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Country Radio Seminar: An Older Medium Looks for Youthful Passion

Mickey Guyton
Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Universal Music Group

Mickey Guyton attends the Universal Music Group's 2020 Grammy after party presented by Lenovo at Rolling Greens Nursery on Jan. 26, 2020 in Los Angeles. 

Mickey Guyton has yet to earn a hit record, but she commandeered a standing ovation from broadcasters with a new song that was widely regarded as the stand-out musical moment of Country Radio Seminar.

Was it a breakthrough moment? That can only be assessed by programmers’ responses in the weeks and months ahead, but it subtly pointed to radio’s current challenge: Do broadcasters play it safe in a crowded media field? Or do they take a chance on a talented artist who took her own risk on a song that has the potential to change a listener’s life?

Guyton belted a gut-wrenching piano ballad, “What Are You Gonna Tell Her,” during the Universal Music Group Nashville (UMGN) showcase on Feb. 20 at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The song explores culture’s hypocritical treatment of women: Daddies’ girls are told they can do anything, but when they step into the real world, they discover they must fend off unwanted advances and are likely to get passed over in the workforce, only to hear that “it’s been that way all along.” Guyton’s tone and range were awesome, the song was powerful, and her courageous portrait of systemic injustice got the audience on its feet in the room.

Still, the post-show response was mixed. Some executives viewed it as an important message, but privately insisted it would never air on their station. Beasley country brand manager/WKLB Boston PD David Corey told a panel, “I would play that tomorrow.”

Commercial radio marks its 100th anniversary in November, and CRS panelists acknowledged it as a platform in a quandary. It still reaches the masses, remaining the most-listened-to media, but the actual time spent listening is dwindling, and 18- to 34-year-old country fans now devote more time to streaming in an average week than they do to traditional broadcast radio. Additionally, programmers’ beliefs about the audience have not kept up with changes in the playing field, or even their customers’ definition of radio.

Younger listeners no longer view radio as a place that transmits music from a tower, researcher Mark Ramsey said while unveiling a study of how consumers’ perceptions of broadcasting differ with PDs’ expectations. Most of them consider the medium to be music on their phone, tablet, desktop or in-car radio — whether transmitted by satellite or AM/FM waves. Radio, said Ramsey, is “whatever platform gives me the music I want when I want it.”

With so many options available, PDs who worry only about losing their audience to a rival broadcast signal are thinking way too small.

“Competition,” said Ramsey, “is anything that competes for my attention.”

As a result, stations were encouraged to spread out in the marketplace, with heavy presence in social media, podcasts and both audio and video online. With the nation’s largest chain, iHeartMedia, pursuing a business model that relies increasingly on nationally broadcast shows and digital content, that changes the game for other stations in local markets. Competing outlets may be able to use their local niche as a competitive weapon, though being a part of the community is less important to listeners than the music itself, according to Ramsey’s study. And those local talents will need to rise to the national quality level if they are to succeed.

“DJ-hosted shows are a competitive advantage when they’re great,” said Ramsey. “They’re an obstacle when they’re not.”

But finding great talent is increasingly difficult because the employee pool is influenced as much by the new media as the audience.

“Students want to brand on social media,” noted University of Florida director of radio programming Rob Harder. “They don’t care so much about being on the air.”

Complicating the issue, the music can’t be the only attraction. Spotify and Pandora are music-intensive, and they have built-in advantages, including Skip buttons and the subscriber option to avoid commercials.

“If you are just a jukebox,” noted Townsquare senior vp programming Kurt Johnson in a later panel, “that isn’t really a differentiation.”

Plenty of artists found ways to differentiate themselves. Hot Country Knights, a Dierks Bentley side project, dressed in retro-redneck fashion for “Pick Her Up” during the UMGN show. New Big Machine artist Payton Smith came off as an energetic, updated American Fool-era John Mellencamp during the Feb. 21 lunch showcase. And Gabby Barrett’s Feb. 19 delivery of the seminar-opening national anthem — wrought with flutter, scratch and force — set her apart as a new vocalist.

A clinical panel showed how programmers can use such tools as streaming data, Shazam and most-added status to sort through the options and find the most likely hits for their markets. But even that presentation from Stone Door Media Lab partner Jeff Green came with a panel-ending caveat.

“Music is supposed to be something that hits you in the feels,” observed MCA Nashville senior vp promotion Katie Dean, “so take this all with a grain of salt.”

That passion for music was echoed throughout the seminar — as Eric Church said during a keynote Q&A, “We all are in this room because, at some time, music did something to us.” And that’s where Guyton’s performance raises the biggest questions. As terrestrial broadcasting moves into its second century, it faces stiff competition from the other platforms that consumers think of as radio, as well as from video games, social media and TV. The on-air talent needs to be as crisp, inventive and engaging as possible to keep listeners. And the music, which researchers insist is still the biggest attraction for consumers, has to inspire them, too.

“If you don’t give them the music that they want, they have other places to go,” Shopkeeper Management owner Marion Kraft, who manages Miranda Lambert and Tenille Townes, noted during a panel on women in country.

So how will music directors respond to Guyton’s passionate song? Her performance clearly inspired the gatekeepers at the Ryman. Does broadcast radio want to take a chance that what inspires them might also inspire their audience? Radio’s dilemma is one that has sounded through the hallways at CRS since its inception, and it applies not just to programmers, but to every facet of the modern music business.

“We need more shepherds,” said Kraft. “We need less sheep.”


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