When WXRP New York hit the play button on Randy Houser's "How Country Feels" on Jan. 21, it marked the return of country music to terrestrial radio in the nation's largest market after an absence of more than a decade.
It's a big deal in terms of its local impact, but just as important is how it benefits country nationally. The station, which will adopt WNSH (Nash FM 94.7) as its permanent call letters, will become the flagship for a Nash brand that Cumulus will roll out in numerous forms of its own media, including radio stations in other markets, plus a magazine, a Web presence and planned live events and cable TV.
The company sees a huge underserved market opportunity and isn't just going after the obvious targets in the outlying areas of the New York region. Cumulus co-COO John Dickey insists it will also focus on New York's boroughs, including Manhattan and the Bronx.
"There are some natural pockets that I think anybody would look at objectively and say, 'This should do well for you'--New Jersey being one of them, Long Island being another--but the format is in a different place today," Dickey says.
He points to Jason Aldean's March 2 concert at Madison Square Garden, which sold out in fewer than 10 minutes on Jan. 18, three days before WXRP flipped formats. "That's not [just] suburban housewives in New Jersey phoning in to buy tickets," Dickey says. "To stereotype this format today would be at anybody's peril. This is a format that is large, growing, affluent, defined, but still continuing to define itself. It transcends just the suburbs, and you're going to find the boroughs themselves are going to produce a lot of country fans."
It's also likely to have a positive effect on country's impact in other media. The genre immediately becomes more visible in a marketplace where hundreds of national companies make decisions daily about how they will spend their money and what celebrities they might affiliate with.
The complete Nash branding package is "not something that will appear and happen magically tomorrow," Dickey says. "But over the course of time, all of these different puzzle pieces will come and fit nicely together, and what you've got right now is the outline of what's going to be a tapestry serving country and this life group that is going to be significant."
Questions about the makeup of WNSH remain. No PD or music director has been named yet, and the station initially aired without live personalities, leaning instead on preproduced liners. The airstaff and programming executives will be announced "sooner than later," Dickey says.
The WNSH flip is "huge for the country music industry, our artists and our fans," Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Gary Overton says. "New York is a strong touring market for country. But this will help drive record sales and larger media attention for our artists, which they deserve."
The WNSH playlist was, Dickey says, based on market-driven research. The first hour mixed current singles (Brad Paisley's "Southern Comfort Zone," Lee Brice's "I Drive Your Truck") with recent recurrents (Zac Brown Band's "Free," Lady Antebellum's "I Run to You") and classic country from the 1990s (Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places," George Strait's "Write This Down").
"They're pretty conservative as chains go, so I wouldn't expect them to be super-aggressive, but if something seemed to make sense for them, they may pop on something earlier," Universal Music Group Nashville executive VP of promotion Royce Risser says.
Country has a strong base from which to draw. Some 1.3 million country albums were sold in the New York area in 2012, according to Nielsen SoundScan, making it the No. 1 market for country album sales in the United States. But it still has plenty of room to grow. Country represented a mere 5.9% of New York area album sales in 2012.