Cumulus Media’s VP Admits Country Can’t Be Delineated from Pop — Wants to Bring Taylor Swift Back to Country

Last month a couple of Cumulus Media-owned country radio stations raised eyebrows when they mixed pop songs into their otherwise country rotations. The NASH-branded Cumulus flagship in New York WNSH, and KSCS 96.3 in Dallas both experimented to see what would happen if they added a few out-of-format spins, with WNSH 94.7 in New York City since moving on from the test, but KSCS in Dallas doubling down and now consistently playing one Taylor Swift song per hour on average, as well as songs from Ed Sheeran and other pop artists.

The next question from radio observers and KSCS listeners was “Why?” KSCS addressed the decision to listeners publicly, saying in part, “If the audience that loves Taylor is forced to go to pop exclusively to find her, we’re hurting our chance of growing our radio station. So the real question is, ‘Why can’t it happen in reverse?’”

John Dickey

John Dickey

But now Executive Vice President of Programming and Content for Cumulus John Dickey has come out to explain the KSCS move, and not only does it sound permanent, it sounds like it’s just the preemptive beginning to what we may see from more Cumulus-owned country stations in the future. And along with addressing the KSCS issue, John Dickey also dropped a few pretty succulent observations about country’s pop-leaning trajectory that offer some insight into how radio is looking to handle the issues of Taylor Swift’s departure in the long-term, and the big question of another country music quandary: Sam Hunt.

“We are defining what country is in those markets,” John Dickey said in this week’s Country Aircheck.“We own the only Country station in New York and at this point we own the only two Country stations in Dallas. And if there were to ever be a third, we would own it as well. So we’re in good stead and therefore have the opportunity to try a few things.”

Basically John Dickey said that since Cumulus has a monopoly on the mainstream country stations in these major media markets, they could do as they please without fear of competition usurping their standing with listeners, highlighting one of the issues with radio consolidation and deregulation. Also, by saying the company is “defining what country is,” in markets, it shows the arrogance of Cumulus and the type of influence they peddle over the listening population. Cumulus also owns KPLX in Dallas—a station that for the moment is sticking to a more country format. But KSCS is featuring Taylor Swift in fairly heavy rotation.

“The key for us is what we’re doing with Taylor Swift there and in Dallas by playing her every hour,” John Dickey says. “We’re going to see how it works, and maybe eventually roll it out more … The real story is not so much that we occasionally play an Echosmith or Ed Sheeran song; it’s why have we been sending people to Top 40 for Taylor Swift for the last 15 months? … Why let the Top 40 stations have a monopoly on the biggest artist on the planet because she wanted to creatively expand her horizons? It’s crazy … We are back in the Taylor business and this is why. That’s the story.”

Yes ladies and gentlemen, that means despite leaving the country format, Taylor Swift, including some of her new singles, could be coming to a country station near you through Cumulus’ massive country radio network. The question when Taylor Swift left country music was would country music let her? The answer for the most part has been “yes” except for a few stragglers and outlier stations. But now that country radio is struggling with the key 18 to 34-year-old demographic, it looks like they’re being tempted to add Taylor Swift back to rotations.

But that’s just where the bad news for country from John Dickey begins. The sum of all country music fears is realized in another statement Dickey made about how the country format is basically lying to itself at the moment about its genre autonomy.

“You don’t know these artists. You’re just listening to just a few hooks of their songs,” John Dickey says. “You tell me what they are. Florida Georgia Line country, rock or pop? We can do Brantley Gilbert, Eric Church or Sam Hunt. You’re telling me Sam Hunt’s song is country? Today Country is successful because it’s co-oping other audiences into the format. The problem that our business will always have and that will keep it from realizing its full potential is the narrow-mindedness of the industry; the inability of people inside our business to look at what we’re trying to do and not be so formatically rigid about what defines Country.”

In other words, John Dickey, the EVP of the second-largest radio station owner of the country is admitting that if you turn on one of his country radio stations, you can’t tell the difference between country artists, and the artists of pop and rock. This might be the biggest executive admission that country radio has lost control of its autonomy. Yet John Dickey still goes on to call the industry narrow minded for not opening the doors even wider in country to attract even more listeners.

But what may be good for country radio might be bad for country music. Facing competition from new consumer technologies that give listeners more choice, radio has to resort to attempting to appeal to everyone to keep enough listeners tuned in. But at the same time, by alienating country radio’s core listenership, especially older listeners who are more likely to tune into country radio as opposed to new technologies, Cumulus Media’s solution is also continuously exacerbating the problem. Meanwhile if the country format cannot delineate itself from everything else in the music world, then how can it define a future for itself? Basically John Dickey is admitting the mono-genre is here, and not only should we embrace it, we should solidify it by bringing more non-country music into the format.

And what might even be worse is what John Dickey didn’t talk about in the Country Aircheck interview—specifically that not a peep was uttered about NASH Icon: The Cumulus Media solution to the dilemma of older country artists getting shuffled aside in the rush to youth, many while their still economically viable on a macro scale with loyal fan bases. The hope was the country format would eventually split into two separate formats, with Top 40 country on one side, and more older country on the other. Now this idea appears to be off the table.

With the rise of Sam Hunt, with so many male country artist chasing the new EDM/R&B trend with recent singles in an attempt to keep up, and the re-integration of Taylor Swift back into a format she formally and consciously left, country music could be looking at losing its connection with anything and everything that traditionally defines the genre and separates it from other music by as soon as the 3rd quarter of this year. Meanwhile Music Row’s major labels are fueling the trend, Billboard appears complicit to include songs and artists that sonically would be more appropriate for other genres on country music charts, and the CMA is asleep at the wheel.

Beyond the tired discussions of what is country music and what isn’t, time appears to be running out to save the last vestiges of what country music once was before it is completely incorporated as just a separate but equivalent version of American pop.