- Wade Bowen Performs "When I Woke Up Today" on The Texas Music Scene
- Variety Magazine Talks to Merle Haggard
- Hear New Andrew Combs' Song "Foolin'"
- Ian McLagan of Faces and Small Faces Dies
- Stream Sundy Best's New Record
- Willie Nelson Releases New Album "December Day"
- Aaron Watson to Release New Album "The Underdog" February 17th
- Almost Out of Gas Features the Taylor Cafe in Taylor, TX
- Sundy Best Release New Album "Salvation City"
- Despite Detractors, Bro-Country May Be a Bellwether of Nashville's Future
- Funny: Where Did Jerrod Niemann Go?
- Courtney Patton Sings "Take Your Shoes Off Moses"
- Bobby Keys, Hard-Living Saxophonist for Rolling Stones, Dies at 70
- New Photos of Johnny Cash at San Quentin Prison
- Music Industry Sues Chrysler, Mitsubishi Over In Car Recording Devices
- The Huffington Post Lists Off Best 2014 Country Albums
- Dom Flemons, 'Too Long (I've Been Gone)' Video
- Lyric Of The Week, Mickey Newbury, "An American Trilogy"
- Joni Mitchell Squashed Biopic Starring Taylor Swift
- Black Friday: Country Bibliophile Edition
- Blurt Gives Jason Isbell's ACL DVD 5 of 5 Stars
Though 2014 still has another month to go, the end of November traditionally marks the end of the radio calendar in music, allowing us to look back and see who had the greatest impact on the format throughout the year. The Americana Music Association has just unveiled their list for the most played albums in 2014, and there’s quite a few surprises, and quite a few names traditionally considered country filling out the ranks.
Rosanne Cash leads all participants with her album The River & The Thread, followed by the much-anticipated comeback album from progressive bluegrass group Nickel Creek called A Dotted Line. Up-and-comers Nikki Lane, Lake Street Dive, and Shovels & Rope also made the Top 10, while Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music came in at #10 on the list.
Along with many of the well-recognized Americana names, country greats like Willie Nelson came in at #14, Johnny Cash at #32, Billy Joe Shaver at #42, Ray Benson at #67, Marty Stuart at #79, and Dolly Parton at #92. Americana stalwart Jim Lauderdale was the only name with multiple entries, with albums coming in at both #58 and #98.
The Americana airplay numbers are aggregated from 70 terrestrial radio stations, nationally syndicated radio shows, Sirius/XM satellite radio, and internet radio stations to come up with the final tallies.
Top 100 Most-Played Albums in Americana
- Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread
- Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line
- Rodney Crowell – Tarpaper Sky
- Hard Working Americans – Hard Working Americans
- Old Crow Medicine Show – Remedy
- Nikki Lane – All Or Nothin’
- Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits
- Shovels And Rope – Swimmin’ Time
- John Hiatt – Terms Of My Surrender
- Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds In Country Music
- Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin – Common Ground
- St. Paul & The Broken Bones – Half The City
- Parker Millsap – Parker Millsap
- Willie Nelson – Band Of Brothers
- Paul Thorn – Too Blessed To Be Stressed
- Lucinda Williams – Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone
- Trampled By Turtles – Wild Animals
- Various – A Tribute To Jackson Browne – Looking Into You
- Keb Mo – BLUESAmericana
- Secret Sisters – Put Your Needle Down
- John Fullbright – Songs
- Amos Lee – Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song
- Jamestown Revival – Utah
- Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year
- Jason Eady – Daylight & Dark
- Infamous Stringdusters – Let It Go
- Chuck Mead – Free State Serenade
- Sarah Jarosz – Build Me Up From Bones
- Billie Joe & Norah Jones – Foreverly
- Justin Townes Earle – Single Mothers
- Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
- Johnny Cash – Out Among The Stars
- First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
- Carlene Carter- Carter Girl
- Devil Makes Three – I’m A Stranger Here
- Red Molly – The Red Album
- Duhks – Beyond The Blue
- Mastersons – Good Luck Charm
- Will Hoge – Never Give In
- Blackie and the Rodeo Kings – South
- Puss N Boots – No Fools, No Fun
- Billy Joe Shaver – Long In The Tooth
- Brandy Clark – 12 Stories
- Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans
- Carolina Story – Chapter Two
- Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’
- Will Kimbrough – Sideshow Love
- Irene Kelley – Pennsylvania Coal
- Trigger Hippy – Trigger Hippy
- Shakey Graves – And The War Came
- Carolina Story – Chapter One
- Hurray For The Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes
- Chuck Prophet – Night Surfer
- Girls Guns & Glory – Good Luck
- Howlin’ Brothers – Trouble
- Blue Highway – The Game
- Amy LaVere – Runaway’s Diary
- Jim Lauderdale – I’m A Song
- Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings – Give The People What They Want
- Black Prairie – Fortune
- Ruthie Foster – Promise Of A Brand New Day
- Whiskey Myers – Early Morning Shakes
- Robert Ellis – The Lights From The Chemical Plant
- Suzy Bogguss – Lucky
- Seth Walker – Sky Still Blue
- Felice Brothers – Favorite Waitress
- Ray Benson – A Little Piece
- Scott Miller – Big Big World
- String Cheese Incident – Song In My Head
- Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else
- Mingo Fishtrap – On Time
- Haden Triplets – Haden Triplets
- Robert Cray Band – In My Soul
- Mike Farris – Shine For All The People
- Tommy Malone – Poor Boy
- Zoe Muth – World Of Strangers
- Greg Trooper – Incident on Willow Street
- Charlie Robison – High Life
- Marty Stuart – Saturday Night/Sunday Morning
- Various – Inside Llewyn Davis – Inside Llewyn Davis
- Old 97s – Most Messed Up
- Chris Smither – Still On The Levee
- Various – A Tribute To Born in the USA – Dead Man’s Town
- Deep Dark Woods – Jubilee
- Rod Picott – Hang Your Hopes On A Crooked Nail
- Steve Martin And The Steep Canyon Rangers – LIVE featuring Edie Brickell
- Janiva Magness – Original
- Otis Gibbs – Souvenirs Of A Misspent Youth
- Avett Brothers – Magpie And The Dandelion
- Candi Staton – Life Happens
- Blue Rodeo – In Our Nature
- Dolly Parton – Blue Smoke
- Head And The Heart – Let’s Be Still
- Peter Mulvey – Silver Ladder
- John Mellencamp – Plain Spoken
- Laura Cantrell – No Way There From Here
- Band Of Heathens – Sunday Morning Record
- Jim Lauderdale – Black Roses
- Mary Gauthier – Trouble & Love
- Hannah Aldridge – Razor Wire
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.
Cumulus Media’s NASH Icon radio concept mixing older country music in with more contemporary songs continues to gain steam, while yet another radio format called NASH Classics is on its way, and some big signings to the label side of NASH Icon appear to be imminent.
In a recent All Access interview with Cumulus Media Executive Vice President John Dickey and Big Machine Label Group CEO Scott Borchetta, Dickey gave the first indication that the media giant could be giving classic country music a bigger home on the radio. When speaking about the currently-expanding NASH Icon format which is now live in 20 different markets, Dickey said, “NASH Icon is a Hot AC for Country. It’s not Classic Country, it’s not NASH Classics – stay tuned, that format is coming – and we’re going to do that in a way that hasn’t been done before, and that’s really exciting creatively.”
Nash Classics would likely not be as big as NASH Icon which competes with Top 40 country in the markets it has moved in to, including beating Top 40 stations. But it would be an alternative for classic listeners who’ve been lost in the country music shuffle. “And Classic Country, or in our case, soon-to-be NASH Classics, that is a niche format and it will continue to be a niche format,” John Dickey explains. “It sounds great, but it’s no different than an Urban station putting on a great Gospel station. There’s a lot of great product out there, and we’re going to do it in a great way, but it will exist, and we’re going to do it in a smaller way. It will exist in a smaller way next to NASH Icon and NASH.”
NASH is the flagship Cumulus Media Top 40 country brand.
Martina McBride & Ronnie Dunn – Next Possible NASH Icon Signings
Meanwhile NASH Icon, which includes a record label with Big Machine Label Group, looks to be on the brink of some more signings of older country artists. In the same All Access interview, Scott Borchetta alludes to Martina McBride being a top candidate for the label. “I don’t think you have to really be too much of a guesser to look at who’s out there and who’s working. You’ve got Martina McBride who is still very relevant in the marketplace,” Scott says.
Martina McBride’s 2011 album Eleven was released through the Republic Nashville label, which Big Machine partially owns. Her latest album, 2014′s Everlasting was a self-released collection of mostly R&B standards.
The other name rumored to be part of NASH Icon is Ronnie Dunn—one half of the now defunct Brooks & Dunn. Ronnie has been dropping hints that his NASH Icon signing is imminent on Facebook and Twitter. Nash Icon has already signed Reba McEntire.
NASH Icon Continues to Gain Steam
NASH Icon continues to do well in ratings compared to its Top 40 competition, making the possibility of a format split in country music more of a reality every day. “October is going to be stronger than September, and already we’ve got a week in November and November is showing those signs,” says John Dickey.
Meanwhile John Dickey says he’s happy that other non Cumulus stations are taking the NASH Icon model or similar ideas and running with them, including the recently-reformatted Hank-FM. “…as they say, imitation is the best form of flattery,” says Dickey. “We’ve had another very, very smart broadcast company – people that I respect immensely – look at what we’ve done here and buy in to the wisdom of the fragmentation format and have done something very similar in Dayton with a radio station…There’s a very healthy energy and enthusiasm for what we’re doing with this format. 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; it may be a year longer than what I’m predicting.”
NASH Icon also continues to do surprisingly good with the sought-after 18-34 demographic, meaning younger listeners are connecting with the older format as well. And the numbers show NASH Icon is not cannibalizing country’s other radio formats, but growing the pie by enticing disenfranchised listeners back to radio.
This story has been updated (see below)
The pieces are beginning to fall together after a troubling incident Friday morning (10-24) where thousands of subscribers to AT&T’s U-Verse television service had their TV’s locked down by the national “EAS” emergency system. The system was triggered by a tone that emanated from radio station 97.9 WSIX in Nashville during The Bobby Bones Show—a syndicated iHeartMedia morning program that is the biggest radio broadcast in country music. Now The Bobby Bones Show and/or some of its affiliates could face big fines for negligently playing the tone.
The Emergency Alert System was activated during a segment on the show where they were discussing a test of the EAS system during Game 2 of the World Series. As part of the segment, they played a YouTube clip over the air of a 2011 nationwide test of the system which included the tones to activate it and alert others to rebroadcast the signal. When AT&T’s U-Verse system received the signal, it immediately locked down subscriber’s televisions and displayed the warning of a national emergency.
