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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.
â˘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.
â˘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.
â˘Bro-Country is Currently Featured On NASH Icon: On August 25th,Â Cumulus Media COO John Dickey said, âYou wonât hear a lot of what we affectionately term in the business today as âBro-Country.â 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.
â˘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.
â˘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.”
â˘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.
â˘Only Singles Were Featured, No Album Cuts.
â˘Only One Song Played Twice in the 3 Â˝ Hours. It Was Florida Georgia Line’s “Dirt.”
Suggestions for the NASH Icon Playlist
â˘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.
â˘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.
â˘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
â˘ ‘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.
â˘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.
â˘’New’ artists are artists currently being played, or recently being played on mainstream country radio. “New’ songs are songs currently on mainstream country radio.
â˘ 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)
Â 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 â80s, â90s 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 wonât 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 / Blooomington, IL (News/Talk)
- 96.3 KBZU Albquerque (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 weâll 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.â
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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Nielsenâs 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 Committeeâs 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 rulesâRules 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 rulesâif not the most impactful onesâare 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 FCCâs 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 doesnât 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. Weâve taken the first step. One of my first votes as a new Commissioner in November was for the order that reaffirmed the Commissionâs 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, âWe need to examine this in terms of what consolidation is actually going to do for the American people,â 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 publicâs interest. Also during the hearing, the The President of the Newspaper Guild Communications Workers of America Bernard Lunzer said, âFurther concentration will mean less credible news âŚ We need real innovation and investment âŚ consolidation of existing organizations will not get us there.â
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,Â 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 âAmerican Country Countdownâ franchise to a national TV audience is an exciting example of how weâre committed to serving the needs of Americaâs rapidly growing passion for country music,â 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 weâre 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.
Â 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 âmillionsâ 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 â just like on cows. And he is stamping the ‘Nash’ emblem on everything country,” says nationally recognized radio and media insiderÂ 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 donât understand the radio industry and probably donât 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 â they arenât 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?Â 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 â to be blunt â 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.”
âThe country listener that became a fan in the 1990âs when country really exploded canât find those songs on the radio in Louisville right now,” says Operations Manager Shane Collins. “Itâs a whole segment of the audience thatâs being underserved. With the new 103.9 The Hawk, they can hear those big monster hits and artists all the time.â
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. Weâre going to feature their new music next to the classic songs. So if those are your favorite artistsânews flashâthey didnât die! The business just didnât 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. âThere has been attention both inside and outside the industry recently regarding the absence of Garth on country radio these days,â Summit Media Louisville Operations Manager Shane Collins says, citing a recent Inside Radio article on the subject. âWe really feel like there is a gap here that needs to be filled.â
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? Thatâs highly possible. But right now we really want to make a statement about, âWhat happened to the 90â˛s? Letâs bring them back.â And hereâs 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.
âI believe that we as an industry have really made a mistake in our conception of our own stations,â Larry Rosin of Edison Research said. âWhile many people donât want to listen to classic country music, some still do, and weâve let them float awayâŚWe 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.â
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 âCountry radio â radio â is in the fight of its life,â and that voicetracked, or non-live and non-local shows were âessentially a disaster for the radio industry.â
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.
As Saving Country Music has been saying all year, mergers, acquisitions, and cross-platform partnerships are going to be the big story of 2014, and will reorganize and churn country music in a manner that the genre has never seen before in its entire history. At the forefront of this historic reorganization has been America’s two biggest radio station owners: Clear Channel & Cumulus, who are betting big on country to become America’s most dominant radio format. Right beside them making big moves is arguably the most powerful label in country music at the moment: Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records. The Big Machine Label Group has already reached landmark deals with Clear Channel for the use of its artists’ music on radio, and with other entities such as Dr. Luke. And now Big Machine has partnered with Cumulus on a venture that very well could end up creating an entirely new sub-genre or sub-format of country music.
