The Country Radio Hall of Fame returned for 2022, held in person on June 30 as approximately 260 attendees celebrated at the Virgin Hotel in Nashville.
The Country Radio Hall of Fame officially celebrated a slate of new inductees, including off-air honorees Becky Brenner and Barry Mardit, as well as on-air honorees Whitney Allen, Debbie Conner, Cathy Martindale, Rachael Hunter and Steve Grunwald, as well as Bob Call, a 2021 Country Radio Hall of Fame inductee who was unable to attend last year’s event.
Townsquare Media’s Kurt Johnson, who also serves as president of the Country Radio Broadcaster’s board of directors, presented the evening’s first award, honoring Warner Music Nashville chairman/CEO John “Espo” Esposito with the CRB president’s award. Esposito joined Warner’s Nashville post as it was rebranded as Warner Music Nashville in 2009. He also helped propel Warner artist Blake Shelton to stardom, with hits such as the Trace Adkins collaboration “Hillbilly Bone.”
“I moved here 13 years ago to see if I could help Warner Music Group get its Nashville operation back to a proud place,” Esposito told the audience. ” I never tried to be the smartest one in the room, I just hoped that I could bring my passion, organizational skills and sense of humor to this town. And to the people at the newly named Warner Music Nashville, I wanted to help people find joy in the work.”
He noted that Blake Shelton is the only artist still on the Warner Music Nashville roster since 2009.
“The first thing I did was announce to the company that A&R was going to run the company … we are going to win or lose based on what they do,” Esposito told the audience. “I told the team we were going to build the company around Blake.” Since 2009, Shelton has notched approximately two dozen No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
Under Esposito’s tenure, the WMN roster now also includes Kenny Chesney, Dan + Shay, Brett Eldredge, Cole Swindell, Cody Johnson, Ashley McBryde, Breland, Bailey Zimmerman and Randall King.
Espo also addressed the recent news that he will transition to the role of Chairman Emeritus of Warner Music Nashville, while Ben Kline and Cris Lacy have been promoted to co-presidents of Warner Music Nashville.
“I’m not going away. I will be available to Warner for quite some time,” Espo said. “What I will do after that? I’ll figure that out … But I’ve made too many friends [to leave].”
Trisha Yearwood was honored with the CRB artist career achievement recipient. Previous artist career achievement recipients include Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, Vince Gill, Randy Travis, George Strait, and the Judds.
RJ Curtis, the executive director for Country Radio Broadcasters, read words penned by Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern to honor Yearwood. Yearwood’s sister Beth was in attendance, as was Yearwood’s husband and fellow country music luminary Garth Brooks.
“She is one of the most grounded, genuine and normal artists there is … she personifies class and kindness,” Trahern wrote, also praising Yearwood as having “one of the most powerful voices in the history of country music, period.” The artist was also lauded for her multifaceted career, including roles as an author, actress, businesswoman (Yearwood has launched a home goods line as well as collection of pet food/accessories), and host of the popular cooking show Trisha’s Southern Kitchen.
Lauren Alaina was in attendance to honor Yearwood, singing “Walkaway Joe” and “She’s in Love With the Boy.” Earlier this year, Yearwood officially inducted Alaina as a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
“Lauren talked about ‘She was in Love with the Boy.’ She wasn’t born when [the song] came out,” Yearwood noted. “The power of that song speaks to the power of country radio, and it’s the reason I’m still here 30 years later. To the women of country who have won this before me, I’m humbled and honored to be on this list.”
The first Country Radio Hall of Fame recipient of the evening was 2021 honoree Call. During his 44-year career, Call has served as an air personality, program director or market manager, with the past 41 years being at KYGO in Denver. He was the first program director at KYGO, beginning in 1980 and was promoted to operations manager in 1987 and has served as KYGO’s GM/market manager since 1989.
“Whatever success I’ve had over the years, it has come from working with and for some amazing people,” Delaware native Call said. He noted that he retired in December, adding, “I can only hope I have left a legacy behind in radio.”
“This is the manager in me,” Call summed. “Budgeting time is coming for radio stations, but find a few dollars to give to a young person to get them to [Country Radio Seminar]. There’s nothing better than CRS.”
