The Split of Top 40 Country & Classic Country Is Upon Us

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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.

103.9-garth-fm-louisville“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.”

Scott Borchetta

Scott Borchetta

Though the splitting of the country format in theory means bringing back artists that have been left behind by country radio’s recent obsession with youth, the biggest concern coming from traditional country fans is if the new format might cannibalize some, or many of the traditional country stations out there that already exist, but don’t adhere to the new 25-year format. And according to a recent interview with Big Machine Label Group’s Scott Borchetta, that’s exactly what he expects to happen. Borchetta says about NASH Icons, “The new brand will replace many of their classic country stations, plus extend to syndicated shows, secondary station markets, touring and print.”

This concern is further driven home by GARTH-FM, which replaced an already-existing format that focused on classic country outside the 25-year window. “We’re all aging,” Brian Eichenberger explains, “and so slowly the folks that are 40 and 50, the stuff that they remember, the stuff that is their nostalgic go-to music for when they were in high school and college is going to be this stuff that has started to disappear. Whenever there’s a new generation of people coming up, the music they were fond of, that quintessential 16 to 22-year-old range, is the stuff that beings re-appearing.”

However at the heart of the proposed classic country format, even with its 25-year limitation, is to reinstate many artists who’ve been forgotten by mainstream country radio. “We found an open lane,” says Scott Borchetta, “a way for artists like Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Alan Jackson and others to make new music and get it on the radio and tour. We’re going to feature their new music next to the classic songs. So if those are your favorite artists news flash they didn’t die! The business just didn’t take care of them. Artists I talk to about this are thrilled to get their music back on the radio and we hope the fans will engage the same way.”

What could emerge from this format split could be something very similar to rock music, where you have “oldies” stations, “classic” stations, and Top 40 stations. “If you look at radio formats in general, you will see that oldies [rock] format used to live in the 50’s and 60’s, and it has slowly been disappearing,” says Summit Media’s Brian Eichenberger. “Over time, classic rock has moved from being something that started in the 60’s, and went maybe into the early 80’s, and is slowly moving closer and closer to where there’s classic rock stations playing Candlebox and Pearl Jam. As the audience ages, those definitions are going to become a little more fluid. And I do think there’s going to be this country transition where the classic rock of country formats will kind of bridge between the oldies country and the new country.”