Announced late Tuesday, NASH Icons, a takeoff on Cumulus’ already-established nationally-syndicated NASH brand, is a partnership with the Big Machine Label Group for the purpose of taking old and new music from artists “of the past 25 years” and giving its own place to live. Though no specific artists to be featured have been detailed yet, the idea seems to encompass music from performers like Big Machine’s Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire, and many others artists like Garth Brooks and Randy Travis who’ve had big careers in the past 25 years and that have massive back catalogs of country music that have been virtually abandoned by mainstream radio and many major record labels.
Though detailed specifics of exactly what NASH Icons will look like once it rolls out have not been made available, the two companies are planning a NASH Icons record label that would distribute both old and new music from NASH Icons artists. NASH Icons will also host live events such as special media programming, and potentially tours and festivals, and have streaming and syndicated radio programs specifically catering to the NASH Icons 25-year brand.
Though the term “classic” has been thrown out there to describe the country music that will be featured with the new venture, it appears to be purposely focused on music from a 25-year window, meaning that anything before 1989—when artists like Garth Brooks, Clint Black, and Brooks & Dunn really started their rise—will likely not be included.
As consumer study group Edison Research has pointed out numerous times over the past few years, mainstream country radio has been ignoring its classic country fan base, and the result has been an acceleration of country radio’s loss of listeners that has already been occurring naturally because of the emergence of new media options for consumers like Pandora, Spotify, and satellite radio. This venture signals from both Cumulus and Big Machine that they recognize there is an untapped market for older country music that has been ignored in a growing manner by mainstream country radio focusing on youth and the here-and-now.
However the move could also accelerate this trend if anything seen as “classic” is moved to an entirely different format. If 25-year-old country music is completely segregated from mainstream country, it leaves mainstream country to become a true, current-only country equivalent of Top 40, where any music over a couple of years old will be entirely stricken from the format. In other words, older country could be banished to the old folks home, out of sight and out of mind from mainstream consumers. This trend could also spread to industry award shows and other cultural institutions of country music.
At the same time, it could also finally give aging country artists and fans a format, and somewhere to go when mainstream radio will no longer pay attention to them.
Big Machine and Cumulus would not be getting into this business if they didn’t feel there was money to be made. At the same time, the two companies may see this as a way to placate much of the current criticism being levied at the country oligarchy for abandoning its roots, and abandoning the artists and fans that made country into the commercially-successful format it is today.
What the true impact of NASH Icons will be is yet to be seen, or if Clear Channel, Cumulus’ main rival, will launch their own “classic” venture with another partner, as the two media giants saddled with billions in debt and looking toward country music as their way outÂ match each other tit for tat in the current country music media arms race. The billions of debt that Cumulus carries, along with their other plans for big-minded partnerships and licensing deals that include making NASH-branded food, clothing, furniture, and even paint cast the question of how the company plans to levy the capital to pay for this all, and if country is truly on such a meteoric rise that all the entities looking to capitalize off of it will end up cannibalizing each other as they all fight for the same slices of the pie, regardless of how much that pie is incrementally growing.
Either way, this partnership is not just fodder for Page 2 of radio trade publications. This could spark a significant moment in creating a new format for the country music that has been abandoned by the mainstream, or it could stimulate mainstream country abandoning its roots even further. Or both.
One of the big behind-the-scenes/industry stories in country music in 2014 has been the formation of gargantuan media partnerships in an attempt to make huge cross-format monopolies consisting of radio, television, online, print, and streaming content that will create a favorable environment for big advertisers looking to tap into country’s lucrative consumer demographics. Anchored by America’s two biggest radio station owners—Clear Channel & Cumulus—the country music media landscape is being reorganized like never before. The New York Times recently ran a story focusing to the Cumulus side of things, while calling country “one of radioâs biggest success stories over the last decade” as the genre gets younger and loses its hayseed image.
But there is a problem. And it’s a big one, for both Clear Channel, Cumulus, and many of their smaller competitors.
