'American Idol' and Its Deep Impact On The Country Format

Scotty McCreery
Russ Harrington

Fans of American Idol were disappointed to learn May 11 that the Fox show will cease production in 2016 after its 15th season. While most of the show’s winners have pursued careers in rock, pop or R&B, in its first 14 seasons the show still had a significant impact on country, ranging from the many top 10 finalists who went on to land Nashville record deals, to Keith’s Urban’s current high-profile role as a judge, to the platform the show provided for established country artists to perform on its stage, often paired with contestants, like Josh Turner’s memorable duet with season 10 winner Scotty McCreery.

In addition to the two country winners the show produced -- McCreery and Carrie Underwood -- inaugural winner Kelly Clarkson has been a frequent presence on the Country Airplay chart, despite primarily identifying as a pop star. Multiple top 10 finalists from the show’s first 10 seasons landed deals with significant Nashville labels, such as season 2’s Josh Gracin, season 5’s Kellie Pickler, and Bucky Covington, season 6’s Phil Stacey, season 7’s Kristy Lee Cook, season 8’s Danny Gokey, season 9’s Casey James and season 10’s Lauren Alaina. Other Idol alumni, like runner-up Bo Bice, made stabs at a country career after first trying their hand at other formats.

Consequently, the show has left a big footprint on the country format, according to radio programmers, even if they largely believe the time is right for it to wind down.

“I think Idol had a really great overall run, but like anything pop-culture, it’s going to slow in growth and then fade,” says WBWL (The Bull) Boston PD Lance Houston. He particularly singles out the influence of Underwood, who he says “forever changed country music.”

KSON San Diego operations manager Kevin Callahan says, “There’s no question that American Idol and shows like it have had an impact on our format. In some cases, it has offered a fast track for talented performers because of the national platform.”

CBS Radio VP/programming Bruce Logan concurs. “American Idol has been an amazing tool for the music industry. No other singing competition [has] produced a single superstar, much less multiple superstars. Like all things, the longer it goes on, the less impactful it has become but, [it] certainly [had] its heyday.”

As evidence of the show’s influence, Callahan notes that two of the four performers booked for KSON’s June 6 country show—James and Alaina—are Idol alums. “There has been a high level of interest in this show from our audience, and [it] sold half its tickets in the first week of on sale,” he says, despite two other country shows in the market on the same date. “No question [Idol] has had impact.”

That said, adds Callahan, “I do think it is time for the show to end, or at the very least reinvent itself as the past few seasons have not hit my family’s viewing radar.”

WFMS Indianapolis PD Scott Lindy says Idol “is, and always will be, the show that changed the pop culture landscape in terms of music discovery and how music lovers could be part of creating a star. I remember when I saw two DJs almost get into a fight over who should have won the crown one year. American Idol made us emotional. Not just the industry people, either. Everyone who ever sang into a hairbrush to the bathroom mirror or imagined their broom was a Stratocaster watched that show and, at some point, held their breath while hoping their favorite performer would make it to the next week.”

And when contestants were eliminated on live TV, says Lindy, “the cold harsh reality of show business played out right in our living rooms in a way we had never before witnessed.” The show also demonstrated “the pressure, the endless hours of sacrifice and how pure talent is rarely enough to go the distance.

AI will definitely be missed,” Lindy adds, “but the mark it leaves on how we see a star being born will last for generations.”

JVC Broadcasting director of country programming and WJVC Long Island, N.Y., morning man Phathead is “sad” the show is ending. “The institution that is American Idol is what set it apart from any show of the past 15 years,” he says, calling it “a throwback to shows that families could gather around the TV and watch together. It got people talking. Most importantly, it let kids dream that they could do anything they set their mind to.”

Without Idol, he says, we wouldn’t know the talents of Clarkson, Underwood, McCreery and Alaina, “plus the countless others that have gone on to live out their dreams, serve the public, start great charities, and inspire children.

“In my household the show will be missed,” adds Phathead. “Fifteen years of inspiration and bringing people closer is an amazing accomplishment.”

WXCY Wilmington, Del., operations manager/PD/afternoon host Brad Austin agrees, saying there’s “no question Idol has enriched country music.” He calls Underwood “one of the biggest female artists of the last decade,” cites McCreery as having “a positive, youthful impact on the format,” and says Pickler has gone well beyond her top 10 finish on Idol and a handful of radio songs to be “a national star and highly recognizable personality. Idol started that.”

But Austin believes that during the show’s first few seasons “they hated country music. You could tell they thought it was hillbilly-ish and hokey. I think that was the British thinking and influence from the producers and Simon Cowell, [who] openly mocked country music, its fans and even Josh Gracin on the show. A few seasons later, Carrie broke that mold and showed Idol country’s undeniable fan base when she walked away with a huge win. I will always say Idol tried very hard to make Bo Bice the winner, but Carrie couldn’t be stopped.” 

American Idol Alumni React

For the artists whose careers were launched on Idol, the show’s impending demise is bittersweet, but they are grateful for the experience.

Covington says the show “has been an incredible platform for today’s artists to put a name and face with a sound. I definitely owe AI huge props for getting my name out there and giving my career the boost that landed me as the best selling debut artist of 2007.”

Season 3 runner-up turned Broadway star Diana DeGarmo, who now lives in Nashville with her husband, season 5’s Ace Young, says the show “has been a cultural phenomenon that made its stamp on the entertainment industry, from the stars it helped produce, to the history it has created in television itself.” She adds, “I am honored to be within the Idol family, and have it also be a part of my professional resume.”

In a Bilboard article published May 11, McCreery said the show “changed my life” and called it “a great way for me to pursue my dreams of being a country music singer and introduce myself to the nation. I am so thankful to the show, the producers, the judges, and the audience for everything they did for me. American Idol has been a dominant force in our pop culture for almost a decade-and-a-half, but all good things must come to an end.”

Similarly, Pickler told Billboard that she is “thankful” for her experience on the show and how it “opened the door for me to pursue my dream of being a country music artist.” She added, “It’s hard to believe that next year at this time we will be watching the ultimate finale.”