Viewers received an “Emergency Action Notification” from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA, warning them to wait for further information from The White House. “The station has interrupted its regular programming at the request of the White House to participate in the Emergency Alert System,” the message said in part, and warned viewers to keep telephone lines open for emergency use only. The message was seen by AT&T U-Verse customers in Atlanta, Dallas, Austin, Detroit and Nashville. Local viewers scrambled to figure out what the emergency was, as the warning forced televisions of U-Verse subscribers to tune to one specific channel and wouldn’t allow it to be changed.
This morning, there was an inappropriate playing of the national emergency alert notification tones on a syndicated radio broadcast,” FEMA spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre said in a statement on Friday. “There is not a national emergency. Today’s broadcast triggered alert notification in states where the alert has been played…FEMA and the FCC are currently working with broadcasters to determine the full scope of the situation.”
As RadioInsight points out, Cable networks were fined a total of $1.9 million after inadvertently broadcasting the signature EAS tones out during a commercial for the movie Olympus Has Fallen in March of 2013. Fines are levied from the FCC, and could not only affect The Bobby Bones Show and iHeartMedia, but its affiliates that carry the syndicated the show all across the country through Premier Networks.
UPDATE (10-28): Premier Networks has released a statement about the incident: “The tone should not have aired. We are cooperating fully with the authorities and are taking aggressive action to investigate this incident and prevent it from recurring. We deeply regret the error.”
Communications Law Attorney John F. Garziglia has weighed in on the matter via Radio Ink Magazine, saying in part:
The false sending of EAS codes or the attention signal is akin to pulling a fire alarm in an occupied building. In addition to being a violation of law, false EAS codes and the attention signal cause public confusion, and a false EAS activation could cause injuries or worse to those who unwittingly take actions in response….
As explained by the FCC, “[t]he prohibition thus applies to programmers that distribute programming containing a prohibited sound regardless of whether or not they deliver the unlawful signal directly to consumers; it also applies to a person who transmits an unlawful signal even if that person did not create or produce the prohibited programming in the first instance. Therefore, the prohibition also applies to a broadcaster, cable operator, or satellite carrier that transmits programming containing a prohibited sound even if the programmer that embedded the sound is not under common ownership or control with the respective broadcaster, operator, or carrier.”
…Every air personality, programmer, program producer, ad agency and manager needs to understand that there are significant FCC fines for misuse of EAS codes and the attention signal.
Confusion and even panic gripped thousands of television viewers in Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Michigan this morning (10-24) when they received an “Emergency Action Notification” from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA, warning viewers to wait for further information from The White House on an active emergency. And apparently The Bobby Bones Show, iHeartMedia’s flagship Top 40 country radio show with a controversial host, was behind the mishap.
“The station has interrupted its regular programming at the request of the White House to participate in the Emergency Alert System,” the message said in part, and warned viewers to keep telephone lines open for emergency use only. The message was seen by AT&T U-Verse customers in Atlanta, Dallas, Austin, Detroit and other locations. Local viewers scrambled to figure out what the emergency was, as the warning forced televisions of U-Verse subscribers to tune to one specific channel and wouldn’t allow it to be changed.
After investigations by both AT&T and FEMA, it was determined that a nationally-syndicated radio show was the culprit in the accidental emergency message being sent out, and it eventually was traced it back to WSIX in Nashville, the flagship of The Bobby Bones Show which was on the air at the time the alert was relayed.
“This morning, there was an inappropriate playing of the national emergency alert notification tones on a syndicated radio broadcast,” FEMA spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre said in a statement. “There is not a national emergency. Today’s broadcast triggered alert notification in states where the alert has been played…FEMA and the FCC are currently working with broadcasters to determine the full scope of the situation.”
Tennessee Association of Broadcasters President Whit Adamson said in a statement, “We have discovered that this audio tone origination and possibly others was sent from WSIX-FM studios during the Bobby Bones Show in Nashville this morning and was evidently picked up by the Premiere Network program syndication in other markets.”
WSIX, and iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel) have not commented on the situation, and Bobby Bones, who has been traveling today for a performance in Albuquerque, NM, has not addressed the incident.
The signs continue to point towards the country music radio format officially splitting in two, with Top 40 country, and “Icon” country covering music from as far back as the 80′s vying for equal share of the country music listenership. The primary impetus for the split has been Cumulus Media’s NASH Icon radio network. As the second-largest radio station owner in the United States, the Cumulus influence is already causing landmark rifts on radio, with their new NASH Icon station in Nashville beating Clear Channel’s powerhouse WSIX.
But if country radio is truly going to split in two, it is going to take the participation of local and regionally-owned radio stations all across the country adopting the new format. Remember, it wasn’t NASH Icon and Cumulus who launched the first radio station under the new proposed format. It was 103.9 The Hawk out of Louisville, KY, that began by calling itself GARTH-FM. Now another local radio station has switched to the new country format, and the verbiage accompanying the format change shows just how much sway NASH Icon is having on country radio land.
101.5 Hank FM out of Dayton, OH, owned by Alpha Media, announced on October 16th it would be switching formats to “iconic hit country music from the 90’s, 80’s and 2000’s” that promises to “differentiate itself by playing the iconic artists absent from Dayton radio—musicians that made country music popular—such as Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Reba McEntire, Shania Twain and Brooks & Dunn.”
“101.5 Hank FM is being launched because we miss the ‘golden era’ of country music and we know that a lot of people in Dayton do too,” says the station’s Program Director, Brad Waldo.
“The wise decision to add Hank FM in Dayton becomes part of the foundation to help increase our value as a cluster in the market,” says Alpha Media Executive VP of Programming, Scott Mahalick. “The Icons of Country format connects us to a passionate and underserved audience that continues to grow.”
The Portland, Oregon-based Alpha Media owns a total of 70 radio stations across the country, and is just the type of mid-sized radio company that could play a critical role in eventually splitting country radio in two. And yes, one can’t help but notice the use of “Icon” in their communication about the changeover, signaling that this may eventually be the terminology that gets adopted for the new format, since “classic” (one of the original terms used) never felt like a good fit for a format the doesn’t venture past 1980.
One big difference between Hank FM and NASH Icon is that Hank doesn’t play any new music, making it more enticing for classic country fans. NASH Icon affiliates still play many new singles from country’s current Top 40 artists.
It will take some time for the new “Icon” format to shake out and reveal exactly what it will sound like after all the dust settles, and seeing different stations take variations on the same theme is probably a healthy thing, as program directors across the country monitor ratings and see which approach is working best and what their local market wants to hear. As we have already seen with NASH Icon, not only is the format faring well, it is also attracting new listeners to country radio, or re-engaging old ones, meaning it’s not just simply cannibalizing the stations that already exist, growing the country music pie that much more.
It’s also worth pointing out that the moniker “Hank FM” is not foreign to country music. Numerous more traditionally-oriented radio stations use that name, including 92.1 Hank FM in North Texas, and 98.3 Hank FM in Savannah, GA.
Hank FM is just one station, but once again we see the new idea of older country music taking hold on the airwaves.
Photo by Timothy Steffes
***Editor’s Note: “Tim Pop” was an independent/underground podcaster that was a direct influence on the formation of Saving Country Music who passed away yesterday, October 13th, 2014, of an undiagnosed illness that had slowly taken him down until he was on life support. Tim Pop was the host of the Rebel Rouser country music podcast that broadcast on the short-lived “Saving Country Music Radio” podcast network, as well as the “Tim Pop Live” rock podcast. Please indulge Saving Country Music as we remember this important figure and friend of the site.
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“Tim Pop” Hervey was a tower of a man who was the perfect example of selflessly taking of ones own time to take up the charge of serving worthy music to the public that would otherwise go unheard and under-appreciated. He never did it to be cool in a scene. Whenever he heard something that he believed was magical, his very first desire was to share it, so everyone else could take part in that magic too. He was the embodiment of the Lester Bangs quote “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool,” except Tim Pop was cooler than all of us, making his efforts that much more altruistic.
Tim Pop was a direct influence on Saving Country Music. As I wrote on March 15th, 2011, “The first time I listened to Tim Pop Live was less than two weeks after I had started Free Hank III, the organization that eventually morphed into Saving Country Music, and Tim Pop, who didn’t know me from Adam, was talking about it on his podcast. That is when I knew what the power of community and collaboration could do.”
Tim was also an excellent guitar player for Switchblade Justice, The Bomb Pops, and other projects, and a hub of Detroit’s fierce and resilient independent music scene. We are down one irreplaceable lieutenant in the fight to save music, but his efforts continue to weigh heavy with the artists he helped, and the people he touched.
You done good buddy. Now it is your turn to just sit back, and listen.
R.I.P. Tim Pop
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You can listen to archived Tim Pop Live shows on Real Punk Radio.
On Monday (10-6), the ratings for radio stations were released for Nashville and other locations, and within those numbers was a bombshell for the country music radio world. In the Nashville radio market, the freshly-launched Cumulus-owned NASH Icon affiliate on 95.5 WSM-FM beat what has been the powerhouse of Nashville radio for the past year-plus, iHeartMedia-owned (Clear Channel) WSIX. In other words, a station that includes older country songs and older country artists in a purposeful attempt to return more classic-sounding country and more variety to the airwaves is beating Clear Channel’s flagship pop country station, in its home market, that is the home station for The Bobby Bones Show (the biggest country radio show ever), in the home of country music.
NASH Icon WSM-FM pulled a 5.6 rating for the month of September—its first full month in operation, making it tied for 6th overall in the Nashville market, and tied for #1 in country. Meanwhile the Bobby Bones-anchored WSIX pulled a 4.7 ranking, good for 10th in Nashville, and #3 in country. Even more interesting, the radio station that tied WSM-FM for 1st was the other Cumulus-owned NASH Top 40 country radio station, WKDF.
To simplify what this all means, though there could be a little bit of beginner’s luck or curiosity factor contributing to these numbers, overall the idea of giving consumers more classic-sounding country music on the radio is working, and in a big way.
John Dickey, the Cumulus Executive Vice President for Content and Programming, and brother of Cumulus CEO Lew Dickey said to All Access, “We’ve only got a month going so far but we are encouraged about what the month of September brought us in Nashville … In fact the results have been nothing short of spectacular in my opinion. NASH Icon on WSM-FM is the #1 country station for listeners 25 to 54 (the most desirable demographic) from 6 AM to 7 PM … That’s a pretty crazy number when you think about it. And we’re seeing appeal on the younger end too, which is not something that we figured on. We are trending big with men leading the women, who look healthy too, showing up neck and neck with WKDF and WSIX.”
The strong showing from NASH Icon in the country music holy land of Nashville bodes very well for the idea of keeping the current NASH Icon stations around, potentially growing the brand to new markets, and causing the country radio format to split into two separate formats of Top 40 country and a more classic-oriented country. If NASH Icon continues its success, Clear Channel may be forced to launch its own older country brand, and it could encourage smaller radio station companies and independently-owned stations to adopt a similar format. “It’s only a month into it but we’re happy to see the acceptance of this fragmentation of the country format with NASH Icon,” John Dickey said to All Access.