Radio is losing money, and losing money at an alarming, unsustainable pace. The problem for American radio is many fold, and has partly to do with some company’s strategies amongst massive red ink and increasing debt to cut costs by slashing labor and nationalizing programming; a strategy that is creating a disconnect with American listeners as streaming options become more prevalent, according to media research company Edison Research.
Though country has been lucrative for the radio business in some respects, and this is the reason media is betting big on country for its future, it may be too little, too late, as debt mounts, credit ratings get slashed, and radio, despite its continued dominance in the marketplace as a whole, faces increasing competition from new technologies.
And then there is the radio industry’s biggest problem: Conservative talk radio.
Though the New York Times portrayal of the new Cumulus mega media beehive seemed to be one of forward-thinking and fat times amidst country’s rising popularity, the fact is Cumulus, its chief rival Clear Channel, and many other smaller radio-based media companies are in a very bad way right now because conservative talk radio—the previous cash cow of the business—is in an absolute tailspin, making many of these media giants not just bleed money, but hemorrhage it, as radio ratings are nose diving right and left.
In one year, Cumulus Media’s revenue has fallen an astounding 87.4%, from roughly $56 million a quarter to $7.4 million year over year. TheStreet.com gives Cumulus a ‘C – ‘ rating, and the stock has “significantly underperformed” compared to its peers on the S&P 500.
A lot of the blame for the disappearing revenue is being given to the decision of conservative talk personality Sean Hannity to switch from Cumulus to rival Clear Channel. This swing has caused many of Cumulus’ biggest stations to see a plummet in ratings. Replacements like Gov. Mike Huckabee and Geraldo Rivera didn’t pan out, and it has put the company on a path to insolvency.
The Cumulus ratings problems aren’t just with conservative talk though. The company is seeing ratings drop in virtually all of their major, important markets and across all formats of radio, including some key country music stations. A recent breakdown of Cumulus’ ratings woes paints just how broad the company’s ratings issue is, including their Nashville-based country station that has seen a ratings slip of 45% in the last year.
- 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%
With huge plans from Cumulus chief Lew Dickey to create a country music media empire under the “NASH” brand—scheduled to include a takeover of Country Weekly Magazine, and the marketing of everything from food, paint, furniture, and clothing with their NASH emblem, the economic realities beg the question of how the company will have the financial flexibility to pull off such a feat, especially when country itself has proved to not be immune to the company’s downturn. Cumulus is also not as insulatedÂ to the upcoming technology paradigm as its rival Clear Channel who has their iHeartRadio streaming app to fall back on.
But Clear Channel has a big problem too, to the tune of $300+ million quarterly losses, and $4.2 billion in debt on their own balance sheets. And once again, the root of the problem can be traced back to conservative talk radio, and specifically Rush Limbaugh. In fact Rush Limbaugh is so big, the flight of sponsors from his show is affecting both Clear Channel & Cumulus, who both carry the conservative talk juggernaut, as do many other smaller companies and independent stations.
Lew Dickey of Cumulus directly blamed Rush Limbaugh for the loss of “millions” last year, though the controversy cited for spurning the Cumulus revenue calamity was a brushup between Rush and Sandra Fluke which happened way back in February of 2012. Limbaugh is carried on 40 Cumulus-owned channels and the company said in May of 2013 that 48 of the top 50 radio advertisers in the country won’t work with Rush Limbaugh, or Sean Hannity. Meanwhile Rush’s massive, $400 million contract is still on the books until 2016, symbolizing the commitment radio has made to conservative talk, and how unwieldy and difficult it will be to unravel itself from it.
But as bad as Rush Limbaugh is for Cumulus, it’s worse for Clear Channel where the majority of Rush’s affiliates are found.
