“I hate social media.”
Tim McGraw’s response on Feb. 10 to the last question ?during the last panel of Country Radio Seminar in Nashville underscored one of the basic messages of the entire three-day event. McGraw didn’t dismiss Twitter or Facebook, but he admitted he struggled with them. His answer wasn’t one that his manager would have scripted for him, but it was an honest one, and it lent credibility to everything else he said during a lengthy Q&A.
Presenting an authentic version of your brand in public — in essence, being your real self while in the spotlight — is increasingly essential for radio stations, personalities and artists as they attempt to cut through a glut of media in the digital age. Radio is doing a better job at maintaining its position, insisted CRS panelists, than popular perceptions suggest. Roughly 93 percent of the general public tunes in to terrestrial signals during a given week, iHeartCountry senior vp programming Rod Phillips noted, and that number is much higher than some other media, including TV which, he said, garners only 75 percent of eyeballs among 18-24 consumers.
However, that’s not an indication that radio has an easy road ahead. Where radio was once the only free outlet to discover music, it now competes with video and audio streaming, SiriusXM and such cable outlets as Music Choice. Crowded as that environment might be, radio still commands 54 percent of listening, according to studies by Edison Media Research. And while such labels as Warner Music Group begin to see more than half their revenue from streaming, radio is still an important driver of a song’s popularity, even in pop music, where the audience adapted to digital models more quickly than in country.
“[Radio] is the most important, critical component inside the company,” said Atlantic senior vp promotion John Boulos, who oversees promotion for five non-country formats. “Every meeting with managers, they want radio, they want radio, they want radio. And the fact of the matter is when we get radio, we have successes. When we don’t, we’re not economically successful.”
Even people who pay for competing mediums, such as ?SiriusXM or Spotify, still use radio. Edison demonstrated that 39 percent of the listening that SiriusXM customers engage in is still to terrestrial stations, in part because they provide local information. Supporting that notion, Cumulus vp country Charlie Cook noted anecdotally that his 14-year-old daughter has taken an interest in radio for the first time because it can provide her with local concert information.
Music remains the most important reason that listeners tune in to radio, according to Edison’s Ear Wars presentation, but 75 percent of country fans cite news and information as a key reason they listen, while 64 percent like radio because it keeps them informed about their communities.
Edison president Larry Rosin suggested that playing up local advantages was a good strategy to maintain an edge in the future over SiriusXM or streaming companies, which listeners view as more impersonal mediums. Rosin also suggested promoting those local assets to create a fear of missing out if listeners leave the station.
But radio is no longer just a broadcast signal. Phillips underscored ?iHeartMedia’s commitment to growing its digital footprint and its events ?business, and several panels were devoted to best practices in maintaining an audience through social media. Budgets for digital endeavors can be funded, suggested several panelists, if the radio sales team gets a client to become part of a campaign and help pay for them.
That, however, might be one of the difficult humps for radio to overcome. KRTY San Jose, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley, has been aggressive with new music and active in the community, but is admittedly at a disadvantage when it comes to hiring new, young sales staff.
“It’s hard to recruit for sellers,” KRTY GM Nate Deaton conceded, “because [radio] is not cool.”
“It’s a rare thing,” added University of Cincinnati electronic media division head John Owens, “when a student wants to go into broadcast radio.”
On the other hand, country artists themselves are still enthusiastic about the medium. Luke Bryan, in introducing this year’s Country Radio Hall of Fame inductees at the opening ceremony, said radio “has always been the backbone and cornerstone for artists like myself.”
And Vince Gill, appearing at the Universal Music Group luncheon showcase at the Ryman Auditorium, recalled how having a record air regionally in Oklahoma when he was a teenager set him on a path for success. That exposure “instilled hope,” he said, “and I’ve never, ever lost sight of that hope.”
Radio was challenged during CRS to maintain a hopeful future for itself by making real connections with the audience. Personalities, said Phillips, need to have real, unique personas, not the cookie-cutter radio voice of a previous era.
And country radio’s best chance at holding onto its leadership remains in its ability to deliver artists to its audience. The people who make the music are perhaps the most accessible of any format, and their willingness to connect with fans through local radio is a huge bonus for a country station.
“That’s such a breath of fresh air that I just don’t get to see,” said Cumulus corporate PD of rock formats Troy Hanson. “They’re too worried about ‘cool’ in my format. I remember a guy once said to me, ‘Cool don’t pay the bills.’ ”
That’s the difference that sets McGraw and his fellow country acts apart. He wasn’t necessarily being cool when he admitted he’s not a fan of social media. But he was definitely being real.