For fans of older country music and older country artists, this is all very positive news, but of course it is not all perfect. As Saving Country Music illustrated when it broke down the NASH Icon radio playlist recently, there is still a lot of newer country involved in the NASH Icon model, including a lot of artists and songs many older country fans find unappealing, if not objectionable. But the ability of a big radio network—like the one NASH Icon is looking to build—to return names like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson, and Dwight Yoakam to radio can only do good for these artists.
Even though John Dickey and others are finding these numbers surprising, in theory they shouldn’t. Edison Research, a radio research company which conducts deep studies of listener’s habits, has been saying for years that country radio has been hurting itself by abandoning classic country music on the radio. The success of NASH Icon in Nashville proves that this research had merit. Interestingly, the way Nash Icon eventually developed looks very much like country radio did 25 years ago, where the playlists are more diverse and don’t work in such a narrow time window. It’s only in the last decade especially when country radio really abandoned playing older music from country’s back catalog.
It is just one month, and no doubt Bobby Bones and Clear Channel will reach deep down into their bag of tricks to try and claim back the #1 spot. But for now, the return of older country to the radio waves has been a big success. It’s not just competing, it is beating its newer, younger competition. And it’s not just doing well with older disenfranchised listeners, younger listeners are tuning in too. NASH Icon may not be the ideal for a new country format, but it has started the process of country music splitting in two, and ultimately this will mean more choice for country consumers.
This has been the question on the mind of many country music fans ever since the joint venture between Cumulus Media and the Big Machine Label Group known as NASH Icon was announced. Now that there are actually radio stations broadcasting the new NASH Icon format, we can listen in and hear just exactly what NASH Icon is. Though the rollout is still in its infant stages and there’s sure to be changes and tweaking happen before it’s ready to go coast to coast, the insight of a detailed playlist gives us a good starting point of what we might expect, what may need to be changed, and what should stay the same.
Saving Country Music took a 3 1/2 hour segment of the playlist of NASH Icon 98.9 station in Atlanta and broke it down in between artists, eras, songs, and decades. Though the formula and ratios are very likely to change once the NASH Icon record label gets up and running and new music from older artists begins to be featured, this is an analysis of what NASH Icon listener is hearing right now. The breakdown also includes all the “legend” or “classic” artists played on the station between 8:00 AM and 11:59 PM on August 27th, located at the very bottom to the analysis.
•Legendary & Classic Artists Back on Mainstream Radio: Regardless of anything else, including the ratio of plays compared to new artists, legends like Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, Alabama, and the The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band are back on the radio once again, and so are many classic country artists like Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, and Mark Chesnutt. For traditional and classic country fans, this is a strong victory, and one that has been a long time coming.
•NEW Singles and NEW Artists Are Featured More Than Anything Else, BUT: Without question, as a percentage, new singles and new artists make up the lion’s share of NASH Icon at the moment. However, the principal idea behind NASH Icon is to feature new music from older artists, especially from artists like Garth Brooks who is about to release an album, and from artist who will sign to the NASH Icon record label. Since none of these things are up-and-running just yet, they may be replacing those slots with new singles from new artists. According to Cumulus Media COO John Dickey, eventually new music will make up only 25% of the format. We’ll just have to wait and see.
•Bro-Country is Currently Featured On NASH Icon: On August 25th, Cumulus Media COO John Dickey said, “You won’t hear a lot of what we affectionately term in the business today as ‘Bro-Country.” But according to this analysis, this is a completely incorrect statement. Bro-Country artists like Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Chase Rice, and Cole Swindell all showed up in the playlist. Whether they will disappear once the new singles from old artists are released, we’ll have to see. At the moment though, the argument could be made that Bro-Country makes up the biggest pie piece of the NASH Icon playlist. Remember though, it’s still early.
•Not Just The Big Names: Some have been concerned we’d only see the usual suspects of artists featured, but NASH Icon has been playing lesser names that had big hits like Tracy Byrd, Doug Stone, and Ricochet. The NASH Icon playlist shows decent diversity when it comes to the older artists.
•Not Just 1989 or Newer: Early on, NASH Icon was sold as being only songs from 1989 or after. In the 3 1/2 hours Saving Country Music listened in, there were two songs from 1980, and eight songs from before 1989. Though this isn’t a huge amount, the playlist did show they would reach well past 25 year pole to play Merle Haggard’s song from 1980, “I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink.”
•Lee Ann Womack’s New Single and an Independent Label Artist Played: Maybe the most important insight, Lee Ann Womack’s “The Way I’m Livin’” was featured during the 3 1/2 hour block. This would be the very first example of a mature artist (no offense meant Lee Ann!) who would never be played on mainstream Top 40 country having a featured single from a new album played in the rotation. Lee Ann’s single is so new, the album has not even been released yet. This hypothetically is the whole point behind NASH Icon, is to give artists like Lee Ann the radio play they deserve.
What else is interesting about this play is Lee Ann is not signed to the NASH Icon label, meaning they are willing to feature a non NASH Icon artists that still fits the NASH Icon mold. Also, Lee Ann Womack is not on a major label; she’s on Sugar Hill Records. What this opens the door to is the possibility that other independent label artists could be featured on the format. Of course it helps that Lee Ann is already an established name in mainstream country, but this may be the window to see someone like Sturgill Simpson, or Old Crow Medicine Show show up in the playlist in the future.
•Only Singles Were Featured, No Album Cuts.
•Only One Song Played Twice in the 3 ½ Hours. It Was Florida Georgia Line’s “Dirt.”
Suggestions for the NASH Icon Playlist
•Mitigate the Bro-Country, and Now: We know that Cumulus already sees Bro-Country on the format as being a problem, because COO John Dickey said so. Whether the underlings that are programming NASH Icon didn’t get the memo, or they’re simply saving the slots for the new singles from old artists soon to come, Bro-Country is on the format, and in a big way, and it is ruining the experience for potential listeners. NASH Icon is creating a big buzz in the country music community, but if listeners tune in and hear Florida Georgia Line twice an hour, they’re probably going to leave and never come back, and potentially they may tell their country music buddies about the negative experience. Take the Bro-Country off, and add more older stuff, or other newer stuff that’s not Bro-Country, like more Dierks Bentley (sans “Drunk On A Plane”) and Kacey Musgraves, for example. The Bro-Country on NASH Icon right now could kill it forever with certain listeners if it is not removed quickly.
•Balance Out The Playlist With A Few More Older Songs, and 1 or 2 Independent Artists: Let’s face it, many classic and traditional country fans are bound to not like NASH Icon even if they play one new song. NASH Icon is still not going to be for the die-hard traditionalists. Pragmatism is what is needed to make NASH Icon work. If a few more 80′s and early 90′s songs were featured, it might help to balance out the ratios and create a healthy country music environment for all country music fans from all generations to enjoy together. Also, if NASH Icon featured even one or two new current independent artists in a given content block, they would broaden the reach and appeal of NASH Icon even more, and make it a place where even more labels could promote singles and offer greater support to the format.
•Add More Legends With New Music: Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton all have new albums out that charted at the very top of the country charts, and released singles that are very worthy of radio play. These albums were also released through major labels. This would be an excellent source of content to add new songs from older artists, and broaden the appeal of the format. Johnny Cash’s American Recordings-era material could also be a great source for NASH Icon, and one that could add younger, and cross-genre appeal.
THE PLAYLIST BREAKDOWN
• ‘X’ denotes an additional play or plays for an artist or song. So if there’s two ‘X”s beside an artist’s name, that means they were played three times.
•Artists were broken down into four categories. When an artist could hypothetically fit into multiple categories, the date of their first charting single is included for added detail. PLEASE don’t bog down or obsess over the eras. It is the best that could be done.
•’New’ artists are artists currently being played, or recently being played on mainstream country radio. “New’ songs are songs currently on mainstream country radio.
• This is just from a 3 1/2 hour span; not NASH Icon’s complete playlist. There is a complete list of other “legends” and”classic” artists that were played during the entirety of the broadcast day at the very bottom (not including the artists features in the 3 1/2 hour analysis).
***Artists Featured on NASH Icon***
Legendary Artists (Before 1989)
- Dwight Yoakam X
- Merle Haggard
- Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
- Alabama XX
- George Strait X
- Ronnie Milsap
- Reba McEntire
- Diamond Rio
- Buck Owens (via a Dwight song)
Classic Artists (Around Class of 1989)
- Alan Jackson X
- Aaron Tippin
- Vince Gill
- Mark Chesnutt
- Mary Chapin Carpenter
- Travis Tritt
- Garth Brooks X
- Tracy Byrd
- Tim McGraw (1990) X
- Doug Stone (1990)
Contemporary Artists (After Class of 1989)
- Rodney Atkins (1997)
- Ricochet (1995)
- Blackhawk (1992)
- Deana Carter (1994)
- Lee Ann Womack (1997)
- Toby Keith (1993)
Newer Artists (Still Mainstream Relevant)
- Kenny Chesney XX
- Florida Georgia Line XX
- Luke Bryan XX
- Jake Owen
- Kip Moore
- Miranda Lambert X
- Lady Antebellum
- Cole Swindell
- Brett Eldredge
- Chase Rice
- Joe Nichols
- Sara Evans X
- Brad Paisley
- Blake Shelton X
- Trace Adkins
- Big & Rich
- Josh Gracin
- Lee Brice
- Billy Currington
***Songs Featured on NASH Icon***
- Dwight Yoakam “Honky Tonk Man”
- Nitty Gritty Dirt Band “Fishin’ In The Dark”
- Ronnie Milsap “Stranger In My House”
- Alabama “40-Hour Week”
- Alabama “Mountain Music”
- Dwight Yoakam & Buck Owens “Streets of Bakersfield”
- Alabama “Tennessee River” (1980)
- Merle Haggard “I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink” (1980)
- Alan Jackson “Little Bitty”
- Reba McEntire & Vice Gill “The Heart Won’t Lie”
- Reba McEntire “The Greatest Man I Never Knew”
- Mark Chesnutt “It’s A Little Too Late”
- Doug Stone “A Jukebox With A Country Song”
- Mary Chapin Carpenter “Down At The Twist & Shout”
- Travis Tritt “Help Me Hold On”
- Garth Brooks “The Thunder Rolls”
- Garth Brooks “Rodeo”
- Ricochet “Daddy’s Money”
- George Strait “Blue Clear Sky”
- Tracy Byrd “Watermelon Crawl”
- Deana Carter “Strawberry Wine”
- Kenny Chesney “How Forever Feels”
- Blackhawk “Every Once In A While”
- Diamond Rio “Unbelievable”
- Aaron Tippin “Kiss This”
- Rodney Atkins “If You’re Going Through Hell”
- Sara Evans “Suds In The Bucket”
- Toby Keith “My List”
- Alan Jackson “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”
- Brad Paisley “Little Moments”
- Tim McGraw “Real Good Man”
- Josh Gracin “Nothin’ To Lose”
- George Strait “Give It Away”
- Trace Adkins “You’re Gonna Miss This”
- Sara Evans “A Little Bit Stronger”
- Kenny Chesney “Come Over”
- Florida Georgia Line “Dirt” X
- Florida Georgia Line “Get Your Shine On”
- Jake Owen “Beachin’”
- Miranda Lambert “Mama’s Broken Heart”
- Tim McGraw “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s”
- Joe Nichols “Yeah”
- Blake Shelton “My Eyes”
- Blake Shelton “Doin’ What She Likes”
- Kenny Chesney “American Kids”
- Cole Swindell “Chillin’ It”
- Kip Moore “Somethin’ ‘Bout A Truck”
- Luke Bryan “Play It Again”
- Luke Bryan “Crash My Party”
- Luke Bryan “That’s My Kind Of Night”
- Lady Antebellum “Bartender”
- Lee Brice “Hard To Love”
- Miranda Lambert “Automatic”
- Chase Rice “Ready, Set, Roll”
- Big & Rich “Look At You”
- Brett Eldredge “Beat Of The Music”
- Billy Currington “We Are Tonight”
- Lee Ann Womack “The Way I’m Livin’” (new song from older artist)
Other “Legend” or “Classic” Artists That Received Radio Play On 8/27 Between 8 AM – 11:59 PM
- Don Williams
- Willie Nelson
- Hank Williams Jr.