Clear Channel’s conundrum is even more daunting according to a recent Bloomberg report because their backs are against the wall financially. Clear Channel has lost money in every single quarter since its buyout in 2008 by Bain Captial and Thomas H. Lee Partners. In December of 2013, Clear Channel rolled its debt into a new term loan by offering more than double the interest rate so the company would get three more years to turn around their revenue woes. What that means is Clear Channel is now spending even more money each year on loan interest, roughly $1.58 billion dollars, and interest expenses have surpassed the company’s operating income.
So what does all this mean for country music?
With the big companies that serve country music listeners betting big on country as the next big thing, but at the same time facing mounting debt, anemic revenue, and loans coming due, the entire thing could topple and create a scenario where the huge media companies are not coagulating around the cause of country music, but being liquidated and broken up in the face of bankruptcies and reorganizations.
What makes the prospects look even worse is that these big companies are fighting over each other for the same consumer dollars, setting up a scenario where they not only have to battle for attention with new digital media, but with each other. Undoubtedly one of the reasons for the sharp decline in ratings of the Cumulus country station in Nashville is because Clear Channel has stationed their big radio personality Bobby Bones in the same city. Similar scenarios are playing out across the country, with the two companies cannibalizing each other over the same listeners.
Or the big bet on country music could pay off because of the rising interest in the genre, and just as conservative talk radio became the golden goose for radio in the 90′s, so could country radio be in the coming years.
Though with the rise of streaming media, the elimination of radios in some new cars, and the implosion of conservative talk radio creating a difficult economic environment, the bet on country music is one that’s certainly risky, with the destiny of mainstream country music now intimately intertwined with the fortunes of a few big companies with questionable futures.
Whenever the topic of radio is broached on Saving Country Music, it solicits strong reactions from people who can’t imagine why any lover of music would ever trust their musical fate to the radio dial, especially when so many other options exist these days, whether it be SiriusXM satellite radio, streaming options like Pandora and Spotify, or popping in a good old-fashioned CD or listening it an iPod. But the simple fact remains, radio is still the most widely used format for music listeners, confirmed by a new study by Edison Research. And even more importantly, radio is where listeners go to discover new music. 75% of listeners use radio to keep up-to-date with music, while only 20% use SiriusXM, and only 18% use Spotify (see chart below).
Sure, the convenience and accessibility of radio is why it is an easy option, especially for passive, busy consumers who don’t want to make music discovery a primary focus of their lives. However the intangible of radio is that it helps music listeners connect with their community and each other. Unlike when you’re listening to music on a CD, or streaming it on Pandora, while listening to the radio you are sharing in the moment with a human DJ and thousands, maybe millions of other listeners through the radio medium. This was the warning Edison Researched sounded at the Country Radio Seminar in February about Cumulus and Clear Channel’s plans to nationalize the radio dial with syndicated programming like DJ Bobby Bones and his massive country morning show, now reaching over 60 markets. This type of disconnect from the local dynamic is what hinders streaming services, satellite radio, and ultimately could mean the demise of radio’s unique advantage, Edison Research warns.
Radio’s days might be numbered, but right now, it still rules the roost, and by a wide margin over its emerging, online competitors, while streaming local radio shows online with tools like Clear Channel’s iHeartRadio app are becoming a common way for consumers to have the best of both worlds: the local connection of radio, matched with the clarity and variety of streaming.
Meanwhile there’s talk of trying to make smartphones that actually contain radio tuners in them, especially in light of talk from automobile manufacturers about eliminating CD players and even radios from new vehicles.
Another interesting note about the Edison Research study is that amongst the coveted 12 to 24-year-old demographic (i.e. the kids that set the upcoming trends for consumers), YouTube ranks as the highest medium for keeping them “up-to-date” on music. Coupled with changes to Billboard’s charts that register YouTube data, it drives home the importance of artists having a presence on YouTube, even if it is used more for audio than for dedicated videos for songs.
For active music listeners, like ones that would frequent a site like Saving Country Music, it may be hard to understand why radio listeners would ever maintain their loyalty to the format in the face of consolidation and constricting playlists. But for the vast majority of consumers, it is still their primary window into the music world. It is also the channel through which starving, worthy artists could connect with more listeners.
