Country

Country Radio Confidential: Radio PDs Reveal All

Illustration by Kiersten Essenpreis

What makes a hit now? In large part, the programmers behind the terrestrial airwaves, guided by data, audience and gut.

YouTube and Spotify may reliably push songs up the charts, but for country music in particular, terrestrial radio still rules. That means that the program directors for the 2,200 country stations in the United States wield unique power: They can break potential stars, keep superstars atop the charts and support or ignore the many critically acclaimed women artists still struggling for playlist slots. Their decision-making process may seem shrouded in mystery, but it’s anything but arbitrary. They draw on gut instinct, but also rely upon callout research and streaming service data. “We’re not an art form,” says one of five country radio PDs who spoke anonymously for this story. “We’re a business.”

 

How would you describe your station’s relationship with labels?

Labels are always imploring radio stations — and now they have DSPs [digital service providers] to help them — to help break new artists. You want us to take chances on those, we will. But you can’t flip it around and tell us that just because a mediocre song from an established artist happens to be No. 12 on the chart, it’s time to play it heavy now. You can’t have it both ways.

What public streaming data is useful?

I have callout [research], and I use Airplay Intel, MScore and [Nielsen’s] Portable People Meter. Callout comes back and our audience says they hate a song? We have to listen to them. But if people are seeking it out on streaming, if Shazams are high, that gets our attention. Digital consumption probably goes into our decision-making process about 25% to 30%.

For some time now, country radio has been criticized for not playing enough female artists. Are you addressing this at your stations?

When this became a topic, I was happy. It should be something we discuss. But I do feel progress is being made. Gabby Barrett has made a pretty big splash. Tenille Arts just had a No. 1 single [on Mediabase]. Priscilla Block is doing well. Lainey Wilson — this is a lady who sounds coun-try, and the song [“Things a Man Oughta Know”] is doing well. Is it fast enough for everyone? No, but we are moving in the right direction.

 

How do you decide whether to add a song?

If I like it. Sometimes the lyrics are so silly but you go, “Man, that is such a cool groove.” And sometimes there’s no groove at all; it’s kind of a torch song, but the story is so magnificent. That’s how I feel about “Where I Find God” by Larry Fleet. On the balance, it’s, “Do I like the song? Does it viscerally hit me?” Whether it’s uptempo or downtempo, or a female singing it or a male — if I like it, then we go from there.

Do you ever like a song but reject it because it isn’t a fit for your station?

I’ve definitely done that. I’ve been doing this long enough to know, “Yeah, that’s not going to work,” or “I like it but it’s probably got too much pedal steel,” or “It’s got too much rap in it.” The new Florida Georgia Line and Nelly record [“Lil Bit”] — I think it’s cool, I really do, but it doesn’t sound anything like the radio station. No way would I ever add it.

How do you respond to the criticism that country stations don’t play enough female artists?

They’re just simply wrong. W-R-O-N-G. It’s simply not true that women don’t get played on country radio. If there’s a disparity, it may be because we don’t get as many female records as we get male. We don’t. Period. End of story. I don’t know why [labels] are not signing more women.

 

How did your playlist change through the pandemic?

It got tighter and tighter. I didn’t cut the number of songs; I slowed down moving things through so the end result was fewer adds. I’m really happy with where we sit with the songs right now. They’re familiar.

Why take that approach?

People stopped using radio at the same level [during the pandemic]. Songs weren’t getting as familiar as fast. Songs weren’t getting burnt as fast. What I didn’t want was people coming back to the radio station in six months and [thinking] it sounded like a different station.

How do you decide what’s “familiar”?

A top portion of the playlist belongs to the audience. We don’t move on from hit records until the audience wants to move on from hit records. The middle of the chart is mine, and the bottom of the chart is my music director’s. If the audience isn’t getting tired of the records at the top, then there’s no room for records at the bottom.

And how did labels respond to the tightening playlist?

They loved it! No, they didn’t. It used to be that from No. 45 or 50 down, most [songs] looked like they were struggling. Now everything from 30 down looks dead. You’ve got superstars struggling. We’ve got too many records, too many record labels, too few people making decisions, and everything is stagnant.

 

How do you decide what songs to add to the playlist?

The first thing you look for: Is the quality good enough to be on the air? The other thing I listen for is content. Is it a strong lyric? How well-crafted is the song? Is it too long to play? Is it an established act? Does it sound different in a good or bad way? There’s a lot of nuance.

How influential is data from DSPs?

While we do pay attention to those things, it’s not as important as others — like my own gut. We could look at something and it’s got a million views, but we don’t know where those views came from, where those people are, if they’re 6 years old or 30, if they’re men or women.

You removed Morgan Wallen’s music from the playlist, like most other stations, after he was caught making a racial slur on video. When did you add it back?

A month and a half, two months ago. This world is about forgiveness, and his fans have forgiven him. I think he’ll be back stronger than ever and he’ll learn from that mistake he made.

 

What kind of songs do you gravitate toward?

I need my radio station to sound bright, like people are having a good time — to sound like my town. Sometimes at first listen, you’re like, “That’s a smash.” Sometimes it takes a little while. Or the mood of the audience changes. Or Luke Combs comes out with his first hit and you’re blown away for 12 songs in a row.

Have you added Morgan Wallen back to the playlist?

We took a pause for a moment. You have to look at what your corporate policies are. Some stations are loosening now. Some people are not quite ready yet. We’re still waiting. At the end of the day, we have to be good citizens and good people.

What’s the song of the summer?

Old Dominion’s “I Was on a Boat That Day.” That’s going to be a smash. It sounds like a party.

This article originally appeared in the June 26, 2021, issue of Billboard.