- Randy Travis
- Charlie Daniels
- Dolly Parton
- Keith Whitley
- Gene Watson
- Mel McDaniel
- Pam Tillis
- Eddie Rabbit
- The Judds
- Johnny Lee
- Clint Black
- Brooks & Dunn
- Lorrie Morgan
- Faith Hill
- Jo Dee Messina
- Joe Diffie
- Collin Raye
Ever since the partnership between radio owner Cumulus Media and the Big Machine Label Group called NASH Icon was proposed, the big question has been if it will it result in the country music radio format splitting in two. Country music is one of the last genres to resist splintering, but as Top 40 country continues to abandon older economically-viable artists, it has become a necessity to give older artists a home somewhere on the radio dial.
After a conference call on Monday (8-25) with Cumulus Media’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer John Dickey (brother of President and CEO Lew Dickey), all speculation about whether a country split will happen can be put to bed, at least if Cumulus has anything to say about it. Country Music is splitting, and will eventually constitute two completely different formats. And though you may still hear Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line on the new format upon occasion, you will also hear Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Randy Travis, George Strait, and many other artists that were relevant in the 80′s and 90′s that mainstream country has abandoned.
“It is time for country to fragment,” John Dickey said plainly on the conference call, while offering more detailed insight than ever into exactly what NASH Icon will look like when it’s rolled out. Cumulus launched 15 initial NASH Icon stations recently, but says it won’t be until 2015 before everything is completely up an running.
Why does country music need to fragment into two formats? John Dickey explains.
“Country today is the largest format in terms of appeal and market share, certainly the last of its size that hasn’t fragmented. To me it wasn’t a question of will the format fragment, but when. And that time has come. The whole idea around NASH Icon is to create a parallel universe in country. Not a flanking format, but another platform for artists that were extremely prolific in the mid to late ‘80s, ‘90s and early to mid 2000s to regain some of that relevancy again. Unlike other attempts to fragment this format … this is really based on solid metrics, the depth, appeal, and attraction of these artists, the low burn of their music (meaning people still enjoy it), and the fact that they’re not present in country on the radio.”
Forget the 25-Year, “Classic” Country Window
When NASH Icon was first announced, the Cliff Notes version of what it would feel like was centered around country music’s “Class of ’89″ with artists like Garth Brooks, Clint Black, and Alan Jackson. However NASH Icon’s range will be much wider, going deeper into the 80′s than 1989, and ranging all the way up to present-day hits.
“The format is going to be about 25% current-driven, and that’s going to increase as some of these artists … get into the studio and start to put out new music,” says Dickey
In other words, older artists who were relevant in the 80′s and 90′s, but who put out new music today, will have a home on NASH Icon for brand new singles.
“The balance is going to be made up from calls from the 80′s, 90′s, and 2000′s, predominantly anchored in the 90′s and 2000′s, with a little bit of ’80′s. But this format is really all about the face cards—the big artists from that 20-25 year period of time, mixed in with artists from today that make sense and have a sound that fits and is compatible.”
Dickey also addresses so-called “Bro-Country,” saying, “You won’t hear a lot of what we affectionately term in the business today as ‘Bro-Country.” This is a format that I can expect to be competitive 25-34, but like Hot AC, is really going to find a sweet spot 30-50.”
However if you look at the playlist of one of the recently-launched NASH Icon stations, you can find plays for songs like Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night,” or “Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here.” Those plays may disappear over time as the format tweaks itself, but at the moment, there is a discrepancy between John Dickey’s words, and the NASH Icon playlists. Those “current” songs may also be replaced by new songs from older artists, once those songs are released to the new format.
John Dickey and Cumulus do not see NASH Icon as second-rate country music programing. They see it living side-by-side with Top 40, competing aggressively, if not challenging country music as a whole to step up its game.
“[It is] already resonating big time and is only going to snowball and pick up more steam,” Dickey says. “As we continue to build out this platform, people will see this format is capable at playing at the biggest levels alongside where mainstream country is. This can stand side-by-side with mainstream country, and not Cannibalize it, but grow the total shares in the markets. What it’s going to do … is shape the creative community in Nashville, or motivate them a little bit more on some music that they probably haven’t been able to find the right home for. And I’m talking about specifically the writing community.“
The content glut of worthy songs that are not finding artists to cut them has been a side story to the Top 40, “Bro-Country” dominance of the format currently. We’ve heard people ranging from T Bone Burnett to Garth Brooks say that the amount and quality of songs waiting to be heard is astounding. There just hasn’t been an outlet for substantive material in country music for some time.
What Else To Expect
“There will be a morning show out of our NASH campus that will be purposed for NASH Icon,” John Dickey says. “It will be different than what we’re doing with NASH and ‘America’s Morning Show’ with Blair Garner. It’s going to [have] more of a living room setting and be more music intensive, but more interview-driven. Artists will come in and sit alongside the host of the show … I expect that to be online by the end of the year. With respect to any other day parts, there is nothing planned at this point that we would syndicate.”
“Westwood One is going to be offering NASH Icon as a format to affiliates starting almost immediately. We’re going to build on Stork platform, on what we call our localized format; completely customizable for any market. The Stork technology allows for somebody to take any day part or piece of the format that we offer and customize that around any live day parts that happen to be running … That technology allows for a very customized sound and custom feel to the format.”
This is where Cumulus and NASH differ from their biggest national competitor, Clear Channel. Clear Channel does not allow local formats to customize in many cases, breeding national homogenization to local formats. However many times local NASH affiliates still decide to go with national programming because the cost is cheaper than hiring local talent.
John Dickey also says that he expects Big Machine Records to begin announcing NASH Icon artists for the record label “sooner rather than later, probably within the next 30 to 60 days.”
What This All Means
As we can already see from the discrepancy between what John Dickey is saying about “Bro-Country” and what is showing up on playlists, it is going to take some time for NASH Icon to get its feet under itself and smooth out all the wrinkles. Regardless of who is being played from the current crop of mainstream country stars, you can also see from both the current NASH Icon playlists, and John Dickey’s words that older artist will once again be found on the radio airwaves, and not just on small, “classic” country stations. This new format also doesn’t threaten to Cannibalize those existing independent classic country stations unless they’re directly converted to a NASH Icon affiliate by Cumulus, because those listeners are not going to want to listen to Luke Bryan mixed in with their Randy Travis and Willie Nelson. But the format will potentially introduce those older artists to an entirely new audience, and challenge Top 40 country to deliver a little more variety and substance, or force listeners to switch channels.
One of the big questions that still remains is if Clear Channel—the #1 radio station owner in the country—will launch its own answer to NASH Icon.
Cumulus Media officially launched their “NASH Icon” brand to radio on Friday (8-15), changing two Georgia radio stations over to the new format that favors country music released from a 25-year “classic” period. Atlanta’s Oldies 98.9 W255CJ has changed over to NASH Icon 98.9, and Sports Radio 102.1 in Savannah will now be known as NASH Icon 102.1. According to Radio Insight, these are just two of the twelve total radio stations that are scheduled at the moment to take on the new NASH Icon brand (originally spelled plurally as “Icons”), including Nashville’s 95.5 WSM—the once FM companion station to AM’s 650 WSM. 650 WSM is country music’s most legendary station, and the home of the Grand Ole Opry.
Of the twelve radio stations looking to change over to the new format, only two of them are country stations—95.5 WSM in Nashville, and 92.5 KJJY in Des Moines. Three are classic or oldies stations mostly catering to older rock & roll, three are sports stations, three are contemporary hit radio stations, and one is news/talk.
The current flip list includes:
- 95.5 WSM Nashville (Country)
- 92.5 KJJY Des Moines (Country)
- 93.7 WJBC Pontiac / Bloomington, IL (News/Talk)
- 96.3 KBZU Albuquerque (Classic Rock)
- 98.9 W255CJ Atlanta (Classic Hits)
- 106.3 KRRF Oxnard, CA (Classic Hits)
- 97.9 KQLK Lake Charles, LA (CHR)
- 99.5 WZRR Birmingham, AL (CHR)
- 102.1 WNUQ Albany, GA (CHR)
- 100.7 KLSZ Fort Smith, AR
- 102.1 WZAT Savannah, GA
- 102.5 K273BZ Kansas City
NASH Icon was first announced in May as a joint venture between Cumulus Media and Big Machine Records. As mainstream country music radio has abandoned most of country music’s older artists, the idea with NASH Icon is to give a home to artists who still have large audiences, but no home on the radio dial. Meanwhile the NASH Icon record label is looking to sign artists from the 25-year window, and also wants to be involved heavily in merchandising and touring. The announcement of NASH Icon has many people in radio talking about a format split in country with contemporary country and “classic” country going their separate ways.
During a conference call last week, Cumulus chairman Lew Dickey said about NASH Icon, “We expect to announce a slate of signed artists before the holidays, and we’ll be working with our artists to monetize their work through recorded music, touring, merchandise and other related ventures. Following a start-up period in 2014, NASH ICON is expected to be profitable beginning next year.”