The reach of Clear Channel radio’s country music flagship personality was extended again this week when it was announced Bobby Bones will make his entrance into yet another major American market, shoving more local morning talent aside in favor of syndicated national radio. Clear Channel station WMZQ in Washington D.C. will now feature Bobby Bones in the mornings, bringing the amount of radio stations broadcasting his show to 60, and the estimated count of potential listeners of The Bobby Bones Show to 60 million.
Bobby Bones replaces local personality “Boxer” whose local radio show ran on WMZQ in the mornings and was beloved by many local radio listeners, not just for his on-air personality, but through his work with his non-profit, Boxer’s Kids. The Boxer show will be moved to the less-desirable midday slot. “Boxer…I’ve been listening for almost 3yrs and you are an awesome morning person…I will miss you and will not be listening to syndicates…” posted one Boxer fan on the show’s Facebook page. Another fan posted, “Just heard Boxer is moving, he and Ally wake me up and get me through my morning commute.”
The replacement of Boxer by Bobby Bones is a narrative playing out all across the United States as the two major radio station owners of Clear Channel and Cumulus implement more nationalized programming and reduce the local color of the radio waves in the midst of a media arms race heating up in country music.
Late last month at the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, a research study conducted by Edison Research found that âCountry radio â radio â is in the fight of its life,â and that voicetracked, or non-live and non-local shows as part of radio consolidation are âessentially a disaster for the radio industry” according to Edison Research’s Larry Rosin. âItâs never been more important to play up live and local,â Edison Researchâs Jane Charneski also said as part of the seminar, yet Clear Channel’s implementation of syndicated programming continues stronger than ever. Clear Channel lost $309 million in the last quarter, compared to a $191 million loss in the same quarter the year before.
As a continuation of the feud that Clear Channel flagship DJ Bobby Bones got into with Kacey Musgraves in January, the radio personality has posted a new video purportedly pouring his heart out to the Grammy winner and wanting to patch things up, going as far as evoking the name of Cancer to try and find some sort of conclusion to the feud. “It would mean a lot to me if you came and played ‘Joy’ week, which is all about choosing joy over fighting Cancer,” Bobby says in a crude video taken at the Madison, Wisconsin airport, with Bobby slouched back in a leather chair, engrossed in a big green jacket.
Aside from the poor syntax of alluding that anyone would choose anything over fighting Cancer, the new video once again shows Bobby’s tendency to place blame on others while framing it in the context of an apology, to believe that as a DJ he’s somehow an equal to the artists he covers and deserves their acknowledgement and friendship, while throwing the big ‘C’ ball into Kacey’s court so if she doesn’t respond or acquiesce, then she’s somehow the big bitch.
The unpleasantness between Kacey and Bobby all began on November 5th, 2013, the day before the 2013 CMA Awards. Musgraves was interviewed by Bones as part of a pre-awards production, and the interview lasted roughly 1 1/2 minutes. But the full interview never aired on The Bobby Bones Show. Bobby took about 20 seconds of the interview, and used it as part of a segment he called, âIs Kacey Musgraves Annoyed?â The segment basically lampoons Kacey as being rude, uninterested, and awkward. Later Bones attempted to reach out to Musgraves through Twitter, and when she didn’t respond, Bones became belligerent (a recurring theme with the DJ and Twitter), and called Musgraves (and himself) a “shit head.”
When Bones wouldn’t get the hint that Kacey wanted nothing to do with him, she finally said in part, “I am a songwriter and a musician. Thatâs what Iâve been passionate about my entire life and itâs really sad that the focus got taken away from that. Above all- Iâm human. Not a robot. I donât stroke egos and that doesnât make me a âshit head.â When you hear the music that means so much to me to make, thatâs all that should matter.”
