Country music is traditionally the domain of outlaws and rebels, and its radio formats are no exception. Each successful new artist has its champions of the airwaves, and following are the outliers who took the risks at country radio that led to breakthroughs this past year of stars like Maren Morris, Old Dominion and Cole Swindell.
These programmers are identified by country label executives surveyed by Billboard as among the most influential in the genre, at a time when country is second only to top 40 as the nation's most popular radio format, according to Nielsen Audio.
All of the ranked programmers have responsibility for at least one specific country station.
The ranking of these programmers reflects a combination of their impact on country music, as judged by label executives, and the size of the radio market they serve.
1. JOHNNY CHIANG, 48
Director of operations, KKBQ Houston, Cox Media
The day in 2004 when Chiang walked in to Houston's KKBQ (The New 93Q), he could not have conformed to the pop-guy-takes-over-country-station cliche more if he tried. He asked music director Christi Brooks what was playing. "You're kidding, right?" she answered. The song was "Friends in Low Places" by Garth Brooks. The Taiwan-born, Los Angeles-raised Chiang was a quick study and has come a long way since in his country music expertise. With breakout slots on his playlist that are much coveted by country record labels, he has championed new talent like Runaway Jane, and he loves country's current mix. "We've got the GQ magazine guys like Brett Eldredge, rockers like Eric Church, great new females like Kelsea Ballerini. It all blends perfectly," he says. On Nov. 2, the Country Music Association will honor Chiang's KKBQ as 2016's major-market station of the year.
2. CHARLIE COOK, 66
Program director, WSM-FM/WKDF Nashville; Vp country, Cumulus Media; operations manager, Cumulus Nashville
In the capital of country music, Cook runs the top dog in town. WSM-FM (which shares its call letters with a legendary, separately owned AM station) has beaten its four country-format competitors in Nashville for the year to date, according to Nielsen Audio. "We've refined the format, and it really clicked," says the Michigan-raised father of two. Sister station WKDF (NASH-FM 103.3), meanwhile, has promoted showcases with rising acts like Brett Young, Mickey Guyton, Runaway Jane and Chase Bryant. A 46-year radio veteran, Cook admits, with a mixture of pride and embarrassment, "I don't have one friend who isn't in the radio or music business, not one."
3. GREGG SWEDBERG
Program director, KEEY, MINNEAPOLIS; regional senior vp programming; country brand coordinator, iHeartMedia
"We have a healthy appetite from listeners to support new acts early on," says Swedberg, a Minneapolis native and father of one, recalling when the annual KEEY (K102) concert series introduced Taylor Swift to the market in 2006. "Every year we identify five or six of the most promising acts and support them all year," says Swedberg, whose station most recently has elevated the likes of Brett Young, Tucker Beathard and Old Dominion, helping it rank No. 2 among women 25 to 34. But music alone doesn't boost listenership. "We've brought ratings up as a whole with our personalities and being involved in the community."
4. J.R. SCHUMANN, 35
Senior director, country programming, SiriusXM
Texas-born and raised Schumann is not shy about choosing songs to help SiriusXM's country channels lead the pack: Thomas Rhett's "Vacation," Ryan Follese's "Float Your Boat" and Eli Young Band's "Saltwater Gospel" are among the tracks played early on the satellite broadcaster. "Country radio is in the wrong frame of mind," says Schumann, referring to the unusually long development phase for new releases. "When we jump out on a record, we commit to the song, the artist and the discovery aspect. There has never been a trail blazed by following in line behind everybody else." When he's not breaking new artists, Schumann oversees channels for country's superstars, from No Shoes Radio for Kenny Chesney to The Garth Channel, which launched Sept. 8 with exclusive content from Garth Brooks.
5. NATE DEATON, 54
GM, KRTY/KLIV San Jose, Calif.; Empire Broadcasting
"All of the stuff that competes with radio was invented here," says Deaton of Silicon Valley, the region served by KRTY (95.3 KRTY). But the San Jose native believes radio beats any digital platform when it comes to music discovery. Consider "Head Over Boots" from fellow Californian Jon Pardi, which Deaton got behind 11 months before the song hit No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart. Choices like that have helped KRTY rank No. 1 among all listeners 18 to 49. While AM sister station KLIV offers country gold, at KRTY, "promoting new music is what we do," says Deaton. "That's the whole philosophy of the station. Radio needs to introduce you to new music from stars and new artists."
6. JOHN FOXX, 36
Program director, WNSH New York, Cumulus Media
Country music fans in New York, the nation's largest media market, endured years without a country station before Cumulus launched WNSH (NASH-FM) in 2013. (Country outlet WYNY dropped the format in 1996.) Although WNSH scored the highest cumulative audience in its history in September (more than 1.2 million), Foxx says, "I don't think anyone knows yet how big country in New York can be." The Bronxville, N.Y., resident, a veteran pop programmer who first came to WNSH at its launch, adds: "When it comes to country fans, the passion level is through the roof."