Doug Rice, president of Performance Racing Network, inducted Martindale, who began her country radio career in 1974 at KSCS in Dallas, serving as PD, APD and MD. In 1983, she began working at WSM AM/FM, a post she held for 17 years, working mornings, afternoons and even working as the music director. She also became the first woman to earn the No. 1 rated drive-time show on Nashville radio during that time. From 1984 through 1994, she hosted Nashville Network and in 1993 started co-hosting Racing Country/Racing Country Classic. Martindale is also a three-time finalist for CMA large market and/or syndicated personality of the year and is a member of the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame.
Martindale recalled having to rely on an oxygen tank to breathe as a child, and being told she wouldn’t live to age 21. “I wasn’t supposed to be here,” she said. “I had 17 jobs before I ever got into radio, where I could be anybody I wanted to be. I was the link between a fan and their heroes. After 48 years, I still get excited to be the first to hear that new music.”
“Most of us here did not have women mentors because we were the pioneers, so I have a lot of guys to thank,” she said. Martindale thanked radio luminaries including Ralph Emery, Ed Salamon, and Charlie Chase.
Conner’s radio career began in 1966, with time spent at KHAK/Cedar Rapids, WMPS/Memphis, WSAI/Cincinnati, WCAO/Baltimore, WYCT/Pensacola, and WIL/St. Louis, where she spent 12 years. She previously served as a midday host on the Sirius Satellite Roadhouse Channel and has hosted Country Oldies Hall of Fame Segments since 2014. Conner also ascended in her career while being a single mother to two children.
“I was told I was taking a man’s job, a man who had a family to support. Well guess what, so did I,” she said. She also noted the naysayers she encountered with every step up the radio ladder. “I was told, ‘They’ll put you in overnights, but you’ll never get put on evenings or afternoons.’ I was the first woman to do afternoon drives in Cincinnati,” she said, later adding words of gratitude for radio executives who did open doors for her advancement in radio.
“Kenny Rogers once said, ‘The saddest thing is to be a former entertainer.’ You’ve taken me from a former radio personality, to a forever-something,” Conner concluded.
Country Radio Hall of Fame committee chairman Joel Raab honored Mardit, who has spent 47 years in the radio industry, including time at WEEP in Pittsburgh and WWWW in Detroit. He spent 12 years with WWWW and earned honors from Billboard, CMA and a NAB Marconi Award.
Mardit shared several stories from his career, including the time a competing radio station acquired a copy of Kenny Rogers’ “Love or Something Like It” first.
“There were no MP3s, no wave files,” he recalled. “I said, ‘How about you put that on a Greyhound and I’ll have it by the morning.’ That’s how we got the song on the radio. I waited at the terminal until 3 in the morning and it didn’t come in until 5 a.m. but we got it on the radio … It’s a whole different world [now].”
EMI’s Jackie Stevens honored Allen, recalling the story of how Allen’s parents bought her a red transistor radio when she was five years old, something that launched a lifetime love of radio. Allen began her career in 1979, transitioning to country radio in 1982. During her career, she’s worked at KCBQ in San Diego, Top 40 Pirate Radio in Los Angeles and KIIS. She joined the nationally syndicated After Midnite in 1995 and was hired at KZLA Los Angeles in 2003. She launched “America’s Hot List” in 2005 and expanded into shows including “The Big Time” and “Big Time Saturday Night.”
“I did not expect this. I never dreamed this big, and I dream pretty big … thank you for this incredible honor,” Allen said.
Brenner, currently a consulting partner with Albright & O’Malley & Brenner Country Radio Specialists, previously spent a combined 26 years at KMPS in Seattle, where she handed everything from on-air, promotions, programming and director of operations duties. She is a 20-year CRB board member and past president of the organization and has served on the board of the Country Music Association since 2005.
“I’m a huge country fan and the music matters more to me than anything,” Brenner said, also noting the satisfaction she has received from being able to help the greater community through her work in radio.
“There are so many stories to be told about the impact of radio,” Brenner said. “Hosting the united cerebral palsy marathon, being able to collect bikes for children during Christmas, raising money for St. Jude Children’s Research radiothon … it is so fulfilling.”
Audacy’s Tim Roberts inducted Audacy morning show hosts for WYCD Detroit, Hunter and Grunwald. They switched from top 40 to country in 2005, the same year Carrie Underwood won American Idol, and around the same time Luke Bryan and Taylor Swift were just starting their careers. Rachel and Grunwald received the NAB Marconi Award in 2012 and in 2016.
As the evening concluded, video tributes for Hunter and Grunwald poured in from Keith Urban, Bryan, Underwood, Chesney, Little Big Town and Gary LeVox, thanking the radio duo for the long-lasting impact they’ve had on their careers.
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