Is the country music radio format splitting? That’s the question on many people’s minds in country radio, with Cumulus Media’s new NASH Icon format at the forefront of the potential fissure. Offering a mix of music that adds in older artists stretching all the way back to the early 80’s, NASH Icon has the potential to return worthy country music forgotten by modern radio back to the airwaves. And when the biggest NASH Icon affiliate located in Nashville beat the rival iHeartMedia pop country station WSIX—the flagship of The Bobby Bones Show—as well as equaled its own NASH sister station WKDF in in its first full month of ratings data in September, the idea of country radio splitting in two never looked more promising.
The September ratings news was shocking to say the least, but it could be chocked up to a number of things, including the curiosity factor, a big promotional push, or simply beginner’s luck. Now in the new October ratings, NASH Icon’s WSM-FM has not only registered the highest rank amongst country stations in the market (5.4), it has pulled away from the mainstream NASH station, reinforcing the idea that we could indeed be witnessing country music splitting.
But how is NASH Icon faring outside of Nashville? Sure, Music City is an important battleground as the ‘Home of Country Music’ and the home market for iHeartMedia’s rival flagship country station. But for the country format to formally split, it’s going to take much more action across the country in major markets.
“There’s a very healthy energy and enthusiasm for what we’re doing with this format,” says Cumulus Media Executive Vice President John Dickey. “I still hold to what I said in August. I think you will see, in the next 24 months, a NASH Icon format in each of the Top-100 markets. It may be 36 months…”
But where does NASH Icon sit in regards to Top-100 markets at the moment? We’ve already covered Nashville, which is #45 as far as market size, and it’s doing quite well there. But out of all the other major Top-100 media markets in the country, NASH Icon is only in seven of them at the moment. And how is it faring in those seven markets? Aside from the Nashville station, the NASH Icon affiliates all come in last amongst country stations in their respective major markets. And in the Atlanta, Kansas City, and Detroit markets, they come in dead last out of all major radio stations in the market.
The biggest market NASH Icon is in is Atlanta, the #9 media market. Relegated to an HD2 channel, the Atlanta NASH Icon affiliate is pulling only a 0.2 rating. A similar story plays out for the #34 Kansas City affiliate that registers an anemic 0.1 rating on its HD2 signal, and the #12 Detroit affiliate on an HD2 channel doesn’t even register in the ratings at all. Birmingham, AL at #60 fares a little better with a 1.6 rating on WZRR, as does #73 Des Moines at a respectable 4.3 rating. But they still come in dead last amongst country stations locally.
Albuquerque, NM at #68 in market size is the 7th major NASH Icon market, but 96.3 KBZU didn’t appear in the latest ratings Saving Country Music has access to via Radio Online.
Here’s a run down of NASH Icon’s Top-100 market ratings amongst rival country stations:
#1 NASH Icon – WSM-FM – Rating 5.4
#2 NASH – WKDF – Rating 4.8
#3 iHeartMedia – WSIX – Rating 4.8
#4 Grand Ole Opry – WSM-AM – Rating 1.4
#1 iHeartMedia – WUBL – Rating 5.3
#2 – Kicks (Cumulus) – WKHX – Rating 3.2
#3 – NASH Icon – WWWQ-HD2 – Rating 0.2
Kansas City (#34)
#1 Mgtf Media Company – KFKF – Rating 7.4
#2 Entercom – WDAF – Rating 4.8
#3 Mgtf Media Company – Rating 4.3
#4 NASH Icon – KCMO HD2 – Rating – 0.1
Birmingham, AL (#60)
#1 Summit Media – WZZK – Rating 6.9
#2 iHeartMedia – WDXB – Rating 5.5
#3 NASH Icon – WZRR – Rating 1.6
Des Moines (#73)
#1 NASH – KHKI – Rating 6.4
#2 NASH Icon – KJJY – Rating 4.3
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The other issue is that many of the NASH Icon affiliates are in very small markets, making their reach and influence marginal or minimal on the greater country radio landscape. In late October, Cumulus announced it was adding three new NASH Icon affiliates, but all three were outside the Top-100 radio markets.
- #102 Lexington, KY – WVLK
- #107 Chattanooga, TN – WOGT
- #116 Worcester, MA – WORC
Those are additions to other NASH Icon affiliates in very small markets
- #105 Huntsville, AL – WWFF
- #120 Oxnard- Ventura, CA – KRRF
- #129 Fayetteville, AR – KRMW
- #152 Savannah, GA – WZAT
- #160 Ft. Smith, AR – KLSZ
- #221 Lake Charles, LA – KQLK
- #231 Bloomington, IL – WJBC
- #235 Muskegon, MI – WLAW
- #240 Albany, GA – WNUQ
- (?) Monroe, MI – WMIM
Unfortunately Saving Country Music does not have access to current ratings data for these stations. Many of these stations were switched over to NASH Icon because they were under-performing in their previous format.
All this data paints a somewhat bleak picture, especially compared to the exciting news of NASH Icon’s success inside Nashville. But it must be appreciated that it is still early in NASH Icon’s plans, and Cumulus appears to be unfazed and finding important demographic figures amongst these numbers to be excited about, namely that younger listeners are surprisingly receptive to NASH Icon. At the same time, country radio is a buzz business, and media executive’s enthusiasm always has to be tempered by reality.
It’s a long way to go before we could see country radio officially split, especially when taking into account NASH Icon’s difficulty in finding space on the dial in major markets. We also must consider “Icon-style” stations not affiliated with Cumulus like HANK-FM who will also help factor into country’s format split. This look beyond the Nashville market is a sobering reminder there’s a lot of work to do before country music is the tale of two separate radio formats.