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Country Radio Seminar Returns to a Changed (and Less Thankful) Music Industry

"Radio is much less of a priority for [labels] than it used to be," says CRS executive R.J. Curtis. "It's there to finish the project and land the plane."

When broadcasters and music professionals gather this week for the Country Radio Seminar at the Omni Nashville Hotel, the event will be unlike any of the 52 annual conventions that have preceded it.

From Callista Clark’s opening national anthem to Blake Shelton’s last panel and the closing note of the New Faces Show, the format is similar to its past structure. But after COVID-19 forced CRS to go virtual in 2021, this will mark the first time it has been held in person in the midst of a pandemic. Seminar producers took extra precautions to address social distancing and are asking attendees to wear masks at all times.

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But the convention also comes amid a reevaluation of country radio. Programmers were shocked when no Country Music Association [CMA] award winner thanked radio from the stage in November. And the format’s dogged insistence on dragging the life of singles out for over a year has unintentionally encouraged record companies to double down on other means — particularly streaming — to develop their acts more quickly. It all comes as politically charged diversity issues threaten to tarnish the genre.

CRS executive director R.J. Curtis addressed this year’s big-picture issues in a wide-ranging conversation with Billboard.

It’s such a unique year for you.

It is. I think it’s going to be a fantastic week. I can’t wait to see everybody. It’s challenging, you know, the COVID-19 protocols and getting the logistics put together. It’s like trying to figure out a puzzle, but it’s harder than Wordle.

Attendees are expected to wear masks. Is there any kind of enforcement protocol?

It’s really hard to enforce that with a group of 1,000, 2,000 people. We’re not going to grab anybody by the elbow and escort them out of the Omni. We’re saying, “We prefer masks.” I think that in a group like this, it’s the right thing to do for safety. That’s not a statement about what I believe or what the organization believes. We’re going off what the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and health officials have said is probably a good idea.

There is no virtual option this year. Why did you decide against that?

We put it up for sale, and the response was just little to none for a virtual ticket for CRS. There just aren’t enough people who will register for us to financially execute that.

Is there a big-picture theme in this year’s agenda?

One thing that’s very consistent throughout the week is our Heads of State speaker series. [It’s] all about pairing a label and a radio CEO, asking how COVID-19 has really impacted how they execute their respective part of the industry and where they see it going in the future. Thursday’s going to be a very heavy data day with the research project in the morning, and there’s a session at two o’clock called “Reality Check.” It’s a panel of radio people and label people who are going to give their reaction and analysis of it. It has a lot to do with the diversity issues that we’re seeing out there and the divisive nature of our country. It’s a fascinating questionnaire.

A lot of people didn’t get into radio because they love numbers, but that’s kind of what it has become. I’m wondering what effect you think that has on radio as a product or has on the employees.

On the virtual CRS last year, the deep dive into data, the feedback on that was so amazing from radio — like “This has helped me become a better programmer” — so I think they’re learning to embrace it. It’s important because radio needs to make the smartest decisions possible and they still need room to have a song that instantly inspires them, and they want to put it on the air immediately. There’s just fewer people in those roles at the radio station level where they’re enabled to [do that]. That’s not happening a lot.

That’s probably one of the frustrations. The Jimmie Allen/Brad Paisley duet, “Freedom Was a Highway,” went to No. 1 in its 55th week on the chart. Michael Ray’s “Whiskey and Rain” took over 50 weeks. Those songs, to my ears, were first-listen, no-brainer hit records. They took over 50 weeks. From the outside, it feels like something’s broken.

There’s so many aspects to that conversation: the ecosystem of the chart, and the symbiotic relationship that labels and radio have had over the years is really, really good. It’s a double-edged sword, though, because now radio, sometimes they’re doing business with these labels and they’re afraid to say no, so sometimes labels won’t cut bait on a song. This is a good promo for John Shomby’s talk [on] Friday about radio’s role and what we all need to do a little bit differently. He’s got some very strong things to say on that. It’s not just a rant. It’s basically a TED Talk based on his experience and research, and it was all triggered by the comments on social media after the CMAs when nobody thanked radio.

I was a little surprised at the reaction to that because if anyone was paying attention at CRS for the last several years, it was obvious that that relationship was changing. I don’t know why they didn’t see that coming.

I remember this from being a programmer — programming one station, your head is down on your station and your market and your team and all that. When you’re continuing to have success, you don’t feel the bumps in the road because it’s all working. Why mess with it? But everything is changing. From talking to labels, radio is much less of a priority for them than it used to be. It’s there to finish the project and land the plane. But in terms of getting off the ground and getting people to discover it, I don’t think that’s what radio’s role is anymore, whether they want to admit that or not.

People in radio are stretched thin. A lot of times in the last five to 10 years when I would leave CRS, I was stressed out because the message that I always felt like I was receiving was “You’re not doing enough.” I work 60 or 70 hours a week — don’t tell me I’m not doing enough. How do you avoid amplifying that?

I think it’s the other way around. Day to day, PDs feel like they’re overwhelmed and they don’t have enough time. They’re doing so many things that they can’t be really great at any one thing, and these guys want to be excellent. CRS, it’s like a support group in a way. It’s like, “Hey, it’s not just me? It’s you, too?” I feel like that’s what happens, and hopefully, that afterglow of CRS can last and keep inspiring these folks for weeks and months.

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