One of the big stories involving the back end of country music in 2014 has been the potential formation of a brand new radio format to give a home to the older artists quickly being shuffled off of mainstream radio in the movement towards youth. The announcement of the joint venture between Big Machine Label Group and radio owner Cumulus Media called NASH Icons is what started the buzz, and then mere weeks later a regionally-owned radio station in Kentucky changed it’s name to GARTH-FM, and all of a sudden the split of the country music radio format looked to be imminent. Since then the idea has been put in sort of a limbo state as NASH Icons isn’t even set to launch until 2015, but it still looks like a format split and the formation of a “classic” country radio network is still very much a real possibility.
The big question that remains is how the new format for older country music could take shape. NASH Icons and other early players have already pegged a 25-year window as the foundation for the format, featuring many of the artists that launched their careers in country music in 1989, including Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, and Clint Black. Artists like Shania Twain and Faith Hill have also been mentioned, and so has the inclusion of new music from these artists, making the new format not just about old songs.
Depending on how it breaks, a big new batch of classic country stations on the radio could be a Godsend for classic country fans, or it could be a nightmare. Since the idea still remains in its formative stages, this is the time that classic country fans have to opportunity to voice their opinion of what they would like to see from the new format. Whether these fans will be listened to by the industry or not is another matter. In the end NASH Icons and any other station that decides to switch to the new format will be doing so not from some philosophical desire to see older country back on the radio, but as a business decision.
Assuming that 25-year window is the one constant, let’s look at the two scenarios of how the classic country format split could transpire.
NOTE: Some have said that “classic” is not the best word to describe what the new format would be. But in lieu of a better succinct describer, we will use “classic” in this case.
BEST CASE SCENARIO
- It would focus on the 25-year “classic” window, but wouldn’t shy away from dipping a little deeper into country music’s past, especially for artists who were still relevant 25 years ago, and are still relevant today. For example, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson all released albums this year that had record charting performances and were very well-received by the public. These albums were released by major labels, who would see the benefit to promoting singles through a new country format for older artists if there was one.
- It includes playlists that are wide and diverse, and don’t just focus on the narrow window of usual suspects who had their biggest success in the 90′s. It doesn’t just play the artists that were great from the classic era, but the songs that were great from the era from some of the lesser-known artists.
- Unlike the classic rock format, it keeps playlists spicy. Understand that even with older artists, there are still trends and artists can get hot, or go cold depending on current events and other factors. If an older artist is going on a big tour or is releasing a new album, there may be renewed interest in that artist that demands more rotation time. Maybe a movie or documentary about an artist is released, or maybe they make an acting appearance that may raise their public interest. Play off of those trends to keep the format engaging. It listens to what listeners want.
- It doesn’t completely cannibalize the already-existing traditional country stations, especially in markets where they are successful—”traditional” meaning stations focused mostly on music before the 1989 window. In some very small markets, the older listening audience is still going to enjoy the country oldies more than more contemporary stars from the 90′s and 00′s. And in very large markets, there will always be enough listeners to support traditional country stations. Some traditional country stations are sure to switch over to the new format because it will be more commercially-lucrative for them. But it shouldn’t be expected that all of them should or have to.
- It is almost implied that with NASH Icons, there will be some nationalized programming as part of the format. But just like with Cumulus’s current NASH network, the new format should let local programmers decide how much national programming to carry. It should encourage local shows to create personal relationships with listeners, making listeners feel like they’re listening to a live human selecting the songs just for them and their community. As Edison Research has discovered through multiple studies, people connect better with locally-generated content, and this is especially true with the older demographics a classic country format would appeal to.
- The new format leaves open the possibility of allowing new artists that play an older style of country music to be included. Of course not every younger traditional country artist can be included, but when you have a band or artist who has proven their commercial viability and wide appeal like Old Crow Medicine Show or Strugill Simpson for example, throw their new single in the rotation. This will also keep the appeal of the classic format diversified, and allow for labels to help support the format with single releases. At the least, it leaves open the possibility of having weekend shows that feature new artists with a classic sound.
- Since the Country Music Association (or CMA) is made up of elements of the country radio world, they add new awards to recognize the new format. Similar to how the Grammy Awards distinguish subgenres and “Classic” and “Contemporary” artists in separate awards, name a “Classic Country Album of the Year”, “Classic Country Song of the Year”, and “Classic Country Artist of the Year”. You could still keep the purity of some of the other awards, like the “Entertainer of the Year”. As we saw with George Strait, classic entertainers could still be considered for any individual artist distinction. But a few select awards to recognize great contributions from classic country artists that would otherwise go unrecognized would fill the same gap that is opening up in radio for classic country artists.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
- The “classic” country format becomes nothing more than a way to consolidate and streamline most or all of the existing traditional or classic country radio stations by firing local talent and implementing syndicated programming 24/7, or close to it.
- It focuses on a narrow range of artists that had only the very top of commercial success in the early 90′s an not much more, avoiding artists whose heyday was before 1989 completely or whose fame was short-lived.
- Playlists are rarely or never freshened like the current classic rock format to where the new format plays virtually the same songs for decades.
- It mostly cannibalizes country music’s existing traditional country stations to the point where songs and artist from before 1989 can barely be found on the radio dial.
- It ignores both the legends that are still putting out commercially-successful music, and the up-and-comers.
- NASH Icons on the radio is nothing more than an infomercial for the label arm of the organization, with little to no outside support for other artists or meaningful representation of classic country music.
- Classic country artists are still left with little to no representation at country music award shows.
If you’ve ever wondered, “How can people listen to that crap?”, and certainly that phrase has entered most music listener’s minds at some point, it’s because different music listeners inherently want different things from the music experience, and certain songs and artists appeal to those different types of listeners. Ratings groups like Nielsen heretofore have almost solely focused on demographics as a way to track and rate the music experience for listeners, breaking down people by age group and gender primarily. But none of that takes into consideration that some listeners want something deep out of their musical experience, and others just want it as background noise to help get them through their busy days—in other words, the difference between active music listeners and passive music listeners.
Well now Nielsen has opened up a new field in how music listeners can be measured. In a new study called the “Audio Demand Landscape“, Nielsen has broken up listeners into distinct categories not factoring age or sex whatsoever. For Nielsen’s purposes, since they desire to factor in all of listening, including political, news, and sports talk, and especially the new technologies people are using to listen to media, it goes beyond the two worlds of passive and active fans. But the study still give new insight into the culture divide that delineates passive and active listeners.
Nielsen broke down listeners into six distinct categories:
- Music Loving Personalizers
- Discriminating Audiophiles
- Convenience Seeking Traditionalists
- Information Seeking Loyalists
- Background Driving Defaulters
- Techie Audio Enthusiasts
Though some of these categories deal with how people listen to audio instead of what, or deal more with the sports/news/talk realm, the categories of “Discriminating Audiophiles” and “Background Driving Defaulters” make near perfect definitions between fans who might find appeal in music that really speaks to them and has something to say, and fans who simply want to bob their heads to something catchy on the way home.
“Descriminating Audiofiles” in the study are defined as, “Highly engaged consumers who listen to and prefer a wide variety of audio, and are willing to pay for specific content.”
“Background Driving Defaulters” are described as, “Less engaged and typically have the radio on in the car for background entertainment or occasionally news and information.”
“Music Loving Personalizers” could also be considered part of the active listening population, and are described by Nielsen as being “passionate music listeners who are mainly seeking an emotional benefit by listening.”
The “traditionalist” word in “Convenience Seeking Traditionalists” is not as much about what these listeners listen to, but how they prefer more traditional media, such as radio to listen, while “Techie Audio Enthusiasts” are all about the new device or streaming service to enhance their musical experience. “Information Seeing Loyalists” are mostly interested in news and other talk radio.
Though the Nielsen study isn’t perfect in describing the difference between passive and active music fans and deals with a much larger range of topics facing the listening habits of consumers, for the first time we have a study that sees the clear divide between people who see music as an important aspect to their lives, and people who simply see it simply as background noise. This difference is one of the biggest factors, if not the biggest factor in the widening culture war with music as one of the main battlefronts. “Not all audio consumers are after the same thing,” the study says, “And their specific wants and desires motivate them to use many kinds of audio.”
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Nielsen’s Audio Demand Landscape was developed from a survey of an online panel of 4,950 Americans aged 18-74 conducted in English during March 2014 about their audio listening attitudes, motivations, behaviors, habits and preferences.
One of the fundamental issues causing the rapid decline in country music has been the massive consolidation in the ownership of country music’s radio stations and other media outlets. As huge companies like Clear Channel & Cumulus lay off local workers to instill nationalized programming, country music becomes homogenized through matching playlists that lock out local and regional flavor. Just this week Clear Channel’s flagship personality Bobby Bones signed a new, long-term deal with the company, while The Bobby Bones Show continues to move into new markets, including most recently Boston’s WEDX which changed over to the Top 40 country format on June 13th, now giving the syndicated radio host over 70 stations.
Despite the rapid consolidation of American media (see graphic below), last week the House of Representatives convened the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology to weigh the need for even more consolidation to help struggling media companies deal with the new realities faced by the internet and other emerging media markets. Though the FCC’s representative at the hearing, Chief of the Media Bureau William Lake said the commission had not seen any evidence that the 1996 Telecommunications Act rules governing radio ownership needed to be revised, apparently the FCC’s commissioner has differing views. While speaking before the Media Institute, FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly let it be know he wants more media deregulation, and he doesn’t want to wait for Congress to act to get it done.
I will make the analogy that the FCC is poised at this pivotal moment just like the proverbial ostrich … This bird is also known for being stubborn and sticking its head in the sand. Instead of speeding forward to recognize the marketplace realities, I worry the FCC is desperately clinging to existing rules—Rules that were written prior to the digital revolution, prior to Wi-Fi, and prior to the Internet. These regulations treat the various video providers that offer the same, or very similar, services, in different ways. To be fair, many of these rules—if not the most impactful ones—are the result of statutory provisions. Fortunately, the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee are looking towards reform. I defer to the Congress on the timing and content of any changes it deems appropriate. In the meantime, there is a great deal the FCC can do on its own accord to clear out the regulatory underbrush.
As brought up in the Congressional hearing, one of the universally-concerning issues facing media deregulation and consolidation is the lack of the FCC delivering a mandated review of the ownership rules, which was not delivered the last time it was required in 2010, and won’t be delivered this year either, despite it being due again.
One of the biggest issues facing many broadcasters today is the FCC’s Media Ownership rules. According to Section 202(h) of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 the FCC is required to review these rules every four years. It is supposed to repeal or modify any rules that can no longer be justified due to competition. Even when writing the law 18 years ago, Congress recognized that the media landscape was becoming more competitive and wanted the ownership limits to be only as restrictive as absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, this past April, the Commission ignored this requirement and voted to punt this review until June 2016, at the earliest. With the last review completed in 2007, the FCC will go almost a decade without updating these rules. I am not aware of any precedent that allows a federal department or agency to decline to meet a statutory deadline simply because it doesn’t want to comply.