What seems to be fundamentally alluding Bobby Bones is that Kacey Musgraves wants nothing to do with him, and furthermore, doesn’t see any reason why she should have to, while Bones apparently believes it is his right to be heard and acknowledged by Kacey, or some injustice has been done. Maybe Kacey will decide to make an appearance on his show, and maybe the two will patch things up. And if that’s the case, it will be Kacey being the bigger person. But if Kacey knew best, she would continue to ignore him, and if Bobby knew best, he would honor Kacey’s wishes of being left alone and move on.
If you listen to the rhetoric of country music’s major labels or the executives of country radio’s biggest companies, most will tell you all is rosy on the country radio front. But the research tends to always be on the side of country music fans sounding the warning bells that the genre has strayed too far away from its roots, and is being unresponsive to the wishes and tastes of a wide swath of the country music listening demographic. Such was the case in 2012 when an Edison Research study concluded that listeners want more classic country on radio. Edison Research’s Larry Rosin as part of the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville said,
âI believe that we as an industry have really made a mistake in our conception of our own stations. While many people donât want to listen to classic country music, some still do, and weâve let them float awayâŚWe 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.â
This year at the Country Radio Seminar, Larry Rosin was once again sounding the warning bells about the viability of country music on the radio moving forward in the face of rapid consolidation, the evaporation of local and live programming, and the emergence of new technologies and services competing with radio like Spotify and smart phones.
Though things are looking very good for country music in general, country radio is another case according to Rosin and Edison Research. Despite 77% of people agreeing that “Country music is a significant part of American culture,â and 73% of people agreeing that âCountry music is becoming more popular,â Larry Rosin says that “Country radio â radio â is in the fight of its life,” and that voicetracked, or non-live and non-local shows are âessentially a disaster for the radio industry.”
Why? Because country music’s demographics are becoming much younger as the format moves away from the more traditional sound of the genre. Edison Research found that the amount of 12 to 34-year-olds listening to country music positively surged in 2013 from 12% to 27%. But since millenials are more likely to consume their music through technological alternatives to traditional over-the-air radio, the future looks grim for the format. As country radio is abandoning older demographics in favor of a new sound, and the fans of the new sound are abandoning the radio format in favor of new technologies, the amount of people country radio appeals to is getting slimmer by the minute.
Another very interesting statistic Edison Research found is that 62% of people believe “too many country songs sound the same,” once again calling concern to country music’s current trend of male-dominated laundry list or “bro country” songs and the limited amount of songwriters writing the majority of country music’s current hits.
The accumulative conclusions of Edison Research speak to what Saving Country Music and other critics of country music’s current trajectory have been saying for years: that country music is amidst a sugar rush of popularity that is statistically unsustainable and may result in not just creative, but economic burnout of the format in the coming future, especially on radio. So what can be done about it?
According to Larry Rosin and Edison Research, country radio needs to “double and redoubleâ its efforts to feature live and local shows. The reason is because research into the listening habits and desires of country music’s growing millenial population says that they favor buying local, and they like local personalities as part of their music listening experience. On-air personalities and programming custom made for local tastes and local listeners is the strategic advantage radio has over services like Spotify and Pandora. “Itâs never been more important to play up live and local,â says Edison Research’s Jane Charneski.
But of course, this is the exact opposite of what is happening with country radio. Amidst a country music media arms race, the two biggest radio station owners in America—Clear Channel and Cumulus—are fighting it out for who can feature the best nationalized programming under the premise that it is cheaper to pay one DJ and distribute them across your entire radio network as opposed to paying local DJ’s at every radio station the company owns. But once again, this is just feeding the American consumer’s flight from traditional radio. Though companies like Clear Channel are dramatically cutting costs through their consolidation efforts, the company reported a $309 million loss in the last quarter, compared to a $191 million loss in the same quarter the year before. So not only is it bad for radio’s big consolidators, it’s getting worse.
