Country Radio Remains Wary of Acts From TV Talent Shows: Are Its Fears Justified?

Robby Klein
Michael Ray photographed in 2015.

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Despite — or perhaps because of — the large number of artists that have been channeled into the country format by way of reality TV talent competitions — country radio has long had a fractious relationship with the genre. For every built-to-last star like Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Chris Young that first rose to fame singing on TV, there’s an artist like The Voice winner Craig Wayne Boyd and X Factor winner Tate Stevens that came and went from the airwaves (and their major-label record deals) seemingly in an instant.

In some cases, labels have responded to country radio programmers’ wariness of acts with TV backgrounds by downplaying the issue. WEA, for instance, de-emphasized the fact that Michael Ray, who recently landed his first No. 1 hit, was the winner of the first and only season of the CW network competition The Next in 2012. WEA VP national promotion Jordan Pettit admits, “It’s something that was never really talked about, or even acknowledged in a lot of ways. I’m not sure how many people even watched that show, and it was so long ago that I don’t think people put two and two together.”

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In addition to Underwood, Lambert, Young and Ray, acts with TV reality show backgrounds currently signed to significant Nashville labels include Nashville Star alum Kacey Musgraves; American Idol’s Scotty McCreery, Kellie Pickler and Lauren Alaina; and The Voice’s Cassadee Pope, the Swon Brothers, RaeLynn and Danielle Bradbery. 
The new season of The Voice, which started last week, is likely to bring even more.

So other that an undeniable hit song, what does it take for a reality TV finalist to actually make it at country radio? What created the stigma that radio has associated with TV talent show contestants, and does it still exist? We took these questions to a group of prominent country radio programmers, who shared their perspectives.

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“The only thing these TV shows can do is raise a singer’s profile,” says CBS Radio Houston vp programming Bruce Logan. “They can’t make hit songs or even create lasting fans. It all comes down to the music and the star quality of the individual.”

He’s not alone in thinking the quality of the act’s first single matters more than their history on TV. “You need a hit, and quick,” says WLHK Indianapolis PD Fritz Moser of TV talent show finalists making their way to radio. “People have short attention spans and move on to bond with other contestants on a similar show.” WCTK Providence, R.I., PD Bob Walker also believes it’s all about the strength of the single chosen for radio. “There is no jumping the line,” he says. “You need a good enough song to even make the music meeting.”

Others say that’s just the start, and agree with Logan that “star quality” and other intangible factors come into play. WBEE Rochester, N.Y., operations manager Bob Barnett says “an aura of authenticity and affinity” for country music, or a perception that the artist has a “long-term investment” in the format “greases the wheels of momentum.” He is perpetually wary of acts that seem to “just want to experiment and play in the country sandbox.”

“To get that first break, they really do have to have that first great hit song,” says Sue Wilson, vp/director of operations for WQMX Akron, Ohio. “From that point, though, it’s all about what comes next. The artist has to be with a label and management that is able to support them in every way, [from] proper promotion … to advising them on the right steps, the radio tours, playing the right gigs and so on.”

“In addition to a great song, they also need the ‘package’ — the looks, charisma and, frankly, the desire to grind it out and get to know people old-school,” says Tom Hanrahan, operations manager/PD at WDXB Birmingham, Ala. “Sometimes the artists just naturally expect us to know them and their music because they assume we’ve watched their journey and know everything about them. Not true. I don’t have time to watch TV that much, and I think most programmers still like the one-on-one radio visit so we can get to know them … Just because you’ve won a big reality TV show competition, that doesn’t make me go, ‘Oh wow, I have to add that record.’ ”

Hanrahan also believes the artists need to be better prepared for radio. “Some of the ones that didn’t make it I think were literally thrown in a car, handed a rushed project and told to go and make it happen,” he says. “That’s not on the artist — that’s someone’s agenda of do it fast so [they] can seize the moment of national press. I get that, but these acts go from singing at church or local clubs to a national stage, and then we expect them to have the emotional IQ to be able to handle radio, events, et cetera and do it flawlessly. We help them make it when we give them a little more time to learn and mature rather than throw them into the blender.”

KNMB Minneapolis PD Kenny Jay also has concerns about “rushed” projects, as well as a worry that some acts “were given to country because they didn’t really have a landing spot in other formats. For winners, I’d rather wait for great music than try to ride the wave of the show with subpar music that was rushed,” he says.

In addition to star quality and proper support, KZSN Wichita, Kan., PD Brian Jennings says there also needs to be audience support for the act. “It can’t simply be ‘I was on TV.’ There has to be a clear demand,” he says. “A fierce SoundScan debut usually helps us sort them out.”

But where does country radio’s ongoing wariness about acts from TV come from? Jay thinks it has to do with the fact that some of the shows emphasize backstory over talent, which may “pull you through with OK music” — something that works fine for TV, but not radio.

Others say the problem stems from the perception that these artists have not yet paid their dues. Wilson, for instance, favors “singers and songwriters who play the small gigs, work locally, then regionally, then make the move to Nashville and work hard there to get that label deal. Should I care that a hit song is delivered to me from a reality show? Probably not. But somehow, I do.”

“There’s a certain degree of resentment for those that are depicted as sliding into fame without years of work,” agrees Jennings. “But TV is still an overall positive if you are connecting with the audience.”

“Sometimes [programmers] feel like the talent still has to prove themselves,” adds Hanrahan. “To our format’s credit, everyone wants in … [but] radio programmers are more likely to be ‘wait and see’ vs. just trusting these artists can sing because we know them from TV … The reality is, no one gets a free pass.”

Logan brings up two other concerns. First, he says, “what history tells us about artists who ‘create fan bases’ from TV shows is that typically these TV shows have fan bases that are much older than my stations’ target audience. Additionally, these shows cover all genres of music. So just because artist A gets a nation of adoring fans doesn’t mean they are country fans.” He also notes that of the artists who have come from TV, “the number that actually hit and have staying power is miniscule.”

On a more positive note, Moser thinks artists who build a fan base while appearing on a TV show is “a huge advantage for the act and part of their story. It’s a big advantage for radio too. Those listeners who crave and discover new music will instantly be familiar with them.” And Jay agrees that “the fame from the show is a bonus for everyone involved.”

But Moser cautions, “If it’s not a strong song for the performer, it won’t outlive the TV afterglow.”