ACM Chairman Ken Tucker Looks Ahead to the Group's Future Under New CEO Pete Fisher

Courtesy Academy of Country Music/Brandon Campbell
Ken Tucker

The Academy of Country Music may have been founded more than 50 years ago, but the Encino, Calif.-based trade organization has never been afraid to embrace change. That has rarely been more true than in 2017, when it will welcome a dynamic new CEO (it was announced Jan. 9 that longtime Grand Ole Opry vp/GM Pete Fisher will join the Academy in that role at the end of the month) and a move to a larger venue (the new location still has not been revealed) for its annual spring awards show in Las Vegas. Also fresh to his role is board of directors chairman Ken Tucker, who is enthusiastically helping usher in a new era for the venerable group. “It’s an exciting time at the Academy,” he says.

Tucker, a member of the ACM board since 2010, has embraced change in his own career as well. Initially a public school speech and hearing therapist in West Virginia, Tucker switched to a job as a country radio DJ, which in turn led to a move to Nashville and stints as a reporter (and, later, salesman) for trade publication Radio & Records, followed by an almost nine-year run as a record promoter with Warner Music Nashville before he returned to journalism as a writer for Country Airplay Monitor and its parent publication, Billboard, and later the managing editor position at Country Weekly. Tucker, who is still based in Nashville, currently heads up country and Christian music programming for iTunes and Apple Music.

Billboard: Why did the board choose Pete Fisher as CEO?
Ken Tucker: He’s so well respected in [Nashville] by artists, managers and pretty much anyone else that he’s dealt with … He’s artist-centric and genre-centric. Throughout his career he’s taken a forward-looking view at growing and exposing our format in a positive manner. He’s a great strategist and brand-planner, a great communicator within the industry, a team-builder, [and he] believes in solid partnerships.

One of the cool things that a lot of people who know Pete know is that he’s very charitably driven. He spends time regularly down in Haiti. He’s on the MusiCares board and our [own] Lifting Lives board. [At] the Academy, the profits that we generate we, in turn, donate to Lifting Lives. That Pete has such a great heart for charity was just another reason that we thought he was a perfect fit.

I’ve always been impressed with him, with the class that he exudes, with what he’s done for the genre and for the artists and what he’s done for the Grand Ole Opry. I’m so thrilled and so excited about what this means for the Academy of Country Music. He’s going to take this organization to a whole new level. We’ve never had a leader like Pete Fisher.

What did the candidate pool look like for the job?
We were blown away by the people that came forward, interested in this job … We really did have a great crop of candidates. I don’t know that we could have necessarily gone wrong. But I think we got the right guy. The process took a little longer than we hoped it would, but in the end the result is worth the time we took.

How many applicants were there?
Dozens.

ACM’s former longtime CEO, Bob Romeo, left abruptly in May 2016. What happened there?
Bob did an amazing job for us, and we were all very appreciative of what he did for the ACM. He felt like it was time to move on, so we thank him for all he’s done. This is one of many things [he initiated], but it was his decision to take us to Dallas for the 50th [ACM Awards at AT&T Stadium], and what an event that turned out to be. So we’ll always appreciate what he did, and now it’s a new day.

What are your top priorities during your one-year term as chairman?
[It’s] a very exciting time to be a part of this board because there is change coming and we need to embrace it. We’re planning a board retreat [for] strategic planning this year. We’re getting ready for our 52nd annual awards. We’re moving to a new venue, which is going to be exciting. It won’t be nearly the challenge that we had when we went to Dallas two years ago, but it will be exciting. Rather than doing [the annual] Party for a Cause, we’re doing parties for a cause, multiple events, multiple venues around Las Vegas in the days leading up to the awards to raise money for Lifting Lives. We’ll have some venues that are a couple thousand people, some that are a couple hundred people. We’re still in talks about what all that’s going to look like.

There’s just so much excitement, so much that I’m looking forward to. What I’ve tried to impart to the board is, “Don’t be afraid of change.” Change is going to happen, we embrace it, and then we move forward. I’ve also said I felt it was healthy for an organization to periodically pause and reassess if it’s on the path that it needs to be on. We may very well be, but as we name a new CEO and we move into this new board year, I just felt it was appropriate that we pause and look at making sure we’re doing the things we want to do and pursuing the path that we want to push to.

You haven’t yet announced the new awards show date or venue, but why make the change from the MGM Grand Garden Arena?
There’s an increase in some of the seating opportunities … We still have a great relationship with MGM, and that will still be our host hotel. [The new venue will] be easily accessible to folks staying at the MGM.

How do you think the ACM is perceived in the industry? Is there anything you hope to change about that during your term?
No matter how we’re perceived in relation to the Country Music Association or the Grammys or any other organization, there’s always room for growth, always room to do better. One of the reasons I can’t completely answer that question is that I think part of what we’ll do as a board in the coming months is look at a strategic plan, look at our strengths, our weaknesses, what we are doing well, what we are doing not so well and what we are not doing that we want to do. This is a great time to look at all that and then put together a strategic plan to accomplish whatever it is.

At our last board retreat many years ago, [the idea for] Lifting Lives came out of that. Lifting Lives has continued to grow, is a great representation of the ACM and does a lot of great work out in the community, whether it’s the Vanderbilt camp that we do every summer [for people with Williams syndrome] or the stuff we’re now doing with Ryan Seacrest, [building] his studios at various children’s hospitals around the world.

I don’t know what’s next per se. I just know we’ve got a great team, a great group of officers that are united in wanting to do whatever’s right for the Academy and a board that is right there with them.