It all is enough to leave the country music radio consumer baffled as to why anyone thinks the idea of radio consolidation will work. Dissent against radio for abandoning country music’s traditional roots, for leaving behind local programming, and for trying to make money by cutting costs instead of trying to appeal to more consumers is not just a matter of taste or opinion. It is clear through specific statistics and research that these things are eroding country radio’s long-term foundation, and the only way to stop it and to retain the solvency of country radio itself is to reverse course.
This week in Nashville is the annual CRS or Country Radio Seminar where executives and personalities in country radio gather with executives and artists in the country music industry to hobnob, network, and attend workshops and presentations about the direction and future of radio and country music. This year the backdrop of CRS most certainly will be the Country Music Media Arms Race breaking out in 2014 (see more about this below).
Bits of interesting news about the country music radio industry tend to trickle out of CRS week, like a couple of years ago when an Edison Research study concluded that country listeners wanted more classic country on the radio. Edison Research President Larry Rosin said at the time, âI believe that we as an industry have really made a mistake in our conception of our own stations. While many people donât want to listen to classic country music, some still do, and weâve let them float awayâŚWe 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.â
Scott Borchetta Quizzically Compares Big Machine Music to a Ferrari,Â not McDonald’s.
Even before the CRS events got started in earnest Monday evening, many interesting pieces of information about radio and country music emerged in the run up to CRS. Big Machine Records’ Scott Borchetta had the most puzzling quote, choosing a strange, if not unfortunate analogy to compare his label’s music to when explaining why he chooses to delay releasing music from artists like Taylor Swift and Justin Moore on Spotify and other streaming services until months after the release date has passed. Borchetta told The Tennessean:
âIâm not McDonaldâs. Iâm not 1 billion served. Iâm much more in favor of building a Harley-Davidson or a Ferrari and take that 1 or 2 percent of the population who love what we do and super-serve them.â
It seems like that analogy needs to be flip flopped, but big power players like Borchetta, and their ability to control the market with landmark deals with Clear Channel and others entities will certainly be one of the big topics at CRS 2014.
Why Radio Still Matters
Every time Saving Country Music broaches the subject of country radio, the alternatives such as satellite and streaming services are brought up as evidence of why radio doesn’t matter anymore. Though radio may not matter to a specific consumer, when it comes to the research, the experts, and to the culture and listeners in country music specifically, radio is still by far the most dominant format, especially for consumers to discover new music.
“Time and time again when studies are done, broadcast radio remains the No. 1 source for discovering new music,” Broken Bow Records executive Jon Loba told The Tennessean ahead of CRS. “Radio is still 80-plus percent of your music exposure. One thing I remind staff at least once a month in an artist development meeting when we are focusing on other mediums of exposure that are important â streaming, or press for TV, or whatever else â I try not to let everyone get in the weeds with that. Radio is still the primary form of exposing new music.”
Despite dramatic growth in music streaming across the board, just like with the transition from CD’s to downloads, country music is lagging behind other genres in the changeover, allowing country radio to continue to hold onto its power over consumers. As Nate Rau writing for The Tennessean explains:
“An analysis of music streaming data for 2013 shows that, despite growing noticeably, country still lags behind the other genres. Of the top 10,000 streamed songs last year, 28 percent were rock songs, 28 percent were hip-hop/R&B songs, 19 percent were pop songs and 8 percent were country songs, according to Nielsen data. But on traditional radio, country music outranks all other genres as the most popular format.”
Radio Losing Its Autonomy From Record Labels
Whereas in the past many radio stations were independently or regionally owned and their charge was to serve their communities with music, now that radio consolidation has put the majority of radio stations in the hands of a few select companies, principally Clear Channel and Cumulus, the point of radio in many instances is not to serve communities, but to serve record labels. As Broken Bow’s Jon Loba explains:
“When I got into the business, at my first CRS in 1997, I remember radio stations saying, ‘It is not our job to sell records. Our job is to keep listeners tuned in to our station. That is it. If we happen to sell records as a byproduct, thatâs fantastic, but itâs not our job.’ [Now] thereâs a much more symbiotic relationship, not just in words, but actually in action. CBS and Clear Channel both are taking the time to say very proactively, ‘We want to help you highlight your priorities, we want to help you sell records. We know healthy record labels are a large part of our business.’
