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Country Radio Programmers Debate Surplus of Slow Songs For Spring

Could it be a downtempo summer on country radio? It's heading that way.

As warm spring weather arrives in most of the states, country radio fans might be tuning in expecting to hear more of the uptempo fare that typically populates playlists from this time of year through the end of summer. Instead, they’re hearing more ballads and downtempo fare than usual, according to Bob Walker, Hall Communications vp programming and PD at WCTK (Cat Country 98.1) Providence, R.I., who asks, “What’s up with all the slow, sleepy stuff from Nashville as we gear up for May?”

After crunching the numbers in his music scheduling system, Walker notes, “In the Billboard top 30, I’ve got 10 coded as ‘ballad’ or ‘can’t play next to ballad.’ If you look at the top 30 as the snapshot of the format, a third of it is too low-energy for late spring. Then you look at what’s waiting in the wings, [and] I’m getting sent more ballads … in April!”

Walker also wonders if this is why hot AC and classic hits are “kicking our butts this month,” according to Nielsen’s Portable People Meter. “In the markets I program against country, we are going to ram tempo down their throat to boost our hot ACs. The labels are just making it easier.”

While he does not see it as a reflection of the quality of the songs themselves, which Walker notes are all “really good,” among the currents he has coded as “slow and sleepy” are Cole Swindell’s “You Should Be Here,” Lee Brice’s “That Don’t Sound Like You,” Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind,” Blake Shelton’s “Came Here to Forget,” Eric Church’s “Record Year,” Frankie Ballard’s “It All Started With a Beer” and Dan & Shay’s “From the Ground Up.” He adds to that list three more coded as “low energy” and “can’t play next to a ballad”: Brantley Gilbert’s “Stone Cold Sober,” Jon Pardi’s “Head Over Boots” and Dierks Bentley’s “Somewhere on a Beach.” Additionally, Walker says there are “a slew” of songs below No. 30 on the Billboard chart that are slow, and new projects with a similar tempo from Easton Corbin, Chris Janson, Parmalee and Craig Campbell are in the pipeline. They all impact before Memorial Day.

Walker adds that he’s “seriously thinking about a major house-cleaning to ‘turn up the burners’ … Radio success is all about flow,” he says. “There comes a point where the flow is more important than any one song.”

But not all country programmers share Walker’s level of concern. WGH-FM (97.3 The Eagle) Virginia Beach, Va., PD Mark McKay says the oversupply of ballads is at least partially balanced by current singles from Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, Jake Owen and Zac Brown Band that “are all mid- or uptempo.” McKay says the only problem the surfeit of slow singles has caused for him is “additional pressure on our recurrent/gold -libraries. It’s increasingly tough to get a ballad to schedule, so the tempo songs in the library are getting played a bit more than is optimal.” Plus, he admits, “It is taking a bit longer to groom logs, that’s for sure.”

“The slow songs haven’t brought the station down much,” says WCYQ Knoxville, Tenn., music director Opie Joe Creason. “A little more editing time and an adjustment or two on a rule fixes most of the major issues … If that means three songs in our heavy category are ballads, so be it.”

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WBWL (101.7 The Bull) Boston PD Lance Houston says the plethora of downtempo songs this spring “isn’t a huge issue for me. I make sure that we balance the slower currents with the recurrent and gold records that are in the clocks next to the currents anyway. There are also a few of the slower songs that are on the chart that I’m not playing yet, and that’s strategic.”

McKay says, “If we ignored ‘Humble and Kind,’ ‘From the Ground Up’ and [Thomas Rhett’s recurrent] ‘Die a Happy Man’ because they didn’t have screaming guitars, we’d be missing out on big songs. Does tempo get considered? Sure. But if a ballad is a slam-dunk, you just have to get creative with what’s scheduled around it.”

Like Houston, KIIM Tucson, Ariz., PD Buzz Jackson says, “I don’t worry too much about tempo. If you look at a music test, the songs at the top are always [slow ones like] ‘Don’t Take the Girl’ or ‘The Chair’ or ‘The Dance.’ Our format appeals to emotions often, and tempo is a big part of that. The trick is to find those great songs that people will still want to hear in 10 years and balance that with all the other things you strive to balance the music blend with.” As for current music, he says, “We haven’t had a problem with tempo yet, although it is something that I keep an eye on. But a great song is a great song, and nobody ever called to complain that we were playing too many great songs.”

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McKay sees the slowdown as a positive development. He says labels’ “old theory” that a debut single from a baby act must always have tempo even if it’s not the act’s best song “seems to be waning. I’m inclined to hear the best first. It might be a slower climb, sure, but it beats a bad tempo record stalling in the 50s.”

Creason calls the current plentitude of slow songs “a nice change of pace for country radio. For the longest time, all we had were uptempo, ‘live in the moment’ records. It’s nice to see country go back to where it came from with songs that tell a story.”

Houston, meanwhile, has a piece of advice for any programmers concerned about tempo right now. “I challenge stations to go out there and find good, uptempo songs to play that aren’t singles,” he says. “Why does Nashville have to dictate to us what to play? I’m 700-plus spins into ‘Raised on It’ by Sam Hunt, and it’s testing [like] a hit. I know other markets are playing Old Dominion’s ‘Beer Can in a Truck Bed,’ and some were playing Zac Brown [Band’s] ‘Castaway’ before it was a single.”

This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.