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Country Radio Seminar Finds 100-Year-Old Medium At Crossroads: Can It Reinvent Itself (Again)?

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There's no future in the past, Vince Gill warned in a 1993 hit.

But the past has some relevance in radio's immediate future. It may provide a little context as executives ponder the medium's second century in Nashville as Country Radio Broadcasters ( C R B ) hosts the annual Country Radio Seminar (CRS) -- which began Wednesday and runs through Friday. It's a gathering that ought to feel celebratory since it precedes the 100th anniversary of broadcast radio.

When the first AM station, KDKA Pittsburgh, beamed Election Day results on Nov. 2, 1920, it started a revolution. The radio was the first electronic media available in homes, and the new kid on the block changed the game for newspapers and magazines, which suddenly had to fend off a competitor that could provide real-time information.

But as AM/FM speeds toward the century mark, it now has more in common with print, operating as a legacy platform with a whole series of newer competitors — broadcast TV, cable, satellite radio, streaming and podcasts, to name the most obvious — that have encroached on its territory.

This year's CRS is designed specifically to look ahead, attempting to navigate a crowded, fast-changing playing field with the best possible outcome.

"We want a forward-facing agenda that says to our attendees, 'How can you handle this stuff? How can you prepare yourself for the next five years?'" observes CRB executive director R.J. Curtis. "It's happening so fast that maybe the best you can prepare for is the next three years."

A handful of artist Q&As — with Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, Rascal Flatts and Carrie Underwood — are the high-profile attractions of the CRS panels. But some of the more studious presentations are the ones most likely to pay dividends to decision-makers in coming years:

• "Do Metrics Prove the Music?: 3-Year Trend Case Study" is a look at how digital statistics predict country radio's biggest hits. It will be moderated by MCA Nashville senior vp promotion Katie Dean.

• "CRS Research Presentation: Do You Know Your Listeners As Well As You Think You Do?" compares consumers' real behaviors with programmers' perceptions through a Mark Ramsey Media study.

• "Radio in the Next Decade: What's Next?" is a discussion among several upper-management executives about audio's place in the market, moderated by Radio Advertising Bureau president/CEO Erica Farber.

• "Defending Audience Share: Exclusive Research Findings" is a study of other media's competitive and overlapping effects by Futuri Media and the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communication.

All those discussions are intended to help radio repeat a cycle it has mastered for much of its 100-year history: facing a new rival and adapting to maintain its place in the media landscape.

"That's the great legacy of radio, that it has been around for 100 years," suggests Curtis. "Collectively, it has always kind of gotten together and figured out how to make itself relevant, reinvent itself. And I think that's the great challenge for radio right now."

That reinvention is significant. Through technological refinements, it has transformed from a battery-operated, at-home device that families listened to en masse to an at-work and in-car partner for individual listeners. The evolution from clunky tuning knobs to convenient pre-set buttons changed the way the audience consumed it and the way programmers attracted listeners. And even when the competition had its own advances — such as color TV and videos —radio somehow managed to survive.

But the tech change that has created its biggest current obstacle is the "Skip" button. Streaming platforms allow the consumer to bypass unwanted music while staying on the same playlist or channel. Skipping on broadcast radio means changing the channel altogether, and since programmers know consumers will do that, the goal is to simply keep them as long as possible. That means playing can't-miss hits, playing them more often and keeping them on playlists longer.

"We do it in advertising — you know, frequency sells," says Farber. "Same thing with music. Same thing with content."

Radio is already making moves to fortify itself. It continues to have the farthest reach of all audio media, counter to what critics might suggest, as 92% of Americans consume it on a weekly basis, according to Nielsen Media, ahead of TV (87%) and smartphones (81%). 

In addition to its terrestrial signal, radio has sunk its tentacles into the web, social media and digital streaming, and more companies are extending their brands through video content and podcasts. The most nerve-wracking of those developments is at iHeartMedia, which in January laid off hundreds of radio employees even as it simultaneously opens a new digital center in Nashville and hires more staff to develop and sell new-media products.

"There's a really fine line about what iHeart is doing and their vision for their company versus an entire industry," says Farber. "They have a lot of radio stations, and they have a different way of packaging their content to advertisers as well because of how many markets they're in."

She points to January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas as a sign that radio's old-school tech has a place in the future. Audio, according to a CES analysis at TheMediaOnline, is one of the hottest trends because voice-controlled apps are expected to replace keyboards and finger pads in many designs. And retro-looking devices, such as the boom box or Victrola record players, are hip again.

"We're used to using audio as a way to inform and entertain," says Farber. "We need to hold on to that [and] recognize that we've been doing this now for 100 years."

What broadcast radio's shifts mean for country artists and labels is confusing. Radio was once the primary road to exposure, but as new mediums develop, such acts as Gabby Barrett, Florida Georgia Line and Chris Bandi have shown that new names are often required to build success stories on other platforms before they ever hit broadcast radio. If women are the tomato in the programming salad, as consultant Keith Hill said controversially, then radio is now the gravy on the artist's meat-and-potatoes career path. It improves the numbers — very substantially, to be certain — but it's evolving into an add-on rather than the foundation.

Meantime, broadcasters will spend much of CRS looking at the start of radio's second century and how a long-in-the-tooth medium can remain essential, even if it doesn't have a Skip button working in its favor. What lies ahead depends on how the medium adapts its past to the future, including a basic question: Can it be the source for country's next big thing in the future? Or is it better as an enhancement? 

"One thing radio has to decide is what it's really great at," notes Curtis. "It used to be great at everything because it was the only thing. It's just so much harder."

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


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