7. JEFF KAPUGI, 51
Program director, WUSN Chicago; vp programming, CBS Radio
Kapugi has been programming WUSN (US-99) since 2011, but he also grew up in the Windy City, listening to the likes of legendary WLS-AM, one of the nation's pioneering stations. "I have to pinch myself that I get to do this," says the father of two grown children. Kapugi points to Brandy Clark and Chris Stapleton as two artists that he supported early, and in his CBS Radio chain role, with input from fellow PDs, he recently has supported airplay for Chris Lane's "Fix" and Granger Smith's "Backroad Song." Says Kapugi: "I love seeing artists on the way up."
8. MIKE BROPHEY, 55
Program director, WKLB Boston, Greater Media
A 20-year veteran at WKLB (Country 102.5), Brophey says new artists are still what gives his station a market edge. "We highlight new music hourly, sometimes multiple times in an hour," says the Albany, N.Y., native and father of two, whose wife, Ginny Rogers, is the station's assistant program director/music director. Despite going up against new competition from iHeartMedia's WBWL, WKLB still ranked No. 2 among women 18 to 24. "Amid all the listener research available today," says Brophey, picking songs "still goes back to your gut."
9. DREW BLAND, 33
Director of branding and programming, WWKA Orlando; Cox Media Group
Within nine days of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in June that killed 49 and left more than 50 injured, WWKA (K92), under Bland's direction, staged a four-hour benefit concert that raised $250,000 for the OneOrlando Fund to help the survivors and victim's families. "It was the biggest event we've ever put on in the shortest time," says Bland, a Colorado native. Artists including Cole Swindell, Maddie & Tae and Easton Corbin "showed up at the drop of a hat," he adds. "Country music is authentic and healing."
10. KENNY JAY, 37
Program director, KMPS Seattle, CBS Radio
Since arriving at KMPS in January, Jay has maintained the station's hitmaking streak -- it played Old Dominion's "Break Up With Him" months before the track reached No. 3 on the Hot Country Songs chart -- and displayed his own instincts for new talent. Brandy Clark's "Girl Next Door" was "one of our bigger early hits of 2016," says the Minneapolis native and father of two. "She didn't have national success" with the song at the time KMPS got behind the track (which later reached No. 39 on Country Airplay). "But it was consistently a top song [measured by Shazam] in the market. We've seen similar stories play out with Chris Lane and Brett Young."
FRONT OFFICE PROFILE: JOHN SHOMBY BRINGS A NEW FOCUS TO NASH
Even among country's local station mavericks, Cumulus Media's John Shomby, 65, stands apart, directing the NASH Network's syndicated programming.
The Philadelphia-raised Shomby had been programming a five-station cluster in Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Va., for Max Media of Hampton Bays when he took on his new Nashville gig in March.
At Cumulus' Nashville campus, which is full of air personalities, Shomby jokes he was brought in to be "the adult to run this school." Jibes aside, he has helped to realign the focus of NASH's syndicated offerings. Blair Garner moved from America's Morning Show to a new overnight program. Ty Bentli replaced Garner in mornings, and Kix Brooks exited overnights to focus on his weekly American Country Countdown.
On Oct. 25, Cumulus is due to crown the winner of its Nash Next talent search, staged in 60 markets nationwide, with the victor getting a deal with Big Machine Label Group. Cumulus, says Shomby, "is very open to exposing new artists."
11. STEVE STEWART, 44
Program director, WEBG Chicago, iHeartMedia
It took a little more than a year to transform a former regional Mexican music station into a rival for the title of Chicago's most dominant country outlet. Under Stewart, WEBG (Big 95.5) ranks just behind market format leader WUSN. "You don't get many opportunities to start with a station that's brand new," says Stewart, a native Rhode Islander who lives near Chicago's Wrigleyville neighborhood. WEBG went country at a time when the format is "as broad as it has ever been," says the father of two. "You have pop sounds, rocking sounds, traditional bro country, female artists, bands, superstars and core artists."
12. MAC DANIELS, 56
Program director, KPLX/KSCS Dallas, Cumulus Media
Daniels packs a one-two punch in Dallas, programming KSCS (New Country 96.3) as well as hits from the '90s onward at KPLX (99.5 The Wolf). The Missouri-raised father of four notes his stations offer artists from this musically rich region two shots at exposure. Aspiring Texan acts competed on KSCS as part of the national NASH Next promotion for a Big Machine Record Group deal (see sidebar, page 66), while KPLX has aired The Front Porch Show since the station's launch 18 years ago. "It's a two-hour feature every Sunday," says Daniels, "where we feature veteran artists who are native to Texas and part of the Texas music and Oklahoma red-dirt music scene."
