As Country Radio Seminar Turns 50, Terrestrial Radio Redefines Its Role
Radio stations are still a major voice in the genre, but not the only one.
When broadcasters convene in Nashville for the 50th annual Country Radio Seminar (CRS) running Wednesday to Friday this week, they will find their industry in a much different position than it occupied during the first convention in 1970.
At that time, the U.S. boasted roughly 600 full-time country stations. They were mostly locally owned AM signals in smaller markets with the music presented between blocks of news, talk, farm reports and play-by-play sportscasts. Callout research, satellite radio and streaming platforms did not exist, so the country program director and music director were often the genre's lone tastemakers in a given market.
Now 2,000 stations program country full time, with corporate program directors sometimes making decisions for more than 100 stations, most of them FM signals with one or more country rivals in the market.
The pie is larger, but the competition is greater, stock prices play a larger role in management decisions and Nielsen Music now measures many markets year-round through Personal People Meters rather than the old, intermittent diary method. In context, the radio industry -- which felt in another era like an exciting gateway to a larger world -- seems an extraordinarily conservative medium.
"It's very high risk," says Country Radio Broadcasters executive director R.J. Curtis. He is overseeing this year's CRS in tandem with Bill Mayne, who will leave the organization in May. "That's why you see radio playing it safe."
But not everybody. The same spirit one associates with country programmers at that first CRS -- avid country music supporters who were passionate about broadcasting and sharing new music with their audience -- still exists, even if it's seemingly more difficult to identify.
Much more research is built into programming today than in 1970 and many country record promoters bemoan radio executives' reticence to any risk associated with adding records based solely on their ears. But there are, in fact, stations and programmers who thrive by consistently jumping on new music. KKBQ Houston, WKLB Boston and Florida's WPCV Lakeland and WOGK Gainesville-Ocala were all examples mentioned by promoters and Stone Door Media Lab partner Jeff Green, who will appear in a Thursday CRS panel, "The Metrics That Matter to Predict Radio Hits." And everyone in a small, informal poll cited KRTY San Jose, California, general manager Nate Deaton for his efforts trying to focus more on building and keeping listeners than worrying about them leaving the station.
"There's so much fear in programming to have someone tune out," says Deaton. "Well, guess what? They're going to. It's the nature of 2019. Attention span is not very long, so there is no programmer in the world that is going to play 14 songs an hour that every single person who listens to the radio station is going to like. It's not going to happen."
Accepting that every listener tunes out frees Deaton to move more aggressively on music, knowing that early adoption of an unproven hit carries short-term risk. Not all of those records will prove to be a winner, and he certainly tempts some of that dreaded tune-out, but it also has long-term benefits. KRTY was an early believer in Luke Bryan and Eric Church in the mid-2000s. Playing their first records and booking them for small shows at Club Rodeo when they were struggling has not been forgotten now that they're superstars.
"We get stuff here from the big artists that nobody else gets," says Deaton, citing, for example, an event that gave listeners a chance to attend one of Church's sound checks.
WHKO Dayton, Ohio, program director and morning host Nancy Wilson, one of the speakers on the CRS metrics panel, is similarly among those who add music early. She cites the general atmosphere at Cox Media, which promotes an edgier programming attitude, but she also shares a trait with Deaton that is unusual in the radio business: She has lived in her market her entire life, giving her a gut-level understanding of the community and its tastes.
"I live and breathe this area," she says. "You know their kids and what they're liking, and that does come into play sometimes. Something that you know will work well here in the Dayton area may not necessarily work well in Houston or may not test well in Chicago or even in Tulsa, but I guess I know my peeps. I am a peep."
While many programmers are more likely to make safe choices with their music, they might still show some enthusiasm for the format in ways they simply can't express in their playlist decisions.
"They have a lot of strong opinions and passion and favorites and stuff," says Curtis, "but some of them work for a company where they're not one of the tastemakers deciding who the 'On the Verge' artist is for the next six weeks. They're told to play it."
Part of the break between safe programming and aggressive music decisions is caused by technological issues. When a song pops up on Pandora or Spotify that the listener doesn't like, they can skip it while staying in the playlist. But to radio, a skip means turning to a different station. Thus, program directors try to avoid songs that are not proven mass-appeal hits.
Wilson takes a different approach. WHKO went early on singles by then-unproven talents Mitchell Tenpenny, Jimmie Allen and LANCO, trusting gut instincts while putting the station on the front edge of their eventual success.
"It's your obligation to introduce your listeners to something you know that they would like," she says. "Sometimes they don't know that they are going to like it until they hear it because it sounds a little bit different. When Jason Aldean did 'Dirt Road Anthem' -- oh, my gosh, remember the uproar over that because it had rap in it?"
Underneath it all, modern country radio programmers' caution may not be as extreme as perceived. The same year that CRS debuted, artist manager Paul Soelberg penned an extensive editorial in Billboard called "Modern Country Radio: Friend or Foe?" that chided broadcasters for tight rotations, a hyper-focus on superstars and a hesitancy to add new music. The barbs were similar to radio criticisms leveled in 2019.
In fact, nearly every country broadcaster in 1970 was in it for the love of the music, says SiriusXM host Charlie Monk, who co-founded CRS and is believed to be the only person to have attended all 50 years. They got to put that love into the product, too. The passion was felt every year at CRS and Monk argues that the seminar helped change the dynamic in country radio by inspiring station owners to change formats, thus increasing country's competition.
"Quite frankly, CRS created in my mind a mass interest in programming country top 40 music," suggests Monk. "You'd have a station that was like fourth or fifth in the market, and you didn't know what the hell to do, and [the general manager] came to CRS just to get some sales ideas out of it. He didn't just steal the sales ideas. He tried programming country music all day long. Thus, they became the No. 2 station in the market."
Country radio remains No. 1 in terms of its ability to expose the genre, though its role has changed as a platform for music discovery. Some stations still own a tastemaker reputation in their market, as they would have in 1970. But SiriusXM and streaming platforms are eroding that point for terrestrial country as a whole. The genre's stations arrive at the 50th CRS as a major voice in country, but not the sole one.
"Country radio gets to be the star on top of the tree, if you will, and that's a very important role," says Green. "That is the final legitimizer of what is a huge hit."