You may not be able to find a more insular, inbred, and ass backwards institution in the entirety of the North American economy than country radio. Run by good ol’ boys in the pockets of big labels, and mid level corporate bureaucratic bean counters who bark orders from on high to hundreds of stations, the idea of country radio either serving the communities they broadcast to or the artists most worthy of being heard died decades ago. It’s all just a system to macro serve formulaic slop to the masses to drive as many ears to advertisers as possible.
We’ve all known this for years of course, but in an article written by Phillis Stark and published in Billboard recently, querying many country radio insiders about the state of the format, a couple of guy told it like it is with refreshing starkness.
“We are not in the music business. We are in the business of connecting our audience with our clients,” says Bob Walker, the program director at WCTK in Providence, Rhode Island. By “clients,” Walker means advertisers, who are the ones who actually pay to keep radio on the air. “You want art? Go to the museum. Then on the way home, drive past the movie theater showing the biggest, mass-appeal hit movies. Which one is going to [achieve] a wider reach for our clients?”
The question posed to these radio insiders was if country radio is where “Difference goes to die” as asserted by the New York Times in an article about the sudden emergence of Chris Stapleton. Rick Kelly, the vice president at Marco Promotions—a radio promotions company that attempts to get their clients played on country radio—concurs.
“While country or country-leaning artists like Sturgill Simpson and Stapleton and [Jason] Isbell have had banner years, outselling many chart-topping radio artists, programmers have not embraced them,” says Kelly. “Largely these artists are more critically lauded than the artists that make up much of country playlists. Lots of music fans consider country radio to be a foreign thing that has nothing to say to them . . . There was a time when radio programmers were arbiters of taste, but that was a pretty long time ago. Now there are more ways to find the music you like than ever before. Country radio . . . is not about music It’s about commerce. Once we all accept that, these arguments are moot.”
But this wasn’t always the case, as Rick Kelly alludes to. Country radio stations used to be pillars of their communities in previous eras, helping to support local and regional musicians by playing their music, promoting upcoming shows at local venues, and disseminating news to to the public. DJ’s were local, and listeners trusted them and were loyal to listening to the same person every morning or during the evening commute home.
Now that has all been replaced by formulaic syndicated programming beamed from on high to hundreds of stations. But how has this new shift to focusing on “commerce” affected the bottom line of radio?
We already knew that Cumulus Media—the second-largest radio station owner in America—was under major financial pressure. The company just ousted CEO Lew Dickey and his brother, who had been at the helm of the company from the beginning. They were also the guys behind the company’s big “NASH” move. Then earlier this month, iHeartMedia—America’s #1 radio station owner—got pummeled as well. Stock values fell a whopping 41% on November 5th (the days after Chris Stapleton’s big wins at the CMA Awards), and an additional 25% the next day. Despite focusing on “commerce,” American radio is in shambles.
It’s radio’s very narrow focus on commerce alone that has created woeful disconnects with the communities it serves. Slashing local talent for syndicated programming to save costs has only worked to undermine what made radio special, and something different than what Spotify or other streaming services could offer. As radio research company Edison Research has pointed out on numerous occasions, the loss of the local flavor of radio, and abandoning country’s classic sound, has helped to kill country radio in America.
Meanwhile, how is Chris Stapleton doing on country radio after his big CMA wins? He is finding traction, but it’s incredibly slow. Here a month after the CMA Awards, Stapleton’s current single “Nobody To Blame” has finally cracked the Top 30 in radio play. It took 30 days to move into the Top 30—exemplifying the slow, plodding way country radio goes about its business, unable to take advantage of marketplace trends.
In a capitalist society, everything has to make money. However when that is all you focus on, when you abandon your roots and your place in the local heart, you run the risk of becoming irrelevant. In a music economy with endless choices, the one thing radio can offer is that ability for listeners to connect with their local community. But by focusing on cost cutting in the name of “commerce,” country radio is aggressively spiraling towards becoming commercially obsolete.