Country Radio Seminar Finds Broadcasters Accepting New Realities & Seeking Ways to Get Radio Back in the Home

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Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.

After decades in which radio practically owned the marketplace for music discovery, the advent of music streaming in the last decade threw broadcasters into the five stages of grief, famously established by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. As the genre's terrestrial gatekeepers gather at the Country Radio Seminar for their annual education and networking convention in Nashville Feb. 5-7, those broadcasters seem to have fully entered the acceptance stage for the first time. Instead of resisting the changes in the business, the seminar's agenda fully embraces the multiplatform landscape. At least as much attention is paid in the panels to relatively new music-delivery systems -- smart speakers, Facebook and streaming companies, for example -- as to the content on the AM and FM bands.

"As a culture, we're not going to get less digital, we're not going to spend less time on our smartphones," says Cumulus vp programming operations Greg Frey, who chaired the CRS agenda committee for Country Radio Broadcasters. "So I think it's all about realizing where our listeners are at any given moment of the day and how we can extend our radio brand to reach them on the available platforms."

Thus, a full hour is devoted specifically to Facebook on Feb. 6. And on Feb. 7, competing morning panels will find one room devoted to the art and revenue potential of podcasting, while another titled "The Matrix of the Metrics" explores how programmers can use data from other music companies -- including Pandora rankings and Shazam tags -- to better identify hits. Yet -another Feb. 7 session, "You Are a Brand: How to Build a Fan Base You Can Monetize," examines how best to unify a station or a personality across both modern social media platforms and old-school approaches, including live remote appearances and on-air endorsements.

"About four years ago, a couple of my brethren on the radio side took issue with me," recalls CRB executive director Bill Mayne, "because I basically said, 'Look, you know, you're really not a radio guy. You're -really a branded-content guy.'"

Even the artist Q&A panels seem to embrace the multipoint personality. Dierks Bentley, who received the organization's artist humanitarian of the year award during the opening ceremonies on Feb. 5, was the centerpiece of a day-one chat at a time when he has expanded on his music career with an entrepreneurial investment into a bar/restaurant chain, Whiskey Row. The company recently opened its fourth location in downtown Nashville, walking distance from the convention's home base at the Omni Nashville Hotel. Brad Paisley, whose onstage interview will close  CRS' panels event on Feb. 7, is a master of multiple content skills beyond the music: a smart Twitter user, a self-deprecating Nationwide pitchman and a bit of a visual artist with a hands-on approach to set design, animation and a mural he co-created at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Brad Paisley direct a film someday," says Mayne.

Both Bentley and Paisley grew as artists at times when their revenue was expanding. Radio as an industry has battled the tech sector in an era when it has been financially challenged. Two of its largest companies, Cumulus and iHeartMedia, are struggling against mountains of debt, much of which piled up after the 1996 passage of the Telecommunications Act and before the maturation of competing digital platforms. Cumulus, which has filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan to reorganize, was officially delisted from the NASDAQ exchange on Feb. 5. Meanwhile, iHeart missed a $106-million debt payment on Feb. 1, leading some analysts to predict a bankruptcy filing in the coming days or weeks.

Because of those financial constraints, radio stations have routinely cut staff at the same time that the number of programming and marketing platforms has increased.

"As programmers, our main job is still to make the radio station sound great," notes Frey. "Once we've done that, we have all those other things that we've got to do. We have to make sure the stream is right, we have to see what jocks are podcasting. So there are probably more things on the programmers' plate than at any other time in broadcasting."

Radio still has immense reach, with studies routinely indicating that more than 90 percent of the population still uses it on a regular basis. But listening times have fallen. Home listening has all but disappeared, as cell phone clocks have replaced the bedside radio alarm as the wake-up signal for the majority of the population.

Yet a new device provides one reason radio is better able to accept its condition in the high-tech era. Smart speakers, such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home, streamline home functions and provide content on demand, with one in six households now using them. Edison Media's annual CRB-funded research presentation on Feb. 6 will focus on how stations can take advantage of that development. Country, an Edison teaser suggests, is better poised than most formats to benefit.

"This is probably the event that I'm looking forward to most," says Frey. "The smart speaker potentially is a true game-changer for radio -because it is getting radio back in the home, a space we haven't owned in quite a while. A lot of people got them for the holidays for gifts -- Echo or Echo Dot -- and as a radio guy, I'm really thrilled to have the opportunity to say, 'How are we going to educate our listeners to allow us again in the home?' "

Radio may not be the runaway leader for music discovery anymore, but its continued penetration has allowed it to maintain a stronger place in the media mix than many were predicting -- particularly in country, where the 25-54 target audience still finds radio an easy way to access music and information during the stressful drive to and from work. The fact that terrestrial is free remains a key strength, and CRS hopes to inspire its participants to rebuild their brands now that they've finally come to terms with the death of the old model and the reality of the new, more challenging landscape. Mayne, in fact, has gone past acceptance and is beginning to view broadcasting and its multiple ways of connecting to the audience with a renewed optimism.

"The fortune tellers were telling us 20 years ago, 'You're going to die,'" he says. "We didn't know that we were going to reconfigure ourselves this way, but we haven't died. We've actually gotten stronger."