Country Radio Confronts a Jumbled Future: 'We Need to Throw Out Our 1980s Playbook'

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Radio pros have their work cut out for them, according to data presented at this year's (all virtual) Country Radio Seminar.

Country Radio Seminar may have been experienced by attendees in the isolation of their own homes or offices — thanks, COVID-19 — but there were plenty of elephants crowding the room.

The pandemic, for one, reared its head in just about every panel discussion or showcase conversation during the convention, held Feb. 16-19. The issue of country's racial disparities — keyed by a series of national incidents since May and accelerated by Morgan Wallen's use of a racial slur in February — spurred one of the most discussed panels in the conference's history as Maren Morris and Luke Combs challenged country to improve its performance. And the increasing growth of digital tools and competitors arguably earned more attention from broadcasters than the actual sound transmitted across their AM and FM signals.

Streaming Pile of Data

Looming particularly large was a comprehensive research study, presented by NuVoodoo, that showed country's most dedicated listeners who consume music do so more frequently online than on traditional radios.

Also troubling for the medium is the way fans are exposed to new music: 1 out of 4 listeners hears songs for the first time via radio broadcasts, a larger number than any other single source, though when the individual digital platforms — Amazon Music, YouTube, Apple Music, Spotify and Pandora — are combined, they account for 60% of first-time exposure, more than double terrestrial's turf. The difference is even more pronounced among adults aged 18-24, who will be among country's core listeners in the next decade.

"That hurt our heart a little bit," said KNCI Sacramento, Calif., PD Joey Tack, "but if we don't hear that, how are we going to adapt?"

Strategies are certainly available. They include better educating listeners about how to find their station on digital platforms and increasing the audience's use of the station with smart speakers, which are now employed daily in 39% of homes and accessed at least weekly in 73% of homes, many of which no longer own a traditional AM/FM radio.

Stations were also encouraged to harness the power of digital tools, particularly social media, in building brands and awareness in consumers' minds. The array of platforms has become daunting — Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. — and integrating them all with bare-bone staffs is one of the largest challenges of the 21st century. An out-of-format guest — Tino Cochino, the host of Yea Networks' syndicated top 40 show Tino Cochino Radio — noted that his team has developed a sort of conveyor-belt approach. The crew tapes a weekly podcast of freestyle conversation. The best of that material gets developed into on-air bits, which are then teased and disseminated across socials, often influencing the next freestyle podcast.

"It's a rotating door of content through every platform that we have," said Cochino.

Embracing What Sets Radio Apart

That human-generated content is perhaps radio's best competitive advantage, several panelists noted. Consumers can find new music that has been tailored to their tastes on numerous platforms, but few digital outlets offer the relatability that a well-prepared personality presents.

And, as the pandemic has proven, fans aren't particularly bothered by interruptions from the hosts' kids or less-than-perfect audio quality. It's the connection that matters most.

"Authenticity of the content is key," said Elevate Marketing founder/chief researcher Nicole Bergen, who used a puzzle to symbolize the jumbled future that radio is facing.

Radio also would do well to examine the balance of its content. Country fans are pleased overall with the quality of modern country, according to the NuVoodoo study, though they would prefer some tweaks. The data suggested fans were more open to hearing new music than expected, and KUZZ Bakersfield, Calif., PD Brent Michaels noted that apps make it easy for the listener to gain knowledge about a song, turning unfamiliar material into a familiar title with just a few clicks. Women and older listeners would prefer less repetition of current hits and more gold titles, though Big Machine GM Clay Hunnicutt, a former programmer, insinuated that a wide mix of eras and classic titles would perform better than a narrow selection.

"You don't want the ‘oh wows' to turn into ‘oh nos,' " he said.

Diversity On Display

Women were also cognizant of the gender imbalance in the music, desiring to hear a more even mix of male and female voices, NuVoodoo Media president Carolyn Gilbert indicated.

That male/female split drew less attention this year than Black/white controversies. Combs, who was recently disparaged online for photos that featured him with Confederate flag imagery, said during a conversation with NPR contributor Ann Powers about race in country music that there "is no excuse" for those pictures. He indicated the photos were taken at a time when he saw the flag as a symbol of Southern pride and not a relic of slavery. He apologized and indicated he has "grown a lot as a man."

"No matter what I thought it meant at the time … I would never want to be associated with something that brings so much hurt to someone else," he said. "I want people to be happy, I want people to feel accepted, I want people to feel welcomed by country music and our community."

Morris went even further, maintaining that in failing to promote African American talent, the country industry and its broadcast partners have placed chains on the format's potential.

"By shutting out Black writers and Black artists, you have no idea if you're shutting out the next hit song," she said. "Imagine over the last 50 years the songs that we haven't gotten to hear because we shut the doors in a Black person's face. We've got to change that moving forward."

Showcases and Awards

The virtual nature of this year's CRS was a significant change, though organizers are optimistic it will be different by 2022, when the convention is slated for Feb. 23-25 at the Omni Nashville Hotel. Many of CRS' historic features were present, but with minor alterations. Thomas Rhett led "Bob Kingsley's Acoustic Alley," a songwriter showcase that used a rural backdrop that Rhett had photographed. Eric Church, Parker McCollum and Lauren Alaina were among the acts on Universal Music Group Nashville's annual show at the Ryman Auditorium, performing with their backs to the empty seats, allowing the venue's stained-glass windows to provide the background. The New Faces Show was carefully orchestrated to keep the artists and Cumulus personality Elaina Smith safely distanced. Luke Bryan was surprised with the annual artist humanitarian award, typically revealed in advance, during the final panel on Feb. 19.

Along the way, CRS producers and attendees picked up some new skills and perspectives on their product by holding a virtual edition. That mirrors the music and radio businesses, which are moving with a mix of hope and uncertainty into the future. Perhaps that's a future in which today's elephants in the room become extinct or are reduced to the size of a mouse.

"We need to throw out our 1980s radio playbook about what to do when numbers go up or what to do when numbers go down," said Cox Media Group country format leader Johnny Chiang. "We need to just keep an open mind and be ready to reinvent. Quickly."

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.