On Monday (10-6), the ratings for radio stations were released for Nashville and other locations, and within those numbers was a bombshell for the country music radio world. In the Nashville radio market, the freshly-launched Cumulus-owned NASH Icon affiliate on 95.5 WSM-FM beat what has been the powerhouse of Nashville radio for the past year-plus, iHeartMedia-owned (Clear Channel) WSIX. In other words, a station that includes older country songs and older country artists in a purposeful attempt to return more classic-sounding country and more variety to the airwaves is beating Clear Channel’s flagship pop country station, in its home market, that is the home station for The Bobby Bones Show (the biggest country radio show ever), in the home of country music.
NASH Icon WSM-FM pulled a 5.6 rating for the month of September—its first full month in operation, making it tied for 6th overall in the Nashville market, and tied for #1 in country. Meanwhile the Bobby Bones-anchored WSIX pulled a 4.7 ranking, good for 10th in Nashville, and #3 in country. Even more interesting, the radio station that tied WSM-FM for 1st was the other Cumulus-owned NASH Top 40 country radio station, WKDF.
To simplify what this all means, though there could be a little bit of beginner’s luck or curiosity factor contributing to these numbers, overall the idea of giving consumers more classic-sounding country music on the radio is working, and in a big way.
John Dickey, the Cumulus Executive Vice President for Content and Programming, and brother of Cumulus CEO Lew Dickey said to All Access, “We’ve only got a month going so far but we are encouraged about what the month of September brought us in Nashville … In fact the results have been nothing short of spectacular in my opinion. NASH Icon on WSM-FM is the #1 country station for listeners 25 to 54 (the most desirable demographic) from 6 AM to 7 PM … That’s a pretty crazy number when you think about it. And we’re seeing appeal on the younger end too, which is not something that we figured on. We are trending big with men leading the women, who look healthy too, showing up neck and neck with WKDF and WSIX.”
The strong showing from NASH Icon in the country music holy land of Nashville bodes very well for the idea of keeping the current NASH Icon stations around, potentially growing the brand to new markets, and causing the country radio format to split into two separate formats of Top 40 country and a more classic-oriented country. If NASH Icon continues its success, Clear Channel may be forced to launch its own older country brand, and it could encourage smaller radio station companies and independently-owned stations to adopt a similar format. “It’s only a month into it but we’re happy to see the acceptance of this fragmentation of the country format with NASH Icon,” John Dickey said to All Access.
For fans of older country music and older country artists, this is all very positive news, but of course it is not all perfect. As Saving Country Music illustrated when it broke down the NASH Icon radio playlist recently, there is still a lot of newer country involved in the NASH Icon model, including a lot of artists and songs many older country fans find unappealing, if not objectionable. But the ability of a big radio network—like the one NASH Icon is looking to build—to return names like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson, and Dwight Yoakam to radio can only do good for these artists.
Even though John Dickey and others are finding these numbers surprising, in theory they shouldn’t. Edison Research, a radio research company which conducts deep studies of listener’s habits, has been saying for years that country radio has been hurting itself by abandoning classic country music on the radio. The success of NASH Icon in Nashville proves that this research had merit. Interestingly, the way Nash Icon eventually developed looks very much like country radio did 25 years ago, where the playlists are more diverse and don’t work in such a narrow time window. It’s only in the last decade especially when country radio really abandoned playing older music from country’s back catalog.
It is just one month, and no doubt Bobby Bones and Clear Channel will reach deep down into their bag of tricks to try and claim back the #1 spot. But for now, the return of older country to the radio waves has been a big success. It’s not just competing, it is beating its newer, younger competition. And it’s not just doing well with older disenfranchised listeners, younger listeners are tuning in too. NASH Icon may not be the ideal for a new country format, but it has started the process of country music splitting in two, and ultimately this will mean more choice for country consumers.