Growing up in rural Arkansas, Bobby Bones had a love for country music instilled within him from day one. But upon starting his career as a radio personality, Bones (whose real name is Bobby Estell) fell into the pop sector, serving as the main host – on the aptly titled The Bobby Bones Show -- for Top 40 stations in the Austin area.
Things were going so great, that when it came time for superstar radio personalities Ryan Seacrest and Elvis Duran’s contracts to be renewed (in LA and NYC, respectively) with iHeartRadio, Bones was told he’d take the job of whomever decided not to sign again. The only problem was, neither ended up leaving.
This found Bones at a bit of a career standstill, and his team began suggesting alternate radio routes like sports or alternative. But when a country spot in Nashville opened up in the fall of 2012, it felt like the perfect opportunity to go back to his roots -- well, at least a little bit.
“I was always the pop guy that was a little too country,” Bones tells Billboard. “I talked a little too country, I brought the country artists in. Now that I’m country, I’m the country guy that’s just a little too pop – I’ve never actually had a nice safe spot where I was comfortable.”
Five years after moving platforms, Bones has practically built an empire with his now-nationally syndicated radio program. Still titled The Bobby Bones Show, it’s the biggest country music morning show in the country with more than 5 million weekly listeners – and Bones’ impact has been so prominent that he just became the youngest inductee into the National Radio Hall of Fame last night (Nov. 2). While that’s already a commendable achievement in itself, who he beat out for the honor makes it even more remarkable: The one and only Ryan Seacrest.
How did Bobby manage to top one of the most familiar faces (and voices) in the business? He’s still trying to fathom it himself, but the 37-year-old sat down with Billboard prior to his induction to discuss his impressive feat and how creating a show that sounds like “normal people” ended up triumphant.
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I wasn’t even listening to country when I came over because I was like, “Man this isn’t even real stuff, this is all dudes talking about dude stuff.” I grew up in really rural Arkansas listening to all the traditional stuff, so I had such an ego, and not in a good way, either – I felt like I could make a difference and somewhat shift the format narrative. I don’t know why I thought I could do that. And over time I’ve been able to a bit, but that’s really why I came over: I loved the format so much, I just hated where it was back then.
As corny as some of the songs were, I did kind of relate, and got why people loved them -- finally something was speaking to them, their language. I felt like it was the space that I could be the most authentic of anywhere because of how I grew up. Even though some of the songs and some of the texture wasn’t what I like, I felt like country music was more authentic, in general, than anywhere else.
That’s what my show is. I wanted to create something that didn’t sound like a radio show, that sounded like normal people. The same thing that country music does: When you feel it, it doesn’t feel like 80 producers have been in a room creating this science lab of a song -- it feels like some people wrote it about real life. So I wanted the radio show to feel like that.
I also felt like I could break artists [when I came over], and be an advocate for artists that I felt were more authentic than what was happening – and it was really a time before that was a thing to do. I would take unsigned artists and put them on the air.
The greatest story – it’s been a couple years now -- I called this guy up at home, he was a songwriter [who’d] written hits for some other people, but nobody really knew who he was. I was like, “Hey man, love your sound. Is there any way you could come on my show in town?” He was in the shower, so he dries off and calls back, “Yeah man, I’d love to come on your show.”
So he came on, and he was so good I brought him back again, and again. I started to get complaints from program directors because I kept bringing this guy in that nobody knew. But he was so good I was like, “Guys, he’s so good that it doesn’t matter that people don’t know his name. Just trust me on this one.” It got to the point where people started complaining to my main boss, who runs the format, Rod Phillips. And Rod’s like, “They’re busting my chops about this guy.” And I said, “He’s too good, I’m gonna leave him on.”
Thank God the CMA Awards happened – it was Chris Stapleton. That happened, he exploded, and from then on, everybody just left me alone.
There’d been some success in breaking artists, but that was the one I really fought for, and with that, it’s been cool because anytime I ask Chris for something, he’ll do it every time because early on I was like, “Who cares about record deals. Just come play, you’re that good.” Because of that early relationship we had, he’s been amazing. He’s played charity shows for me, anytime we’ve asked him. People don’t care, they just want quality.
With Cam, and “Burning House” – she came in the day of the single [release], and that wasn’t her single. I was like, “You have to play ‘Burning House’ acoustic.” She played it, she left, and I played it four different times on my show that day. It went to No. 1 on iTunes – [her team] called me at noon and they were like, “We have to switch the single.”
Same thing happened with Chris Janson and “Buy Me a Boat.” We’ve had about 10, 11 of those – but again, I never do it because I think commercially it’s going to be cool. And I’ve missed on a couple of them, but I don’t consider them misses. I consider them me being a constant voice and advocate of new artists on a platform where you’re so big that you’re not supposed to, because it’s all about testing and numbers, you don’t want to turn off [listeners] by playing all these new things.
