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Country Radio Unmasked: Can the Format Break Out of Its Funk?

At the annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, executives and programmers mingled while mulling the 100-year-old tech's future.

The most notable aspect of the Country Radio Seminar Feb. 23-25 was the proliferation of lips.

Despite prominent signage encouraging masks and prerecorded messages asking for attendees to cover up, fewer than 5% of attendees complied at the Nashville Omni Hotel. As one registrant put it, “I’m just through with the masks” — programmers and music executives alike were pretty much willing to roll the dice with their health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially changed its masking guidelines on Feb. 25, assessing that vaccinated persons across 70% of the nation are safe to go maskless in indoor settings. Unfortunately, that doesn’t apply to Nashville; according to the CDC website’s COVID-19 by County tracker, the city still ranks as high risk.

Executives’ decision to forgo those face coverings stands in stark contrast with programmers’ ultra-safe behaviors at work. The format is in a four-year decline, numerous panelists noted during the convention, and just as many observed that the bulk of singles — outside of those by superstars such as Thomas Rhett or Luke Combs — require 40 weeks or more to move from chart debut to peak position. Some have needed over 60 weeks to reach their apex.

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Streaming companies might introduce four or more new tracks from an artist in that same window of time, refreshing their playlists more quickly while broadcasters tend to play the safe mass-appeal favorites. That increasing sameness has perhaps reduced the over-the-air audience to listeners who essentially use the station as predictable background music instead of getting emotionally involved. And that’s a problem in a media environment in which other entities are hell-bent on creating a sense of urgency.

“There’s four years of down ratings,” McVay Media president Mike McVay lamented while moderating a Feb. 23 “Heads of State” panel, “but the format doesn’t seem to do anything different.”

Nowhere was the contrast more evident than in a Feb. 25 “Heads of State” panel that paired Hubbard Radio chair/CEO Ginny Morris with Big Machine Label Group president/CEO Scott Borchetta.

Morris spoke calmly and clinically about renewing old habits after the pandemic ends: “We do have a certain expectation that, by and large, our teams will be in the office,” she said, acknowledging at the same time some fears about “creating even more recruitment challenges.”

Borchetta, meanwhile, paced the stage, reminding programmers that he started in radio promotion and insisting that he still has a passion for the medium, but is forced to place emphasis on other mediums to build careers. He pointed to Danielle Bradbery, a former contestant from The Voice who is re-creating her persona through streaming exposure. Borchetta also cited several recent singles that performed well on streaming platforms or in a small number of radio markets — Nelly and Florida Georgia Line’s “Lil Bit,” Brantley Gilbert’s novelty “The Worst Country Song of All Time” and Aaron Lewis’ politically divisive “Am I the Only One” — suggesting that programmers missed an opportunity to play them for just a short period of time to make a momentary impact.

“Be attached to being excited,” Borchetta challenged programmers. “Can a 100-year-old technology keep up with today?”

Radio’s challenges are large. In 1970, stations operated in an environment where local signals’ only live competition came from three TV networks that didn’t program to youth, recalled iHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman. Now the proliferation of SiriusXM, cable TV, video games, podcasting and digital music have reduced the amount of time the average listener spends with the radio. Making the AM/FM battle even more difficult, consumers generally think of all audio-only products as “radio,” blurring the lines between platforms.

In addition to acknowledging radio’s crowded connection to the consumer, the seminar also addressed the changing relationship between country radio and record labels. The radio promotion tour is alive, though less healthy, given the reduced impact of local decision-makers on airplay. Just days prior to CRS, Warner Music Nashville announced a restructuring of its promotion department into two teams, with one arm focused on marketing music to the national heads of radio chains, while the other arm hits up local programmers with the authority to make music decisions. WMN president/CEO John Esposito estimated that almost 50% of local PDs are unable to pick their own playlists, reducing the benefit of those expensive promo visits.

“The steak dinners are largely over,” he quipped.

Country’s Radio Coach owner/CEO John Shomby gave a final-day TED Talk-style argument for rehabbing the ailing relationship. Reminding attendees that no winning artists thanked country radio during the Country Music Association Awards last November, Shomby said that “the consumer is at the head of the table,” implying that fans are increasingly less swayed by broadcast stations, thus making radio less influential in label marketing campaigns.

Shomby underscored that over-the-air radio still brings scale to successful singles, but also examined the weary sameness of the format. He recalled a personal research program in which he listened online to a different country station every day for months, adding that he found little variation in the music or the sound of the stations. He called for a committee to address the industry issues and challenged the audience to email Country Radio Broadcasters executive director R.J. Curtis to join — Curtis had 10 emails from interested participants in a matter of minutes.

Blake Shelton, a vocal supporter of country radio in his role as a coach on NBC’s The Voice, was the subject of CRS’ final panel. He made an offhand comment about his own catalog that might have unintentionally unmasked one of the basic issues behind the industry’s current funk: “I personally lose interest if I don’t keep changing things up.”

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