13. BRUCE LOGAN, 46
Vp programming, CBS Radio Houston
The country format "has an overabundance of edgy sounds right now," says Logan, a Louisville, Ky., native who has programmed Houston's KILT (The Bull) for the past three years. "They are hit records with rock and rhythmic sounds, but fewer traditional country sounds." Offering listeners a balance "is the number one job for me and Chris Huff, my music director," he says. One sign they're succeeding: KILT ranks No. 4 among women 25 to 54, edging out crosstown country rival KKBQ in that segment. The Houston market, says Logan, "is possibly one of the most exciting radio battles in America."
14. LANCE HOUSTON, 39
Program director, WBWL Boston/WTBU Portsmouth, N.H.; captain of country format, iHeartMedia Boston
After guiding iHeartMedia's battle in Atlanta against a country format leader, Houston arrived at WBWL (The Bull) in 2014 to do the same in Boston, challenging long-established country powerhouse WKLB. An Alabama native, Houston has embraced life in New England and has worked to win listeners with some competitive picks. "We went out and played Luke Bryan's ‘Games' from his  Spring Break EP and Sam Hunt's ‘Raised On It,' which also was not a single. Both did great for us."
15. SHELLY EASTON
Program director, WXTU Philadelphia, CBS Radio
As a young girl in love with radio in her native New Jersey, Easton figured she would have to marry a DJ "since there were no women disc jockeys back then." At WXTU, the mother of two has shown programming and promotional savvy -- planes trail "WXTU Banner Buddies" signs over Philadelphia events on weekends -- and led her station to a No. 1 rating among women 25 to 34.
16. ROB MORRIS, 51
Program director, WKIS Miami; Vp programming, CBS Radio Miami
Promoting the country hits of WKIS (Kiss 99.9 FM) in a market dominated by Latin culture is a unique challenge. But Morris, an Ohio native and top 40 format veteran, says such rising stars as Brett Young, Tucker Beathard and Kelsea Ballerini have broadened listenership. The annual Kiss 99.9 Chili Cook Off concert, attracting headliners like Brad Paisley and Little Big Town, makes Kiss a player on the country scene. "It's a driving force for us," says Morris.
17. MIKE MOORE, 52
Program director, KWJJ Portland, Ore.; director of country programming, Entercom
"There's a lot of talk right now that the country format isn't the hottest place," says Moore. But the Nebraska-bred PD of Portland's KWJJ (99.5 The Wolf) strongly disagrees. In his chain role, Moore supervises seven Entercom country stations nationwide. At KWJJ, he has led the station to a No. 1 ranking among men 18 to 49, up from No. 2 in 2016, through "aggressive" support for new acts like Chris Janson and Maren Morris.
18. MIKE KENNEDY, 57
Program director, KBEQ Kansas City, Mo.; Vp programming, Steel City Media
With three country stations competing in the Kansas City market, Kennedy, at KBEQ (Q104), takes nothing for granted. "We've been number one nine out of the past 10 [rating] books; I'm knocking on wood as I say that." The Emporia, Kan., native adds: "It's not about balancing Luke Bryan with a gold song. It's trying to schedule Luke and the new Chris Stapleton, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert. So many strong current artists make it difficult to keep the balance."
19. MIKE PRESTON, 57
Program director, KKWF/KHTP Seattle, Entercom Radio
A seven-year veteran of the Seattle market, Preston does double duty programming KKWF (100.7 The Wolf) and rhythmic gold outlet KHTP (The New Hot 103.7). "The psychographic and music tastes are different,'" says the San Jose-raised father of two, "but the listeners could be next-door neighbors." Preston says he is "proud of what we've done" to fend off KMPS, his station's long-established crosstown rival, by ranking No. 3 among women 18 to 34.
20. TIM ROBERTS, 55
Vp music programming, CBS Radio Detroit
Roberts, a Detroit native and father of three, was inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame while WYCD was named the Academy of Country Music's major-market station of the year for 2016. Although focused on today's hits, he has a historian's perspective on why country music thrives in Detroit. "The influx of workers here in the '30s and '40s, even into the '50s and '60s, came from Southern roots," says Roberts. "So there was a base of fans for country music right here."
Contributors: Rich Appel, Jim Asker, Chuck Dauphin, Gary Graff, Steve Knopper, Melinda Newman, Craig Rosen, Phyllis Stark, Chuck Taylor, Deborah Wilker
This feature was originally published in the Nov. 5 issue of Billboard.