One of the FCC’s primary regulations has to do with the amount of foreign ownership that can exist in media. Foreign ownership is currently set at no more than 25%, but as the FCC’s commissioner says, he’s already bending that rule, just as he’s looking to bend the other ownership rules, and wants the foreign ownership rule relaxed in the law even more.
The Commission should revisit its foreign ownership restrictions for broadcast licensees. We’ve taken the first step. One of my first votes as a new Commissioner in November was for the order that reaffirmed the Commission’s previously held, but not universally-known, position that it would consider applications to approve foreign ownership of broadcast licenses above the 25 percent threshold. We need to go further and consider ways to expand the foreign ownership rule to attract more investment in broadcasting. Encouraging foreign ownership will not only benefit domestic broadcasters, it will also open doors for U.S. investors abroad.
FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly then goes on to say, “I would challenge anyone to look in the mirror and with a straight face say that we need to tighten the media ownership rules…”
However Mike O’Rielly seems to be taking into consideration only one of the FCC’s regulatory tasks. Though the commission is charged with keeping the economics of American media viable to ensure a healthy marketplace, it is also the FCC’s job to look out for the public interest in how media is serving the community at large. As Representative Anna Eshoo said during the House subcommittee hearing, “We need to examine this in terms of what consolidation is actually going to do for the American people,” arguing that further deregulation of the media was more about making outmoded business models work instead of making sure the media and the FCC are fulfilling the public’s interest. Also during the hearing, the The President of the Newspaper Guild Communications Workers of America Bernard Lunzer said, “Further concentration will mean less credible news … We need real innovation and investment … consolidation of existing organizations will not get us there.”
Despite the lack of the FCC’s federally mandated report on media ownership, and in the midst of indecision of whether Congress will act with or without the report to further deregulate the industry, by FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly stating “there is a great deal the FCC can do on its own accord to clear out the regulatory underbrush,” and O’Rielly’s signal he’s already working around the previously-set foreign ownership rules, the FCC appears to be set to make some deregulatory changes on their own to deal with what they believe are unfair rules governing America’s media companies. This could mean even more media consolidation, even without the required review of media ownership by the FCC, or Congressional approval.
Mike O’Rielly became FCC Commissioner on November 4th, 2013.
When the news broke last week that there would be yet another new country music awards show squeezing its way into the already-crowded TV event space, it stimulated a collective rolling of the eyes from many over-saturated music fans and industry types. Really, how many of these things do we need? Buried in the details however was the insight that the American Country Countdown Awards wasn’t just the latest ploy for America’s eyeballs on an annual basis, it was also the latest shoe to fall in the historic re-shifting of the country music media landscape transpiring in 2014 with tremendous breadth and quickness.
First and most important to note, country music is not gaining another major television awards show. The American Country Countdown Awards to be aired on FOX are replacing the American Country Awards aired in December. The ACA’s only lasted for three years, always felt contrived, and may have put on its worst presentation during its run in 2013.
The ringleader of the new American Country Countdown Awards will be Kix Brooks, formerly of Brooks & Dunn, and currently the captain of the weekly syndicated radio show the awards are named for (UPDATE 9/12: Florida Georgia Line has been named as the first year hosts).The American Country Countdown, first begun in 1973 as the country sister to the recently-deceased Kasey Casem’s American Top 40, is produced and distributed by Cumulus Media, the 2nd largest radio station owner in the United States who’s been implementing big plans to move into the country music format hard and heavy in an attempt to pull the company out of its $2.23 billion debt.
The American Country Countdown Awards will be the latest move by Cumulus to propagate their nationally-syndicated NASH country music brand. This is the key behind the new awards, and the new name. “Expanding our NASH brand and the audience for our iconic ‘American Country Countdown’ franchise to a national TV audience is an exciting example of how we’re committed to serving the needs of America’s rapidly growing passion for country music,” says John Dickey, executive vice president and co-chief operating officer of Cumulus, and brother of Cumulus head honcho, Lew Dickey.
Taking it even further, Cumulus has already announced that part of the presentation will include a NASH Icons award—the name of the new classic country format Cumulus hopes to launch with the help of Scott Borchetta and Big Machine Records, and that has people talking about a potential country music format split.
In other words, The American Country Countdown Awards are the latest salvo in the country music media arms race being fought primarily between Cumulus media, and their chief rival, Clear Channel.
Clear Channel hasn’t been sitting on the sidelines however. The company just finished working in close collaboration with CMT as part of their own awards show, the CMT Music Awards on June 4th, which saw a 10% bump in ratings from the year previous.
“We’ve done some cool things already and we’re only four or five months in,” CMT President Brian Phillips told Country Aircheck about the CMT/Clear Channel partnership. “Just as there was promotion of the iHeartRadio Country Festival on CMT, the plans for cross-pollinating with Clear Channel and Verizon, who are another important partner, are part of a huge playbook. You can’t do these kinds of things anymore without massive high-reaching partnerships and this first year of the collaboration was huge. There’s no doubt what [CMT] Cody and Bobby [Bones] did on their stations helped tune-in.”
Another interesting wrinkle in the new American Country Countdown Awards is that Dick Clark Productions is coming on board to help produce the show. Dick Clark Productions is also the main production company behind country’s 2nd-biggest awards show, the Academy of Country Music, or ACM Awards held every April. This ensures, at least when it comes to the ACM Awards, that there will be no rivalry, but a respect for space by the two awards. The CMA Awards held in November is still seen as the most prestigious of the award shows because it is backed by a governing body, the Country Music Association, as opposed to a production company and media collaboration.
These latest moves give country music four major award shows vying for the public’s attention, and continue the work to institutionalize country music as the most dominant genre in American music at the moment.
You see the brown ‘N’ to the right there? If Cumulus Media and its CEO Lew Dickey have their way, in the coming years it will be one of the most recognized brands in North America, especially if you’re a country music fan. The plans that Lew Dickey has for that big brown ‘N’ are ambitious to say the least, and look to permeate just about every segment of the consumer culture of the United States.
Though the flagship for the NASH brand is the Cumulus stable of 70 country radio stations, with access to another 390 Cumulus-owned stations across the country and 1,500 more through the Westwood One radio network, Cumulus and Lew Dickey have made it known that they want to have the NASH brand travel much farther than radio. Cumulus has already secured a deal with long-running periodical Country Weekly to rebrand to NASH Magazine. They have also announced their plans for NASH-branded restaurants and food to solidify the big ‘N’ outside of music. They also reportedly want to make NASH-branded consumer products such as clothing, furniture, and even designer paint. NASH trim packages for trucks could be on the way, and all this goes together with NASH branded tours and musical events, TV specials and online streaming events.
And recently announced, NASH is partnering with Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group to create a new home for older country artists from the last 25 years called NASH Icons, with the intent of taking talent forgotten by country music’s current Top 40 formula and giving them a new home on the radio, while also releasing new music from older artists through the NASH Icons record label. This talk has country music in a tizzy about how the partnership could enact a format split in country music.
Yes, there’s a whole lot of NASH going on.
Though there has certainly been a rise in interest in country music over the last few years as the genre has branched out to lure in fans of rock, pop, and hip-hop, the plans Cumulus Media have for NASH still come across as quite grandiose and involved, especially for a company that is saddled with tremendous debt, and is facing across-the-board double-digit ratings declines in many of its key markets, including with some of its key NASH stations. It’s flagship country station in New York is floundering, its high debt is eating into any positive revenue news, and it all makes one stand back and wonder, is all this NASH rhetoric real, or is it all smoke and mirrors? Is NASH simply “sizzle” to keep the Cumulus investors and partners believing in Lew Dickey’s vision, or is it the next big event in country music?
Let’s take a look.
The Debt and Revenue Issues
To say that Cumulus is leveraged heavy with debt doesn’t even begin to explain the half of it. The company currently owes roughly $2.23 billion to its debtors, and simply the interest on those loans sufficiently eats into the company’s profits on a quarterly basis. Cumulus is in a situation where even when revenues increase, debt interest still cuts deeply into profits. In December of 2013, Cumulus was able to refinance their debt in a move that will save them roughly $30 to $35 million in interest costs according to Moody’s, but the sheer size of the debt promises to weigh the company down and any of their plans for the near and long term.
As for revenue, for the first quarter of 2014, Cumulus reported a net loss of $9.27 million. This is worse than the $8.99 million loss from the first quarter of 2013, meaning Cumulus continues to lose money, and lose money at a growing rate. There is a small silver lining though. Revenue is actually up for the company. It increased $10.5 million to $292.0 million in the first quarter of 2014 from $281.5 million from Q1 of 2013. The reason for the discrepancy between revenue and net profit? The company’s debt and other expenses eat into any income. Leveraging even more debt and expenses through expenditures or acquisitions may turn the current financial formula even more unfavorably against Cumulus if more spending is necessary to see their plans for the NASH brand materialize.
The Ratings Issue
Simply put, the ratings for many Cumulus Media radio stations are awful. A recent move to replace conservative talk stalwarts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on Cumulus with the less-combative Michael Savage has seen a massive ratings dive for the company’s stalwart talk radio franchise. Ratings are down for many of the Cumulus NASH stations as well, including the flagship in New York City where NASH’s syndicated “America’s Morning Show” originates. The show is currently pulling a 1.9 share in New York, which is only good enough for 19th place in the city. In many markets, Clear Channel’s Bobby Bones Show is handedly beating its Cumulus counterpart. In Nashville for example, NASH’s affiliate WKDF-FM 103.3′s ratings are down 45% from a year before, partly due to the fact that Bobby Bones, who bases his show out of Nashville, and has taken over the market’s #1 spot.
Here is a breakdown of some other Cumulus stations, and their precipitous slide:
- WABC/NY down 44%
- KABC/LA down 52%
- WLS/CHI down 57%
- KGO/SF down 58%
- KSFO/SF down 38%
- WBAP/DAL down 32%
- WLS-FM/CHI (Classic Hits) down 45.9%
- KLOS-FM/LA (Classic Rock) down 24.6%
- WGVX-FM/MN (Sports) down 80.8%
- WKDF-FM/Nashville (Country) down 45.2%
- WDVD-FM/Detroit (Hot Adult Contemporary) down 38.3%
- KBEE-FM/SLC (Hot Adult Contemporary) down 50%
The Signing of Artists for NASH Icons
Who Scott Borchetta of Big Machine can sign to the recently-revealed NASH Icons label is going to be key to the success or failure to the venture, or its potential in instigating a format split for country music. On May 27th, in a moment that smacked of publicity sizzle, Lew Dickey announced that Scott Borchetta was aggressively looking to sign Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Alan Jackson, Shania Twain, and other big-name country stars to the NASH Icons label. “I would look for Scott to make an announcement in the next 30 days,” Lew said, but is Lew just name dropping, and does any label owner, even one with the power of Scott Borchetta, really have the ability to sign a whole stable of big stars in such a short period?
