Mainstream Country Station Explains Why It Plays Tyler Childers

Tyler Childers continues to rewrite the rules for what is possible for a country music artist not controlled by Music Row in Nashville. His album Purgatory remains a perennial in the Top 25 of the country album charts here nearly three years after its release (at #23 again this week). Earlier this year when he was opening for Sturgill Simpson on an arena tour, he was a big reason many of the dates were selling out.

But one barrier that has yet to be dissolved by artists like Tyler Childers is solving the puzzle of country radio. Of course it’s easy to say radio doesn’t matter anymore if you’re already living in the world of independent music and streaming. But for millions, radio is still a discovery vehicle for new artists, and a go-to entertainment source.

Despite all the success Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and other independent stars have enjoyed, they still haven’t been able to crack the mainstream radio paradigm. Without a million-dollar budget and a nine month commitment to a radio station tour, mainstream country radio just won’t play you.

But something inexplicable happened this week. At the very bottom of MediaBase’s weekly report of new songs added to the rotations of reporting stations, the panel registered a “add” for the song “All Your’n” by Tyler Childers. Understand, an “add” is different than a spin. A spin means the radio station played a song. And add means they’ve added it to their regular rotation. It may seem like a minor thing on the surface, but it’s a major step forward for an artist like Tyler Childers.

The radio station that added “All Your’n” was US 106.1 WUSH “America’s Country” based on Norfolk, VA. Looking at their playlist, you see artists such as Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, and Carrie Underwood. But you will also occasionally see some older titles and artists. As one of the few stations not owned by Cumulus or iHeartMedia that reports to MediaBase (roughly 2/3rds of the reporting stations are owned by those two companies), WUSH programs its playlist locally.

“I’m a huge fan,” Program Director Dave Parker says of Tyler Childers. “I had talked to some of our listeners. I’m most interested in what people don’t like rather than what they do like. Hearing what people don’t like I think is more instructive. So I had talked to several people, and a common thread that was, ‘We want you to play more artists like Tyler Childers, Cody Jinks, and Sturgill Simpson.’ I had already been playing some Sturgill Simpson, but not enough to make an add. I played ‘All Your’n’ during mid days once, and I asked people for feedback. And I got twice the amount of feedback on that song than any time I’ve ever asked for feedback on a new song. They were comments filled with lots of exclamation points and happy emojis.”

Regularly when the subject of Tyler Childers is brought up, people are surprised how young the fan base is for his music is, despite his older country style. Dave Parker says recently at a family gathering, he mentioned Tyler Childers, and his nieces immediately piped up about how much they loved him.

“Most country radio is on a short leash, and that leash is held by the hand of research,” Parker explains. “And if you only play the songs that research the best, you’ll end up playing the same songs by the same artist over and over again. It takes all of the color and interest out of country radio. If country radio is not interesting, people will not listen to it. Since I liked the song, people I talked to like the song, and it’s a really good country song, I added the song. And I’m going to add more Tyler Childers songs. I’m going to add ‘Whitehouse Road,’ and an edited version of ‘Feathered Indians.’ I don’t want people to have to go somewhere else to hear what they define as real, good country music.”

Just like many independent country fans have been saying for many years, mainstream country radio is overlooking huge swaths of country fans who would listen if they only played more variety. This is what 106.1 WUSH is looking to accomplish.

“There is a completely underserved, notable segment of the country audience, and I believe that if that audience is not given what they’re already listening to between the Luke Bryans, Carrie Underwoods, and Dustin Lynchs of the world, they’re not going to listen to your radio station,” Dave Parker says. “If any consultant would ever have any problem with me adding a Tyler Childers song, I would direct them to Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, and YouTube, and if they want to argue against 15 million streams on a song, I’ll have that argument with them all day long.”

And WUSH is not stopping with Tyler Childers.

“The #1 research item we get back is that people want to hear songs from the 90’s. That’s why I play one to two songs from the 90’s every hour. We also play Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Pam Tillis. I have about 130 songs from the 90’s and prior that I play. We advertise ourselves as a country music station. Therefore the music we play should actually be country music.”

Granted, there are multiple stations that have been playing Tyler Childers songs for years, including many other independently-owned local and regional stations, NPR affiliates, and college radio. The problem is these stations don’t report into MediaBase like WUSH, which is what makes this particular add so significant. In a way, it’s a shot across the bow of the reporting panel. There is a place, and an appeal for the Luke Bryans and Carrie Underworlds of the world. That’s never been refuted. But there is an appeal for Tyler Childers as well, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be afforded a seat at the table. In fact, country radio’s future may depend on it.

“Nothing would make me happier than if everyone on the MediaBase panel to start playing some Tyler Childers,” says WUSH’s Dave Parker. And if more program directors were listening to their listeners as opposed to playing what they’re told from on high, they probably would be.

WUSH 106.1 can be heard live online.

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