Even with interviews, when I came over they were like, “Hey, you shouldn’t do longform interviews, because people don’t like to hear them.” Again, I had a humongous ego -- I was like, “I just think people don’t like to hear bad interviews.”
I take pride in how I interview people. One of the things people come to our show for most is the interaction I have with the artists; it feels very peer-to-peer. I got in trouble for an interview I did once, because I said, “Behind Howard Stern, I’m the greatest interviewer.” I said that for two reasons: One, because that’s my craft. And two, if I put that into the world, I would always be held accountable. I know every interview they’d say, “You said you were the best, so you better not suck.” So if anything, it was more of a stick to try to set my goal to and reach it.
I’ve protected more artists in the past year, to where they come in now with extra [material]. They know I may go after them, but I also can really build them to whatever I feel is the most honest thing. It’s an investment for me. There have been artists who have really said some stupid stuff or screwed up, and I said, “Hey I got you, don’t worry about it. Let me take care of this.” Building that culture has been really important, knowing that they can trust me.
I do get a lot of crap for not getting into the record part of it -- I don’t go to record parties, I don’t do trips. I’m so not social when it comes to the Nashville community, and that’s why people are like, “He’s not one of us.” But if I’m owing debts to people for flying me to Cozumel to listen to three tracks from a record, I feel like I can’t be real.
I don’t listen to new music until it’s out for listeners – the only time I listen to an advance listen is if it’s really a close friend, and I have like, one of those [Laughs]. I try to experience things like my people do. For me, that’s what makes me succeed: the people around me, the authenticity, and just being honest in the interviews. I think my audience, the country audience, we all kind of come from the same place -- it may not be the same background, but it’s always a real place.
We have built the relationship with our listeners that if I come to them and I say, “Hey, this needs help,” they go, “Okay, what do you need?” It doesn’t matter what it is – if it’s building homes for people in the military that have come back hurt, we’ve built complete houses. Even with St. Judes, we’ve raised millions of dollars. That, I did not expect to get so big, and that’s when I realized there’s really something here. And it’s way more fulfilling as a job because of that.
I got a call, they said, “Hey, you’ve been nominated for the Radio Hall of Fame.” And I thought, “Well, that’s cool to say that I’ve been nominated, and maybe in seven years I’ll get in and be pretty young to get in.” I still don’t feel like I deserve to be in it. And I thought, “That’s a really cool thing.” It’s the first time I’ve been nominated for something and actually felt honored. Looking at people who are in it -- it’s pretty cool to say that a Hall of Fame came to you, and at least acknowledged your existence.
Now, I didn’t know who was in the category. They announced it, and I was like, “Oh, c’mon, Ryan Seacrest? He’s the most famous broadcaster!” Ryan sent me a note, “Hey dude, congratulations!” And I was like, “You too, congrats on your win.” I really didn’t feel like I had a shot because it was Ryan -- especially when they went on [Live With] Kelly and Ryan and they talked about it on the TV show. And I know his team, Ryan’s always been great to me… so I’m just like, “Well, we’ll see what happens.”
Ryan’s the best at navigating a radio show. I think what we do on our show that’s the best is that we are open and honest about as much as we possibly can, even the bad stuff. Our listeners feel like they’re part of us. That’s our goal, we want them to feel like they’re part of the show, and they can get mad at us. Ryan’s not really making people mad. He knows his lane, and he’s made a lot of money perfecting his lane. My lane’s a little different -- I just want you to feel something. You can be mad at me, sad with me, happy, laugh with me. My goal is to make you feel.
I was so taken aback by the amount of support that I got, that people even care that much. And then Darius Rucker, Little Big Town, Kelsea Ballerini and various friends of mine were like, “Hey, vote for Bobby!” I was embarrassed because they were wearing shirts with my face on it – I didn’t make those shirts!
What I think it came down to was, let’s say Ryan has 10 million listeners – 10 percent of those listeners go and do something for him. But I have 5 million, and 75 percent of them vote. They told me it was the highest voting they’d ever had between Ryan and I, and Hollywood [Hamilton, who was also in the running] is also a big name. I didn’t expect to win it, and I didn’t talk about it on the show a lot. Almost none, because I didn’t want to be embarrassed when I lost. I hate being nominated for something and losing.
It still doesn’t feel real. I just don’t feel like I deserve it yet. I’m happy to have it, I’m not gonna say no. There’s not confidence [after winning]; entertainment’s full of haters -- and at times I can be a hater too -- they’re like, “Oh this guy, he doesn’t deserve it.” And they’re right, but don’t tell me that! Just be quiet. [Laughs.]
All I care about – I can either be someone of the industry, or I can be someone of the people. And I chose to be someone of the people at the sake of burning a lot of small bridges within the industry. And I’m okay with that, because I’ve built a lot of great ones with people.