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Radio Battles Streaming, Clever Speakers & Driverless Cars: Notes From CRS 2017

Garth Brooks, Toby Keith keynote Country Radio Seminar, where legacy medium battles digital, streaming competitors

It’s a legacy product that’s under attack from a gaggle of upstarts.

Radio’s place in the entertainment landscape provided a central topic for many of the educational panels at the 48th annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville Feb. 22-24, and its dilemma was underscored by two of the artists programmed for keynote question-and-answer sessions. Garth Brooks and Toby Keith, both of whom scored their first hit singles more than two decades ago, are likewise established acts who find newer, fresher performers angling for the space they’ve long occupied on playlists and in concert halls.

“Getting the deal,” Brooks told a younger artist at the close of his session, “isn’t one-thousandth as hard as keeping the deal.”

The battle between radio and new tech was repeatedly hammered on during the seminar. Since the introduction of the iPhone 10 years ago, the smartphone has become a ubiquitous device, similar in size — as Edison Research president Larry Rosin pointed out during a panel on “The Mobilization of Country Radio” — to the once–dominant transistor radio. In its short decade, the smartphone has become so culturally ingrained that 78 percent of respondents in a study indicated they use their devices in the restroom, and 41percent said they would force themselves to stick a hand in and retrieve that phone if it fell into a nasty Porta-Potty.

The phone is “the first thing you reach for in the morning, and it’s the last thing you look at at night,” noted Webster vp strategy and marketing Tom Webster.


Amazon Music director of digital music Ryan Redington delivered an entire panel that demonstrated how Jeff Bezos’ company is using its multifunctional Echo to become a bigger piece of consumers’ lives. With the voice-activated product, the owner can check the calendar, contact Uber for a ride and listen to music.

That latter function is particularly important. The goal, said Redington, is “to bring streaming into the home.” In contrast to other competing services, country is Amazon Music’s No. 1 format, and the firm reinforced that position by luring Brooks onto the team, becoming the first company he allowed to stream his hefty catalog.

Amazon is making that play at a time when radio has disappeared from many homes. In “Capturing the Millennial Ear,” seven female country fans were the subject of a live focus group. Only one has a clock radio in her bedroom, and only two of the seven have a radio of any kind in their house. Radio annoyed them due to too much repetition, personalities who are too talkative (“Isn’t that what podcasts are for?” asked one participant) and the dearth of country from previous decades, which one respondent perceived as “genuine” and “less edited.”

Adding salt to the wounds, Amazon’s foray into the home not only erodes a place where country radio was once a significant presence, it actually turns country radio’s successful strategies against itself.

“What’s playing on the radio influences what we play back to consumers,” conceded Redington.


Radio is still king in the automobile, but the medium is being squeezed out there, too. The millennials cited terrestrial broadcasts among their in-car listening habits — but even there, radio competes with their own music and streaming services. Radio’s status on the road could be drastically changed by another technological newcomer: the driverless car, which was the subject of its own panel.

Volvo is introducing its first auto-drive vehicles in Europe within weeks, while Nissan goes to market in 2020 and Ford in 2021. Within eight years, half of all cars are expected to have hands-free capabilities, according to an auto-tech professional, Pratt & Miller Engineering director of automotive business development Chris Andrews.

A demonstration video that outlined the features and the ways the driver shifts between auto-drive and human-drive modes frequently showed the occupant doing paperwork behind the wheel.

“I hope I’m not doing more work in my car,” quipped Sun Broadcast Group CEO Jason Bailey.

But the development already hints at changes in commuters’ behaviors. Bailey suggested consumers will be interested in radio that has more interactive capabilities, presumably using digital means for the listener to respond to the station. But since drivers will no longer be required to watch the road during their entire trip, it opens up the car to platforms that require greater engagement, including TV and — on long trips — movies.

Millennials, who will be in the prime of their lives as driverless technology takes hold, are already less passionate about radio as a medium. Music on YouTube is more popular among 14- to 24-year-olds than terrestrial audio, according to data cited by NuVoodoo Media, and there’s less emotional incentive for them to tune in. While 61 percent of respondents aged 30-34 say a fear of missing out (FOMO) factors into their listening habits, only 34 percent of the 14-17 age group feel any FOMO in regard to AM/FM radio.

Radio remains an important medium — and that’s particularly true in -country, where 78 percent of smartphone users still listen to FM radio daily, according to Edison.

As a result, artists and record companies continued to woo programmers during the convention. Such established acts as Keith Urban, Jason Aldean and Zac Brown Band (the latter appearing on the Grand Ole Opry, a WSM-AM Nashville legacy program) were among the performers at various functions, while such newcomers as Midland, Jacob Davis and Drew Baldridge performed for gatekeepers in an attempt to get played on country radio.

Those artists are, like the audience itself, also using other digital realms to connect. And stations were encouraged to do the same, particularly in mobile formats. Building a dedicated app is one obvious method that has been previously attempted, though Edison demonstrated that most new apps are quickly discarded as consumers focus on existing apps in limited mobile screen space. The key, Rosin demonstrated, is to find ways to work with established apps and digital mediums — in addition to that heritage signal — to stay in the consumers’ portfolio.

Keynote artists Brooks and Keith showed some of the attitude that they carry into their similar fights, declining to make wholesale changes to their product, even though they might find new ways to make impressions. Keith, bolstered by 41 top 10 singles on Hot Country Songs, is content to continue making music that feels like an authentic personal expression.

“If it works, it works,” he said. “And if it don’t, I really don’t care.”

Brooks, meanwhile, is increasingly using the new mediums, including Amazon Music and Facebook Live, to cultivate his audience. Like country radio, he has competition nipping at his heels, and Brooks seems intent on servicing the nostalgia he brings to his longtime fans while creating a new experience for the younger part of the audience.

“The future is whatever you paint it to be,” he said, “and the future’s based on the past.”