Just because a label wants to sign artists, doesn’t mean they can. Though the contract situations of any artist can be complicated, and buyouts and other such deals are always possible, as first pointed out by Windmills Country, Alan Jackson appears to still be signed with EMI Nashville, hypothetically making him untouchable by NASH Icons. Shania Twain is still signed with Mercury Nashville, and Faith Hill likely still owes Warner Nashville an album. So even if Scott wanted to sign three of these four artists tied to NASH Icons, it might take some serious money or maneuvering. Scott Borchetta has worked with Garth Brooks in the past, and country’s biggest ever superstar is poised for a big comeback at any moment now that his daughter has graduated high school. But it can’t be presumed Garth would work with Borchetta who may not want to sign up for Garth’s no iTunes cause, or a bevy of other major sticking points that could arise between the two big personalities.
For Lew Dickey to drop such prodigious names and expect big signings announced in the manner of a month seems presumptive at the least, and maybe misleading. We’ll see.
The Lew Dickey Issue
To say that Lew Dickey is unliked is an understatement when talking about certain sectors of the radio world and the media. Granted, many of Lew Dickey’s detractors can be found in the conservative media, and stem from Dickey’s handling of Rush Limbaugh and blaming Rush specifically for the precipitous backsliding of the company. Lew Dickey said Rush cost the company “millions” in the aftermath of a brushup between the talk show host and feminine activist Sandra Fluke in February of 2012.
But the Lew Dickey hatred goes deeper. Many radio personalities and insiders have a disagreeable view of Dickey for cutting local jobs to implement syndicated national programming, and generally gaming the radio system without regard for the future of the format.
There is a clear sentiment out there in portions of radio land that Lew Dickey is just puffing his chest out with NASH, and many of the promises for the name won’t be fulfilled, if only because the company won’t have the capital, financial flexibility, or managerial muscle to do it.
What is NASH, Really?
Even if Cumulus and Lew Dickey’s NASH dream becomes fully realized, there won’t be factories erected by Cumulus churning out pallets of NASH paint and leather couches with NASH’s big ‘N’ on the back. These products will likely be made through licensing deals Cumulus will strike with other companies to manufacture the actual products. While this scenario means it’s more likely the dream of an army of NASH products will find their way to a store shelf near you will actually happen, it also means the sale of those products won’t be as financially lucrative for Cumulus as they are for the actual manufacturers if they are successful. Lew Dickey’s bet is that the name recognition is what will pay off in the long run. Or, there may be very limited runs of these NASH products simply to help create a buzz. Or, it all just may be noise to create interest and support around the NASH endeavor and the Lew Dickey regime.
“Dickey is into branding — just like on cows. And he is stamping the ‘Nash’ emblem on everything country,” says nationally recognized radio and media insider Jerry Del Colliano, who published a critical piece on Cumulus, Lew Dickey, and the company’s NASH plans on May 19th called “Tough Shareholder Questions for Lew Dickey“. “He may start selling products, or it may be bullshit. With Dickey, you never know.”
According to Del Colliano, NASH Icons is simply an excuse to consolidate more country radio stations under syndicated programming. Though on the surface it may somewhat solve the issue of “classic” country artists getting pushed out of the country radio format prematurely, it will exacerbate the issue raised by radio research company Edison Research at the Country Radio Seminar in February, that the lack of local focus and syndication by Cumulus and Clear Channel in country radio is killing the format.
“Where Cumulus now has a successful country station, [Lew Dickey] is forcing the morning talent out and replacing them with a weak nationally syndicated morning show that is not local,” says Jerry Del Colliano. “Dickey should have no problem keeping big investors on board because they don’t understand the radio industry and probably don’t listen to any kind of country music. They hear the sound of money from a shrewd CEO who is selling sizzle, because if ratings or revenue is a yardstick, he is failing.”
“[Cumulus] throws nickels around like manhole covers — they aren’t going to spend ANY money on NASH,” continues Del Colliano. “It is one format for 100 plus stations some day. In other words, they pay for one station and fire everyone else. How is that investing in country? It is hurting country by eliminating the local person center connection that is so unique to country music and artists. NASH is pop radio country style. NASH Icons will be traditional country but in a watered down cheap version. Icons is — to be blunt — just another format that will allow Cumulus to fire lots of local people and install a money saving 2nd national format. It could be Gregorian Chants for all the Dickeys care. This has little to do with country and lots to do with saving money by syndicating cheap national formats.”
As for why Scott Borchetta would deal with Lew Dickey and Cumulus, Jerry Del Colliano concludes, “Dickey is offering the promise of promotion that Borchetta likes, which is why he has similar deals with Clear Channel. Cumulus gets what it wants and Borchetta gets airplay. And what does Dickey want? Artists for on-air promotion, exclusives and free appearances in return.”
The next shoe to fall will be if, and who Scott Borchetta signs to NASH Icons in the next 2 1/2 week period laid out by Lew Dickey of when we could expect an announcement. In the meantime, what the true extent of what NASH, and NASH Icons will be, and if it could mean a new “classic” format for country radio will have to wait to be seen. For Cumulus, the venture may have no choice but to be wildly successful, because in the face of the implosion of their conservative talk business, and the move by many consumers to streaming alternatives to radio, NASH appears to be the centerpiece of the Cumulus plan to pull the company out of its current tailspin.
Jerry Del Colliano will be speaking at the “Talkers Conference in New York on June 20th.
Kentucky’s 103.9 WRKA first created a stir over the Memorial Day weekend when they re-branded to the “All Garth, all the time” radio station GARTH-FM, playing Garth and Garth only on a 24 hour loop. Though it appeared to be what people in the radio business call “stunting”—where a radio station ahead of a format change plays the same song, or in this case, the same artist over and over to draw attention—the importance of WRKA’s move goes much deeper.
As hypothesized by many when GARTH-FM first hit the air, the radio station has arguably become the first in the country to adopt a new “classic” country format, first floated as an idea by radio trade publication writers, and first championed in public by the yet to be launched venture between the Big Machine Label Group and Cumulus Media called NASH Icons. The idea is to give a home to country artists that flourished in country music starting 25 years ago, when artists like Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt, and Clint Black first got their start; artists that have been all but abandoned by country radio. It all has country music and the radio world buzzing about a potential format split in country music, where Top-40 country and “classic” country stations could exists side by side.
On May 29th, Garth’s lawyers sent a cease and desist letter to WRKA, telling them to quit using Garth’s name to promote their station. They were still able to play Garth’s music, but this development may have forced WRKA to expedite their more long-term plans of becoming the country’s first station to reside in the “classic” 25-year window. On Monday morning, 103.9 rolled out their new format called “The Hawk – Louisville’s True Country.”
“The country listener that became a fan in the 1990’s when country really exploded can’t find those songs on the radio in Louisville right now,” says Operations Manager Shane Collins. “It’s a whole segment of the audience that’s being underserved. With the new 103.9 The Hawk, they can hear those big monster hits and artists all the time.”
Of course not everyone is happy with the move. The format the The Hawk replaced was one that played artists beyond the 25-year “classic” window; artists like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. But like it or hate it, 103.9 The Hawk will become the bellwether for country music’s potential new format, and there’s no doubt the rest of the country will be watching and listening to see how the new station is received.
The country music radio format that has resisted splintering for years could finally be cleaving into two distinct entities of “classic” and “Top 40″ country, initiated at least in part over the Memorial Day weekend when a radio station based out of Louisville, KY became the first to adopt a new “classic” country format centered around a 25-year measuring stick.
Though there are many “classic” country stations around the United States, the Summit Media-owned 103.9 in Louisville is the first to implement a much talked about 25-year retrospective that focuses on country music’s breakout era starting in the early 90′s with the rise of Garth Brooks and other powerhouse country stars. In fact to drive the idea home, 103.9 has reformatted the station to where right now they’re playing Garth, and only Garth, and are calling themselves GARTH-FM.
“We feel like this era of music has gotten gradually ignored,” says the Director of Marketing for Summit Media in Louisville, Brian Eichenberger. “And what’s happening now is that country is going more and more pop in a lot of ways. You have the representation on the legends side, but you don’t necessarily have it in that 90′s to 2000′s, to 2002 period where country was really strong. And the best figure head for for that is Garth. So our first move was to make a strong statement about bringing that era back and making it all about Garth. May we add in other artists at some point? That’s highly possible. But right now we really want to make a statement about, ‘What happened to the 90′s? Let’s bring them back.’ And here’s Garth to do it. These guys are a really important part of the dialogue around country music over the last quarter of a century, and they’re disappearing from pop culture. We want to make sure that’s not happening.”
Though the brain trust behind GARTH-FM says their idea predates the big announcement by the Big Machine Label Group and Cumulus Media last week that they will be launching a new NASH Icons venture focusing on the 25-year “classic” country music era, GARTH-FM may eventually sound very much like what NASH Icons has in mind. Since the Summit Media-owned 103.9 in Louisville is autonomous from the reach of Cumulus, their move speaks to the broad-based, multi-company support for a “classic” country format that would need to exist if the idea is to have enough support to truly split country music in two. Summit Media’s Brian Eichenberger thinks this split is a very real possibility.
“This splintering is happening in country music in general, where it’s forming into these two camps where before it has always been one format, and you would say Luke Bryan and Johnny Cash were country, or Luke Bryan and Garth Brooks in the same sentence. But slowly that’s starting to—at least from a radio standpoint—splinter a bit. I mean we hear it all the time. We’ll hear, ‘We’ll I really don’t like country, but I like Florida Georgia Line.’ Or you’ll hear, ‘I really don’t like Florida Georgia Line, that’s a bunch of pop crap. But give me Merle, give me Johnny,’ or even up to ‘Give me Garth and Alan.’ So yeah, I think that’s going to happen.”
In fact we may see it happening among smaller radio stations first, before big companies like Cumulus Media and its NASH Icons venture, or Clear Channel can re-deploy resources to meet the impending trend. “Sometimes when you’re a smaller company you can actually move a little faster,” says Brian Eichenberger. “There’s less parts in the machine to get mobilized. I think we do have that working to our advantage. We’re doing what we think this market in particular needs. We definitely have the support of our corporate office, but we focus as a smaller company on what we can do to really adhere to our metro area and the million people that are here. And we definitely feel like this is something that this market is ready for.”
Though the splitting of the country format in theory means bringing back artists that have been left behind by country radio’s recent obsession with youth, the biggest concern coming from traditional country fans is if the new format might cannibalize some, or many of the traditional country stations out there that already exist, but don’t adhere to the new 25-year format. And according to a recent interview with Big Machine Label Group’s Scott Borchetta, that’s exactly what he expects to happen. Borchetta says about NASH Icons, “The new brand will replace many of their classic country stations, plus extend to syndicated shows, secondary station markets, touring and print.”
