On New York City Losing Its Only Country Radio Station

I know what you’re going to say. “NeW yOrK CiTY!” like that guy in the old Pace Picante Sauce commercial. Or if you pride yourself in having any sort of semblance of taste, maybe you’re wondering why anyone in 2021 would still be listening to mainstream country radio, no matter what city or town they live in.

But the loss of New York City’s only country radio station is a pretty massive development, if only from a symbolic standpoint. And losing it to a hip-hop station—and a classic hip-hop station no less—is pretty significant too.

During Cumulus Media’s big push to rebrand the United States’ 2nd largest radio station portfolio into a country music-focused direction, they launched WNSH “94.7 Nash FM” in New York in January 2013. It also became the flagship country station for the company, with a morning show that featured Blair Garner, Chick Wicks, and Terri Clark. Sunny Sweeney also hosted briefly. “America’s Morning Show” was set up to be the alternative to “The Bobby Bones Show.”

But when the ludicrous plan by The Dickey Brothers of Cumulus to launch a whole “NASH” branded “lifestyle brand” to include restaurants, frozen foods, even furniture and paint fell through, “94.7 Nash FM” began to falter. Cumulus and The Dickey Brothers also had the only real plan ever launched to split the country radio format in two, with “NASH Icon” appealing to older and more contemporary classic country, including with an ill-fated record label as a partnership with Big Machine Records that once had Reba McEntire, Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn, and Hank Williams Jr. signed to it.

Eventually though, the Dickey Brothers were let go, their grand “NASH” scheme was shelved, and WNSH was purchased by then Entercom (now called Audacy) from Cumulus in March 2019. The new owners then changed the station over to “New York’s Country 94.7,” which it remained until Friday, October 22nd at 1:00 p.m. local time when the station switched to a classic hip-hop format. Now for the first time in nearly a decade, the biggest radio and media market in the United States is without a country radio station.

Looking back at the ratings of WNSH, they actually weren’t terrible, not just for New York, but in country music. On a given month, they would pull about a 1.3 to 2.5 rating according to Nielsen Audio, which put them at the back end of the Top 20 in the market. In September, they were the 21st ranked radio station in the New York region.

But with the size of the market, their audience was massive. WNSH was country music’s top rated radio station according to Nielsen when it came to “cume,” which is the estimated number of different people who listen to a station during a given part of the day. Per week, some 903,300 people would tune into 94.7. That is better than any other country station in the United States, or the world. In other words, country music just lost it’s biggest radio station to a classic hip-hop format.

Ultimately, this is less about listenership, and more about real estate. In the largest media market in the country, if a radio station isn’t performing at the top of the game, they have to try something new. Of course the natural question many will have is, “How many country music listeners does New York City really have?” Well, according to the numbers, it had nearly a million, which is quite a bit.

New York’s country fans will get by though. These days, listeners have a myriad of options when it comes to what and how to listen to music. They can pull up streaming playlists on Spotify. They can listen on a phone or computer to virtually any radio station from around the country. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that at some point a country station will crop up again. Before 94.7 Nash FM was launched in 2013, New York didn’t have a country station either.

The more interesting point is what this says about mainstream country music in general. First, country radio is continuing to fail to hold enough of an audience to remain viable in the long term. The loss of 94.7 should be a big wake up call, while it also means 900,000 less people will be listening to commercial country radio each week. Aside from Texas, and some small independent stations throughout rural regions, mainstream country radio pretty much sounds exactly the same no matter where you go. If country music in New York was ever to succeed, it would probably need to be a bit more catered to that particular market.

Along those same lines, the fact that country music just lost its biggest station to a classic hip-hop format should tell you just how far behind the times country music is. The Dickey Brothers of Cumulus Media in 2013 were onto something with the idea of splitting the country format into classic and contemporary. It was just their implementation that was all wrong. Classic rock was one of radio’s most successful formats for decades, and with the currently interest in 80’s and 90’s country from many listeners not connecting with the country music of today, the way the population is aging and older listeners are the ones more likely to listen to radio, the consumer appetite is there.

If there is a classic hip-hop format that is more viable in a market with ample hip-hop competition compared to a format that’s playing today’s mainstream country music with no competition, that speaks to just how far mainstream country has slipped, even in a market like New York City.

It also speaks to just how much country music has slipped in cultural relevance. American culture is hip-hop culture. Country music represents a tiny sliver of the mostly rural and Southern United States. And even when considering some of the top songs and artists in the country format, they’re mostly hip-hop as well, or at least hip-hop influenced. The biggest song in “country” music at the moment is “Fancy Like” by Walker Hays, which is a hip-hop song. However, when listeners hear the song, it’s so weak, it will never compete with actual, competent hip-hop, so consumers will switch over to the hip-hop station for the real thing.

In fact, country music loves to promote hip-hop in hopes it can cleave off some of its cultural relevance, when it truth the exact opposite is what is happening—hip-hop is cleaving off cultural relevance from country. CMT has been promoting the rapper Nelly (despite 3 credible accusations of sexual assault) more than many actual country artists lately. The longest-running #1 country song in history is held by a New York-based hip-hop infused pop artist in Bebe Rexha with Florida Georgia Line, who collaborate with Nelly regularly. Meanwhile, you don’t see hip-hop artists and stations taking time to promote country artists.

Right now there’s a lot of talk by the the intellectual class and media about the lack of inclusion in country music. But not only is mainstream country music more inclusive than ever with artists such as Kane Brown, Blanco Brown, Breland, Mickey Guyton, and scores others, these folks calling for more inclusion—and saying country should invite hip-hop artists into the format to fulfill that objective—aren’t looking at the bigger picture.

Country music could probably benefit from better integration, and should be inviting to everyone. But when talking about representation in popular music overall, it is overwhelmingly dominated by black and Latin performers, with the country format being one of the final places some white performers not named Adele or Taylor Swift can be heard, while the format continues to lose market share by the day—the loss of WNSH in New York underscores this.

Look, you can say it’s only one radio station in one radio market that’s not exactly known for country music (get a rope). But 94.7 WNSH happened to be country music’s most listened to station in the biggest radio market in the United States. What the long term implications could be might be hard to determine in the here and now. But without question, they are big.

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