The Country Music Media Arms Race is Heating Up
Similar to how all popular music is coalescing into one or two huge mega-genres or mono-genre, the media that covers and serves country music fans in radio, print, online, television, and social formats is consolidating around two big media players: Clear Channel & Cumulus—the two largest radio station owners in the United States, supported by partnering or gobbling up other important players in the country music media realm.
In December of 2013, word came down that Clear Channel had cut a deal with CMT to create nationally-focused country music programming to be distributed across the 125 country radio stations owned by the company, as well as some digital and television platforms. This move was in response to Cumulus, the 2nd-largest radio station owner in the United States behind Clear Channel, which had created its own national syndicated format earlier in 2013 under the NASH-FM brand, serving 70 separate radio markets.
Then Cumulus matched Clear Channelâs cross-media move by partnering with the long-running magazine Country Weekly to migrate the NASH-FM brand into print and online media. Announced in late January, Country Weekly in the next couple of quarters will become NASH Weekly. Cumulus has also registered nashweekly.com, and is expected to make an online presence for the NASH brand a focus. Then yesterday, even more ventures and partnerships were announced from Cumulus, including a television station, live concerts and events, even potentially restaurants and consumer products will be part of the massive NASH brand expansion.
Personalities and cross-platform promotion are what is driving the media arms race. CMT’s Cody Alan who now also appears in Clear Channel’s syndicated radio network can do an interview with a big country star, and use that interview both on television and in radio, transcribe it for print and/or online media, and promote it through both company’s social networks. However there are obvious trappings to having one or two companies control all of country music’s media.
âFrom the record company standpoint, it is absolutely more efficient and cost-effective with respect to reaching a larger audience in one shot,” says Broken Bow’s Jon Loba. “But it can also be somewhat scary in that there are fewer voices and opinions being heard out there.â
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What’s for certain is that in 2014, country music media will go through the biggest paradigm shift in the genre’s history, touching every facet of how consumers engage with country music, and creating two massive companies who will dominate the media landscape, partnering with the country music recording industry and blurring lines between covering music and creating music like never before.
Clear Channel, the largest radio provider in the US, just struck a massive deal with CMT, a division of Viacom, to create national country music programming to be distributed across 125 country radio stations owned by Clear Channel, as well as some digital and television platforms. The move is meant to match a similar national syndicated format created by the second-biggest radio provider in the US, Cumulus, who launched the NASH-FM national country network on 70 separate radio stations earlier this year.
The historic deal means more programming will be created on a national level, and distributed to local stations. Though Clear Channel says the new deal will be good for local radio stations because it will give them access to national-caliber talent and programming through theirÂ syndicated network that local stations would otherwise not have access to, the move continues the trend for radio to lose its local and regional flavor in favor of programming catering to a national audience.
Cumulus insists that stations in its NASH-FM network are able to choose how much or how little of the national programming they wish to run, allowing local program directors an element of control over preserving the local flavor of a station. But there’s no word on whether the Clear Channel network will give its stations similar latitude.
No word yet either if the move will mean the loss of jobs by local DJ’s similar to when Clear Channel slashed local talent in favor of national programming in October of 2011, but CMT personality Cody Alan has been announced as the host for the syndicated radio show “After MidNite” scheduled to start in January.
What the CMT/Clear Channel deal also means is not only a consolidation of programming across multiple radio markets, but also across multiple media platforms. With CMT programming crossing into radio, and vice versa, and digital media formats also getting into the game, the homogenization of country music media can only continue to increase, effecting not just the local programming of radio stations, but also the local artists who rely on radio play to either get their start on a national career, or sustain a local one.
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