Cumulus VP Charlie Cook Talks Label Games, Dixie Chick Snubs and Treating His Stations Like His Kids

Charlie Cook
Courtesy of Cumulus Nashville

Charlie Cook

Charlie Cook has enjoyed a more than four decade-long career as a self-described "hillbilly disc jockey" turned programmer, but his reason for embarking on a radio career in the first place is a surprising -- and very personal -- one.

"I was in ninth grade and my mother went to a PTA meeting," he recalls. She came home talking about the debate team, and suggested it might be something her son would enjoy. "She died that summer, so I took debate," says Cook. "That’s why I’m in radio."

With one comment, his mother had set him on an unexpected career path. "I wanted to be a lawyer. I think that’s why she thought debate would help," he says. "She never thought of radio. But I went into debate, and I won a statewide contest in forensics giving speeches in Michigan. My teacher said, ‘You have a good voice, you should try radio.' I [thought], 'Six years of law school, or I could be a disc jockey tomorrow?'" The choice was easy, leading him to eventually quit college to work in broadcasting full-time by age 20.

His remarkable career has included the typical nomadic existence shared by many of his peers, but he has settled into a happy groove in Nashville, where his three titles with employer Cumulus Media include vp country for the chain, operations manager for the Nashville cluster and PD of country stations WSM-FM and WKDF.

WSM-FM, branded as a “Nash Icon” station with a playlist that’s about two-thirds gold, has been the country market leader all year long, while WKDF currently is in third place behind iHeartMedia’s WSIX.

Says Cook: “It’s like having two kids, and one’s a C student and one’s an A student, but that doesn’t mean you don’t love the C student just as much. And maybe more attention is starting to get paid to the C student, so that you get them higher grades.”

Explaining the programming difference between his two “kids,” Cook says WSM-FM treats music more like an AC station would. “Primarily, I wait until the song is over on the mainstream chart, and if it fits Icon, that’s when I add it,” he says. “The beauty of Icon is, every song’s a hit or we wouldn’t play it. On KDF, we’re much more aggressive” musically.

He also attributes part of WSM-FM’s success to “the competitors playing songs 80 times a week. If you’re trying to fatigue the audience, you’ve done a fine job with it.”

Until recently, listeners could hear quite a few Dixie Chicks titles in rotation in WSM-FM’s gold library, but the group’s most recent tour -- and specifically an August stop in Nashville -- has altered that somewhat. “We’ve backed off a little bit since they have come back out on the road because they decided to be controversial again,” says Cook. “I played the hell out of them and I got complaints regularly. And then they came out [again] and said, 'Where’s your eye? I've got a thumb for it.'"

During their Nashville visit, Cook spotted the band's Natalie Maines and Martie Maguire having dinner at a local restaurant. “I knew these girls pretty well 10 years ago,” he says. “So I went over to the table and said, 'Hey, from another life, welcome to town.' There was a young lady with them who I didn’t know, and she goes, ‘So, who are you?’ and I said, 'I'm Charlie Cook with Nash and Nash Icon.' Neither Martie nor Natalie said a word. Martie acknowledged my presence. Natalie may as well have thought I was invisible. And I went, 'OK, nice to see you,’ turned around and went back to my table. I made the gesture to welcome them to town and say hello and they treated me like, 'You're radio, get away from us.' 'OK, let me get back and schedule a bunch of Dixie Chicks music,'" he says sarcastically.

Snubs aside, Cook’s biggest concern for the country format right now is what he calls “the march to number one each week without regard to a song’s real strength with listeners.

“Today a marketing plan is put in place the day the song goes for adds,” he says. “With slight adjustments, based on what other labels are doing, some of these [record-label] guys can sit down and say, 12, 14, 18 weeks in advance, ‘This is the week we’re going for number one.’ But that doesn’t address the acceptance or the strength of a record at that point. It’s simply ‘Let’s get this song to number one and get another song out,’ ” often when the first song is still in power rotation at many of the stations that helped make it a hit.

“It’s all lined up, like planes coming into BNA [Airport], that you’re going to be number one this week, and [someone else is] going to be number one [that] week. Well, what if that’s not how the listeners feel? ... It’s driving people to play a song in a particular rotation all on the same week. That’s almost delusional.”