Texas/Red Dirt Makes Moves on Mainstream Country Radio

Wade Bowen / Randy Rogers

When Jamey Johnson stood on the stage Friday, August 12th in Lincoln, Nebraska, and barked profanities at the local radio station KX 96.9, he wasn’t just angry they had used “his” stage to promote their station, he was venting the pent up frustration many independent, Red Dirt, and Texas music artists feel with the way the mainstream country radio format has virtually ignored their music for years—which is a frustration that is also shared by many country music fans themselves. That is why the local crowd in attendance cheered, and video of the incident went viral.

But there was a little bit of irony in the moment that was lost on many as they got swept up in the enthusiasm for what happened. KX 96.9 in Lincoln is one of now numerous mainstream country radio stations that are behind a new trend to add Texas, Red Dirt, and independent country artists into their playlist rotations, however incrementally.

Would it ever be enough to entice fans of Texas/Red Dirt music to tune into these stations? Likely not, because listeners would still run the risk of catching a whiff of a Sam Hunt or Walker Hayes song. Even on the mainstream stations who’ve made this commitment to independent music, they are often playing it at a rate of maybe one or two songs per hour. But it is enough to help expose huge audiences to alternatives to the regular rotation of mainstream country dude bros who are guaranteed #1s on country radio no matter what they release.

As Creative Director Rob Kelley of KX 96.9 told Saving Country Music, “Our station is kind of unique. Are we a mainstream station? Yes we are. But we also play a lot of Red Dirt music, not in a huge rotation, but we also play music that’s way out of the box compared to other stations.”

KX 96.9 plays artists such as Randall King, Aaron Watson, Mike and the Moonpies, American Aquarium, Wade Bowen, and others. “I bet I’ve got 400 spins on Zach Bryan,” Rob Kelley says.

And this is the reason Zach Bryan’s single “Something in the Orange” continues to see traction on mainstream country radio, despite the fact that Bryan’s label and management aren’t promoting the song to the country radio format at all. Just this week, “Something in the Orange” rose from #57 to #54. It’s still one of the most streamed songs in all of country music, with Bryan’s recent album American Heartbreak remaining at #2 in all of country. Country radio is the final frontier for independent artists to infiltrate, and Zach Bryan is finding traction.

Rob Kelley of KX 96.9 in Lincoln is also the guy that helps curate the country list for all of the country radio stations owned by the station’s parent company Alpha Media, and even though there are songs designated from on high for stations to play, local affiliates are also given leeway to play local or regional artists in their rotation. “Our stations down in Texas, they play Texas artists,” says Rob Kelley. And being based in Nebraska, KX 96.9 is in a region close to Oklahoma where Red Dirt music continues to encroach.

KX 96.9 is not alone either. In last week’s issue of Billboard‘s radio trade periodical Billboard Country Update, the front page story was about this very phenomenon. Titled “A Red-Dirt Injection Might Cure Sound-Alike Country Stations,” the article makes a compelling case why mainstream country radio stations should adopt more Texas/Red Dirt artists into their lineups, and highlighted numerous radio stations beyond 96.9 in Lincoln who are doing so.

“Country radio stations need to separate from the pack,” the article starts off. “That was the best takeaway from the ominously titled Country Radio Seminar (CRS) webinar, ‘How Country Radio Can Save Itself.’ Faced with sliding ratings, McVay Media president Mike McVay challenged programmers during the July 27 event to separate from their competitors: ‘Two stations in the same format, in the same market, playing the same songs, doesn’t do much anything for an audience. Don’t hesitate to take chances.'”

The article then runs through radio stations such as KKDT in Hays, Kansas, KUSQ in Worthington, Minnesota, KERP in Dodge City, Kansas, and KRVN in Lexington, Nebraska, all who are adopting Texas/Red Dirt music into their rotations, and doing so successfully, and in the Midwest region where Red Dirt continues to gain a foothold. But other stations well outside the region such as KRLY in Alpine, California near San Diego are doing the same things.

The greatest anecdote from the article is from Colby Ericson of KKDT in Hays, Kansas who says that Texas/Red Dirt music actually helps sell more advertising compared to the stock mainstream country playlist. The station plays roughly 50% Texas/Red Dirt, along with some classic country mixed in as well. This allows the station to separate itself from competition, and brand itself as more unique. “I’m not worried about numbers,” Colby Ericson says. “I’m worried about sales numbers.”

On the Charts Promotions founder Rick Hogan concludes the Billboard article by saying, “People are finding the music elsewhere, so why can’t country radio get behind it? There’s other stuff out there besides the mainstream.” And even though many Texas/Red Dirt/independent fans may never listen to a radio station with even a small percentage of mainstream artists mixed in, the vice versa is not the case, and this is creating an opening to expose mainstream audiences to independent voices. It may not be enough to allow these independent voices to appear on country airplay charts, but it just might be the difference in an independent band from Texas, Oklahoma, or elsewhere finding traction in the radio station’s market, allowing them to tour through, and draw larger crowds.

Anecdotes about radio stations successfully adding independent artists to their playlists aren’t just helpful guideposts. The mainstream country radio format may have no other choice but to adapt to the changing audio landscape and diversify playlists, or face irrelevance, or maybe even extinction. There is a reason the Country Radio Seminar presentation in July was called “How Country Radio Can Save Itself.” And it’s not just the sameness of the artists and styles of country that is dragging the format down. With the time it is taking now for radio singles to mature compared to previous eras, there are just less songs, and less artists being played in ever more constricting playlists. This is yet another dire symptom of it often taking 40 to 50 weeks for a single to reach its peak position on radio.

An example of this concern came across on a recent episode of the viral farming YouTube channel Laura Farms. The Nebraska-based farmer said as she was working her field in a tractor, “I’ve been listening to just regular radio, which I haven’t done in a long time … and I can’t believe how many times a radio station is allowed to repeat to same song over and over. I’ve been in the cab for several hours now, but I keep hearing the same songs over and over, like they just have them on loop. It’s ridiculous.”

It’s no longer just active listeners and audiophiles eschewing country radio’s direction, it’s everyday listeners as Top 40 country radio has now become Top 20 country radio, with the amount of singles being actively promoted to the format in heavy rotation dwindling more and more by the day. Adding Texas/Red Dirt/independent artists into the mix could be the panacea, and for some stations, it might be essential if they are to survive in a world where the choices for audio entertainment available to listeners on their smartphones seems almost endless.

In 2022, independent country artists—Red Dirt or otherwise—have plenty of other options for how to promote their music to the public and find an audience. They don’t necessarily need mainstream corporate radio, though they may take it if it’s offered. Zach Bryan is a great example. But mainstream corporate radio may need them, and the stations on the cutting edge of actually playing what listeners want to hear are finding success with it.

What a concept.

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