Country Radio Gatekeepers Support Pop Star Collaborations (In Moderation)

Elle King and Dierks Bentley
John Shearer/Getty Images for CMT

Elle King and Dierks Bentley perform during the 2016 CMT Music awards at the Bridgestone Arena on June 8, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.

Scattered among the usual suspects in the top 20 on the Country Airplay chart are two names closely associated with pop music: Demi Lovato and Elle King. They appear in the list’s top tier thanks to their hit duets with Brad Paisley (“Without a Fight”) and Dierks Bentley (“Different for Girls”), respectively. But while collaborations between county singers and stars of other genres are certainly nothing new, there have been quite a few in recent months. And others could find their way to country radio if Kenny Chesney’s team makes a single of his recently announced partnering with Pink (“Setting the World on Fire”), if Blake Shelton’s team releases his musical hook-up with Gwen Stefani (“Go Ahead and Break My Heart”) or if Keith Urban’s team sends radio his Pitbull pairing (“Sun Don’t Let Me Down”).

The Paisley duet just may be the beginning for Lovato. In a recent interview, she talked about growing up listening to country, noting that her mother was a country singer. She calls her format debut “kind of like a dream come true,” and says, “Hopefully I’ll be doing some more of it.”

When country awards shows pepper their performer and presenter lineups with stars from other worlds, some industry insiders blast the move as defensive or reflective of an attitude that country shows need outsiders to draw viewers. Surprisingly, however, there appears to be little of that feeling among country radio programmers when it comes to collaborative singles, with many praising their ability to potentially bring in new listeners and dismissing concerns that such duets might alienate core country fans.

KMPS Seattle PD Kenny Jay expresses the view of many of his colleagues when he says, “I’m all for pop collaborations because, if done right, they can broaden the format.” Cox Media Group/Houston director of operations Johnny Chiang says, “I take it as a compliment when artists in other formats express desire to be in our little world.”

“As a programmer of both formats, I am a fan,” says CBS Radio/Phoenix vp programming Tim Richards of the pop/country collaborations. “It’s exciting for music to see artists breaking boundaries ... It is good for the [country] format overall and does bring in new listeners.”

“I like ’em,” agrees WUSN Chicago assistant PD/music director Marci Braun, who says such pairings have made her a bigger fan of some of the pop stars involved, including Lovato, whose current album she downloaded after hearing the Paisley track. “Anything that brings new people to our party is a good thing,” she says, noting that she is particularly excited to hear Chesney’s song with Pink, who she calls “a total badass.”

“I don’t mind the pop collaborations at all if done well,” says KNTY Sacramento, Calif., PD Tosh Jackson. “I know for a fact that it does bring new listeners to our format that might not have tried country at all.” He has also seen no evidence of core fans being put off by hearing pop stars on their country station and points out that many of today’s fans are more format agnostic “due to them being constantly exposed to other formats through other media outlets: Internet, TV, movies as such. Country music doesn’t have a huge footprint on mass media,” he says, “so the more exposure it can get the better.”

“With the younger end of our audience, they’re already totally familiar with artists like Demi and Elle,” agrees Braun. “They listen to everything, so it’s not out of the norm for them.”

“Our audience is smart,” adds Jackson. “If the song is bad, it doesn’t connect. If it’s good, it connects no matter who is singing it. [And] it is wonderful to see [great] musical minds work together in any format.”

WWKA Orlando, Fla., director of branding and programming Drew Bland is another fan of the pairings, agreeing with his colleagues that they don’t alienate core country fans. But he’s surprised not to have seen more reciprocity. “I can’t help but wonder why Dierks, Kenny, Brad or Keith haven’t been invited to be on Elle, Demi, Pink or Pitbull’s albums.”

Programmers still urge moderation, given country music’s propensity to sometimes go overboard when chasing trends. “When done sparingly, these collaborations do add extra appeal to our format,” says Chiang. “However, much like everything else in life, if we overload on these, then they cease to be special.” 

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.