Country radio stations need to separate from the pack.
That was the best takeaway from an ominously titled Country Radio Seminar (CRS) webinar, “How Country Radio Can Save Itself.” Faced with sliding ratings, McVay Media president Mike McVay challenged programmers during the July 27 event to separate from their competitors: “Two stations in the same format, in the same market, playing the same songs, doesn’t do much of anything for an audience. Don’t hesitate to take chances.”
A growing number of stations are already doing that in the West and Midwest, finding their own lane by syphoning music from a subgenre grounded deep in the heart of Texas. The red-dirt format, rooted primarily in the Lone Star State and Oklahoma, has developed its own ecosystem of regional stars who thrive on the club circuit with original songs designed for the live stage.
It’s a spotty genre, but the very best red-dirt material is hit-caliber. Cody Johnson, The Eli Young Band and Parker McCollum were all quality red-dirt acts before they found a place on the national scene, and they’re hardly alone. Acts such as Josh Abbott Band, Randall King, Cody Jinks, Kylie Frey and Wade Bowen have emerged as significant artists in the realm, and they’re also finding headway at KRLY Alpine, Calif.; KKDT Hays, Kan.; and KUSQ Worthington, Minn. — just a few of the stations outside of Texas and Oklahoma that are mining red dirt to differentiate their brands in their markets.
“People notice — they’re like, ‘Man, you guys play so much red dirt,’ ” says KERP Dodge City, Kan., GM/PD/morning host Josh Roesener, who devotes an entire six-hour window on Friday mornings to the genre, but otherwise spins two songs per hour. “The perception is that we play a lot of red dirt, even though it’s not a huge amount.”
Still, by playing music that can’t be found elsewhere on the dial, KERP sets itself apart, which is important in a community that picks up five different country signals. Having that unique identity is valuable in smaller communities that operate outside the radio ratings system because it solidifies the station’s brand with local advertisers.
“I’m not worried about numbers,” says KKDT Hays, Kan., personality Colby Ericson, who doubles as producer-host of the regionally syndicated 35 South Radio. “I’m worried about sales numbers.”
The sales staff is, too, quite obviously, and the format is a great calling card — KKDT is recognized for its music mix, playing 50% red dirt along with current mainstream singles and classic country.
In addition to establishing identity, red dirt extends the playlist. With fewer local options, rural broadcasters are less susceptible to tuneout, so they focus more heavily on time spent listening than larger stations. The extra source of music allows the station to play more individual titles and slow rotations of their currents, a tactic that avoids burning out the audience during an eight-hour workday.
“You don’t usually change the channel when you’re on the tractor,” Ericson quips.
Non-Texas stations that have added red-dirt music often found it through live shows when owners or PDs saw club dates by the likes of Aaron Watson or, back in the day, Cross Canadian Ragweed.
“My GM, who’s a huge music buff, he goes down to Texas a lot,” says KUSQ PD Barry Roberts. “He said, ‘You know, we should start doing this,’ because he was hearing some of the stuff down there.”
Radio executives aren’t the only ones expanding the music beyond its home base. Students who move to Texas to attend college are often introduced to it there, and if they return to their hometowns, their newfound taste for red dirt comes with them. Likewise, when young Texans venture out of state for jobs or advanced education, they pack their favorite music, too.
That cross-pollination was part of what brought red-dirt music into the mix at KRVN Lexington, Neb., although the station — figuring that Texas was a college rival — didn’t promote the genre’s Lone Star heritage.
“At that time, labeling it ‘Texas’ maybe wasn’t favorable to a Nebraska listener,” says KRVN operations manager Adam Smith. “I don’t think that’s as big of a concern anymore. But we play country music. It doesn’t matter if it comes from Nashville or Texas or if it’s a local or regional artist.”
The sound does matter, though, and KRVN’s listeners, like those at some other stations, are critical of pop-leaning country.
“The audience here is more into the ’90s-style country songs,” Smith says. “The red-dirt, the Texas scene, really endears itself to that audience.”
East County Broadcasting station manager Chris Torrick found a similar audience east of San Diego through research when he bought into nonprofit KRLY over a decade ago. He slid red dirt into the programming slowly at first, then increased its representation once the audience responded.
“A lot of this stuff is so good,” Torrick says. “It’s produced well, it’s great songwriting, it’s great artistry, and it deserves a spot on the radio. This is the feedback that we got from folks that were telling us what they wanted out of a radio station, that this was filling that void.”
On the Charts Promotions founder Rick Hogan has been working red-dirt music for 18 years, watching the music grow in quality and spread.
“It was pretty rough at first because most of the production was like GarageBand,” Hogan says. “But the writing was really good.”
Ultimately, as red dirt has grown, it has boosted several dozen stations outside of Texas, who’ve found it gives them the separation the CRS webinar suggested from country competitors. It assists the music rotations, the authenticity, the identity and even the bottom line of their operations.
“People are finding the music elsewhere,” Roberts reasons, “so why can’t country radio get behind it? There’s other stuff out there besides the mainstream.”