Country radio is in a ratings slump. An no, it’s not due to the rise of streaming and other listening options, though this isn’t helping. This particular ratings slump shows up as a percentage of the overall radio market that is consuming music through the radio medium, country or otherwise. In the country radio PPM ratings for June 2019, the format came in at the lowest June ratings in a decade, and June is usually the period when country radio listeners swell due to summer listening. What is the cause?
In the current issue of Country Aircheck, numerous industry professionals spoke both on and off the record about the issue, and the primary culprits they cite are the pop nature of so many country songs making country radio unable to distinguish itself from other radio formats, the proliferation of #1 radio stars that most of the public can’t recognize, and the cozy nature between the radio industry and major labels.
“Privately, programmers will say that too many singles from top artists aren’t testing well,” Country Aircheck says in the article. “The format’s hits are spread out amongst a wide array of mostly unfamiliar artists. We’re not developing a new generation of superstars. The music sounds too pop, lacks distinctiveness and isn’t generating interest or conversation in the broader culture.”
Albright & O’Malley & Brenner is a premier country radio consulting company based out of Seattle, Washington. Becky Brenner of the company was one of the few who was willing to speak on record about the issue.
“The theory is we’re allowing country to become too song driven without developing new superstars,” Brenner says. “Country has always been about listener passion for artists. When it becomes harder to distinguish who’s who and there’s an increase of pop sounds in the music, this tends to be the result … We need balance. That’s the key, and hard to do if so much of the music has that pop sound. This format survives by being mass appeal with a mass audience. Right now, there are so many artists, and you can’t get mass appeal agreement. That waters down the impact of any one artist.”
These sentiments are exactly what Saving Country Music and many concerned country fans have been saying about country radio for many years. If country music can’t distinguish itself from other radio formats, it will fail. And when you have artists like Brett Young and Cole Swindell with four #1 singles on country radio, yet 95% of Americans couldn’t pick either of them out of a lineup, you’re not doing the format any favors. The system that allows most any male country artist on a major label to receive a #1 on radio might spread the attention around equally, but it results in a lack of resonance with listeners since the ascent up the charts isn’t organic. Instead it’s driven my labels looking to launch the careers of artists with lackluster appeal and little distinctiveness.
“While not a new issue, the close alignment between record labels and reporting stations—often a format strength—may be stifling audience familiarity with songs and artists,” Country Aircheck concludes. One top programmer told the periodical anonymously, “The pressure labels put on programmers does not service the needs of the listener. It is focused on the marketing plan and timetable of the record company.”
In other words, country radio does not have the autonomy to decide what to play, and to let listener appeal and data drive who gets played, and what songs go #1. And when songs do hit #1 on country radio, they rarely stay there for more than a week, meaning the format is not developing any new back list classics for the future, or superstars to sing them.
The conclusion of the current Country Aircheck article also dovetails with another article published in the periodical in May that highlighted how radio station 92.5 WBEE out of Rochester, New York saw a ratings increase when they went in the opposite direction of most of country radio.
“We policed the excessive number of ‘snap tracks’ and drinking songs, and we were increasingly more selective over which new songs got added and exposed,” said program director Bob Barnett. “In addition, we re-introduced a number of older gold titles back into the mix to try and achieve a better ‘mainstream’ country music mix. Through late summer and fall, I felt like much of the new music coming in was all beginning to sound the same—and we were missing variety and depth—so, we adjusted the gold mix.”
The conclusions of this new Country Aircheck article also have implications on the concern of the lack of women being represented at country radio. Though the common complaint about radio centers on program directors at radio stations and massive station owners such as Cumulus and iHeartMedia purposely excluding women exclusively due to their sex, as it’s laid out in the new article, it is often the record labels that are responsible for big determinations on who country radio plays, and how often.
Many of the singles released by women in country grade better with listeners than they perform on radio, partly because they don’t receive the same support from the labels that singles from men do, either via print ads in periodicals such as Country Aircheck, or in personal interactions between people within the industry. Meanwhile up-and-coming male artists are almost guaranteed #1’s on radio, and with the glut of male artists all needing to get their chance at #1, it’s diluting the talent pool.
But the other reality the low ratings expose is that radio is losing its importance as the primary driver behind an artist’s career, at least at the mainstream level. Though radio still draws a massive audience and can be important to a mainstream artist’s success, alternatives are opening up, and artists—women and men—are proving you can find success without radio support. Kacey Musgraves winning the superfecta of Album of the Year awards in the last awards show cycle (ACM, CMA, Grammy, and Grammy all-genre Album of the Year) proves women don’t need radio to succeed … though radio may need more women to survive, at least ones that sound country.
For years the complaints of country music’s more traditional fans have been scoffed off as the outdated pleadings of listeners unwilling to evolve with the times, while the philosophy of many pundits in the media, as well as at radio and labels, was more pop was needed to appeal to a wider audience. But pop radio already has the pop segment of the market cornered, and can do it better than country ever could. Offering music and artists that are unique in the marketplace is how country can distinguish itself from the rest of radio, and succeed.
And though the current ratings paint a dour picture for country radio, there has been some success stories, specifically Luke Combs. The 29-year-old has been setting records at radio, in streaming, and in sales and concert attendance. He also happens to be more traditionally-leaning than most of mainstream country’s current stars. The appeal of Midland, Jon Pardi, and other more traditionally-oriented stars also speaks to the resonance of twang with country listeners when given a chance.
Pop will always be part of the country radio format, and always has been. But as country radio consultant Becky Brenner said in her comments to Country Aircheck, “We need balance.“ The lack of any true country voices on the radio directly parallel’s country radio’s ratings slump, and putting them back on the airwaves to achieve that “balance” may be the way for country radio to survive in an increasingly market for listening alternatives.