemporary had a Swift album to play last fall, when country did not. So perhaps the real discussion is about whether country should acknowledge Swift's last single, "Blank Space," which has also shown up on KSCS today, and the current "Style." And just because Swift and Ellie Goulding are now working in a similar musical idiom doesn't mean that stations should consider playing both.