This concern is further driven home by GARTH-FM, which replaced an already-existing format that focused on classic country outside the 25-year window. “We’re all aging,” Brian Eichenberger explains, “and so slowly the folks that are 40 and 50, the stuff that they remember, the stuff that is their nostalgic go-to music for when they were in high school and college is going to be this stuff that has started to disappear. Whenever there’s a new generation of people coming up, the music they were fond of, that quintessential 16 to 22-year-old range, is the stuff that beings re-appearing.”
However at the heart of the proposed classic country format, even with its 25-year limitation, is to reinstate many artists who’ve been forgotten by mainstream country radio. “We found an open lane,” says Scott Borchetta, “a way for artists like Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Alan Jackson and others to make new music and get it on the radio and tour. We’re going to feature their new music next to the classic songs. So if those are your favorite artists—news flash—they didn’t die! The business just didn’t take care of them. Artists I talk to about this are thrilled to get their music back on the radio and we hope the fans will engage the same way.”
What could emerge from this format split could be something very similar to rock music, where you have “oldies” stations, “classic” stations, and Top 40 stations. “If you look at radio formats in general, you will see that oldies [rock] format used to live in the 50′s and 60′s, and it has slowly been disappearing,” says Summit Media’s Brian Eichenberger. “Over time, classic rock has moved from being something that started in the 60′s, and went maybe into the early 80′s, and is slowly moving closer and closer to where there’s classic rock stations playing Candlebox and Pearl Jam. As the audience ages, those definitions are going to become a little more fluid. And I do think there’s going to be this country transition where the classic rock of country formats will kind of bridge between the oldies country and the new country.”
Do you like Garth Brooks? Do you really like Garth Brooks? To the point where you’re so smitten with Garth’s music you’d be inclined to listen to it 24/7 and nothing else? Well then your in luck neighbor, because a new radio station has just popped up called GARTH-FM in Louisville, KY at 103.9 on the dial, serving the surrounding area and the entire world via the internet with Garth, and Garth only. The station’s slogan is “Garth, The Whole Garth, and Nothing But The Garth.”
The format change for the Summit Media-owned radio station happened over the Memorial Day weekend. It was first thought to be what’s known in the radio station business as “stunting”—where a station will play the same song, or maybe the same artist over and over to draw attention ahead of a format change. But the commitment to GARTH-FM goes much deeper, or that’s what they’re saying at the moment. “There has been attention both inside and outside the industry recently regarding the absence of Garth on country radio these days,” Summit Media Louisville Operations Manager Shane Collins says, citing a recent Inside Radio article on the subject. “We really feel like there is a gap here that needs to be filled.”
Now that gap will be filled in a big way, and 103.9 GARTH-FM will be the first full service radio station to solely play one artist. Illustrating the station’s commitment to Garth, they’ve set up garthlouisville.com and 1039garthfm.com to stream the station online.
Summit Media, the parent company of GARTH-FM, owns about 24 radio stations throughout Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, and Hawaii, including 3 other Louisville-based radio stations, including the area’s “NEW Country Q 103.1″ Top 40 country counterpart to GARTH-FM.
The launching of GARTH-FM adds an interesting wrinkle to the discussion of a potential upcoming format split for country music, with Top 40 country, and “classic” country from the last 25 years going their separate ways. Rumors that this reality might be in the offing were stimulated when Big Machine Records struck a deal with radio giant Cumulus Media to start a new NASH Icons venture.
Another interesting note is that the radio station format that GARTH-FM is replacing was already playing classic country. The previous “Country Legends 103.9″ established on July 23rd, 2008 touted “playing hits from Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Randy Travis.” This creates the question if a potential paradigm shift of country radio into two formats will potentially cannibalize under-performing classic or traditional radio stations that play music beyond this all-of-a-sudden magic 25-year “classic” country window, when big artists like Garth Brooks started their commercial ascent. There is also the possibility that as time goes on, GARTH-FM, just like many stations, could morph into this new 25-year “classic” country format and cover multiple artists.
When we look back, the changeover to GARTH-FM could be a symbolic moment where the cleaving of country music into two formats began …. or a silly idea that was short lived.
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UPDATE: Director of Marketing for Summit Media in Louisville, Brian Eichenberger says, “May we add in other artists at some point? That’s highly possible. But right now we really want to make a statement about, ‘What happened to the 90′s? Let’s bring them back.’ And here’s Garth to do it.” READ FULL UPDATE
Last week when it was announced that arguably the most powerful country music label in Nashville—-the Big Machine Label Group—was partnering with the 2nd biggest radio station owner in America—Cumulus Media—-to launch a brand new “classic” country venture called NASH Icons that will cover country music from the last 25 years, including releasing albums, setting up live events, and producing comparable programming for radio, there was a sense from the people that cover such things that this news was much more important than the particulars of the Cumulus/Big Machine deal itself. It seemed to be the first step in a precarious walk that country music has been on the brink of for a while now: a potential format split—a clean break for classic country and contemporary country to go about their merry ways and pursue their own fortunes, to be beholden to each other no longer, and put deep-seated resentments and incessant arguments about the direction of the genre to bed for good.
Envision a day where all the current Top 40 country that classic country fans are incensed over is segregated into its own autonomous format, with its own radio stations, and potentially even its own awards, special events and festivals. And the same could happen for classic country. It could have it’s own place to not forget the past, and respect the roots of the genre. With the announcement of the Big Machine / Cumulus deal, the daunting task of splitting country music not only looks possible, it looks like it could be mutually amicable, and a potentially pragmatic way to address many of the problems plaguing the format.
Simply looking at the research data for country radio, a format split almost seems pre-ordained. Country radio is not working, and this is beyond opinion, this is tirelessly borne out in research. Every year, radio luminaries and personalities congregate in Nashville in late February for the Country Radio Seminar, and virtually every year, a market research company called Edison Research delivers dire reports about the state of country radio and its continued slide. In 2012, Edison Research brought a study to the conference that proved that country listeners wanted more classic country on radio, and that by following the youth movement, country radio was abandoning large segments of its core audience.
“I believe that we as an industry have really made a mistake in our conception of our own stations,” Larry Rosin of Edison Research said. “While many people don’t want to listen to classic country music, some still do, and we’ve let them float away…We run the risk that we just are more and more pleasing to fewer and fewer people until all we are is ecstatically pleasing a tiny, unsustainable number of people.”
In 2014, Edison Research went further to explain that the same young listeners that country radio is relying on more and more are themselves relying more and more on streaming and other alternative options to radio as opposed to older listeners who tend to use radio more. Larry Rosin implored that “Country radio – radio – is in the fight of its life,” and that voicetracked, or non-live and non-local shows were “essentially a disaster for the radio industry.”
So the writing is on the wall that something needs to happen to country radio, and even though the research and numbers irrefutably seem to be telling country radio that the narrowing of the format to focus on youth and consolidated programming to syndicated national shows is not working, country radio seems to be powerless to change any of these trends. Money is slipping through the fingers of the country music industry because they are under serving so many of the same demographics that have always made up the genre’s core audience.
So here comes Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta, a savvy, new school-style music executive who is a master at finding holes in the market that nobody ever even knew existed, and turning them into revenue streams. As much as some classic country fans may want to decry Borchetta for deepening the youth trends in country, he himself can see there is millions being lost by under serving country’s more classic-style listeners, and he decides to do something about it.
Could a spit of country radio really be possible? Billboard’s radio expert Sean Ross, writer of the Ross on Radio column seems to think so, saying in a recent article, “By partnering with Big Machine Label Group, Cumulus has planted the seed for country radio to do something it has resisted for years: fragment into two different formats that both expose current music.”
Key to the split appears to be this 25 year mark, which as Sean Ross points out was “a period of superstar acts and mass-appeal records that were more widely heard at the time, and heard by a younger audience.” But even more important to understand is that this new “classic” format is not just about playing old songs from older artists, but playing new songs from older artists, and potentially, even older-sounding songs from newer artists. In other words, if this new classic country format becomes a reality, it could not only give a home to artists like Randy Travis and George Strait who’ve been all but forgotten by radio, it could also give a home to artists like Sturgill Simpson and the Turnpike Troubadours who play new music, but in a more classic style. The new classic format could finally be the much longed-for way to expose country’s overlooked independent artists to a wide, national radio audience.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Big Machine and Cumulus could be two huge companies with a lot of sway in the music industry, but do they really have the muscle to set up an entirely new radio format by themselves? They may not, and most important to understand about the NASH Icons deal is it doesn’t just involve radio, but album releases, and other cross-format events that will certainly take into consideration the current realities of music, including the declining use of radio in general, as well as declining physical sales.
NASH Icons will be multi-pronged. But so will be the potential answer from Cumulus and Big Machine’s competition, especially if the venture is successful. It seems strange that Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta chose Cumulus as his dance partner, instead of their bigger rival Clear Channel, which Borchetta has already made a number of historic deals with in recent years. It could be because Cumulus is more focused on their NASH branding, and is willing to concede certain things to get their big ‘N’ emblem out there. But this certainly doesn’t mean that Clear Channel will sit tight and not try to launch their own classic format.
Clear Channel & Cumulus have been locked in a media arms race. When Clear Channel started adding more syndicated, national programming with personalities like Bobby Bones and Cody Alan, Cumulus launched their “American Morning Show” with Blair Garner and Terri Clark. When Clear Channel began to focus on their iHeartRadio app, Cumulus partnered with streaming app Rdio. It’s certainly not unreasonable to think Clear Channel could launch a venture similar to NASH Icons soon, and this could start a chain reaction across the country and spring a brand new classic country format into being.
Of course there is a long way to go before this is a reality, but with the announcement of NASH Icons, we’ve never been closer to a classic/contemporary country divorce. Would it be good for country music, and for country radio? That would remain to be seen, borne out in the particulars of how the new split formats formed. The classic rock format has obviously been wildly successful for radio over the years, aside from feeling tired from a lack of new music being interjected into it by its programmers. And classic rock has existed right beside “oldies” stations, which are the equivalent to the traditional country stations that exist to a smaller degree in the American radio landscape, and do quite well in certain places covering music beyond the 25-year “classic” window.
The difference between NASH Icons and classic rock though, is the new music quotient that would keep the format relevant and vibrant. We could even see the CMA recognize both “Classic” and “Contemporary” Albums of the Year, and other fundamental changes to the format to face both it’s growing reach, and widening demographics. Remember everyone talking about George Strait’s wins for Entertainer of the Year at the CMA and ACM awards as parting gifts to classic country? This could be another sign of the almost inevitable split.
Of course we may be getting way ahead of ourselves. But the possibility of a format split, and a new “classic” country format being launched is very real. And if the new format does take hold, it may dramatically change the paradigm for country music, and finally return classic-style country to the ears of thirsty listeners.
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