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Nashville Scene Radio Interference

Country music grew up in the bosom of radio--now it's being kicked out of the house

By Craig Havighurst

APRIL 3, 2000:  Some say the theme of death has been wrung out of country music, but the first week of March was shaping up to be a bloody business. As country radio industry leaders gathered in Nashville for their biggest annual event, the Country Radio Seminar (CRS), George Strait and Alan Jackson's duet "Murder on Music Row" made its debut on Billboard's country radio chart. At the same time, Country Music Association executive director Ed Benson, by some people's reckoning, was publicly sanctioning the killing.

The song, written by local bluegrasser Larry Cordle, mourns the passing of real country music from the airwaves in a quest for "the almighty dollar and the lust for worldwide fame." Benson sang his own tune in the pages of Country Airplay Monitor, a weekly trade paper for country radio published by the same people who produce Billboard magazine. "Nashville, to be a healthy global music community as we go into the next five to 10 years, [has] got to make music that appeals to more than just the country music format," he was quoted as saying, "and we have got to promote and market that appropriate music to stations beyond the country music format."

For a lot of country music fans, Benson's remarks read like a white flag of surrender. True, adult contemporary and pop radio have helped turn certain records by Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and others into some of Nashville's biggest sellers in recent years. But critics say that catering to AC and Top 40 tastes is dumbing down country radio without helping the format to overcome a six-year ratings slide.

"We need the captain of the ship to say, 'There's land ahead,' instead of saying, 'I lost my compass,' " said Larry Wiater, a CRS trade show exhibitor and a professed fan of traditional country music. Wiater and his partner Tommy Thompson were at the Country Radio Seminar representing Tennecom Tomorrow, a Gallatin-based company that designs marketing programs for radio stations. But like many country fans, who've been calling radio stations and hollering "Amen" to Strait and Jackson's version of "Murder on Music Row," the two men are distressed by a format grown formulaic, slick, and beholden in its choice of music to a shrinking handful of industry consultants and gigantic music corporations.

In 1994, at its peak, country radio captured about 14 percent of the American radio audience. By 1997, that share was down to 10 percent, and today it stands at about 8. More significantly, perhaps, country radio was for decades a vital force in popular culture, introducing America to Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, and other artists who helped shape pop music as we know it. Now, like the rest of the media, country radio has been almost entirely consumed by a rapidly consolidating communications industry that, for all its emphasis on audience research, may be losing touch with its traditional working-class fan base and with country music's remarkable legacy.

This decline feels particularly bitter to fans and producers of alternative-country or Americana music, who believe that they're sitting on a talent pool that could precipitate country music's revitalization, if radio would only treat independent labels and their often strikingly individual artists as a sort of farm team.

Granted, this debate is years old and sometimes gets overworked in the local media and over beers at Robert's Western World and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, but this year's CRS offered a good opportunity to take a deeper look at the questions that plague the format:

How exactly have corporate consolidation and the ubiquity of industry consultants affected the format? What do country programmers think about the music they're spinning and the pressure they're under from their increasingly corporate owners? Why have adult contemporary and teen pop sounds diluted or vanquished the bluesy pathos that used to be at the heart of country music? And why, with listenership languishing, hasn't radio looked to the Americana scene for some bold new sounds and artists?

The Country Radio Seminar, which took place Mar. 1-4 at the Nashville Convention Center, was the picture of a modern corporate confab, dominated by trade-show schmoozing, consultant-driven seminars, and obscure statistics, but it wasn't hard to find discontent with the music. At one open-forum meeting, Pat Geary, programmer for a satellite-based country music service in Europe, got up to denounce American country radio's "monochrome" quality. By contrast, on pop radio, he said, "there's a mixture of influences and a variety that makes you feel like you're getting a full diet. As much as I love country music, I don't think what we're getting right now is more than a small portion of what's available and what the listeners would respond to if we'd let them."

Overseas, Geary feels completely comfortable programming Robbie Fulks and John Prine alongside Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, and George Strait. That's a playlist you'd hear on few stateside radio stations.

Speaking at a different session, songwriter Darrell Wayne Perry concurred: "I think radio is to blame for [losing our core country audience], because radio has put small parameters on songwriters. Now when I sit down, in order to make a living on country radio, I have to write the same song over and over again. They will not let me be a creative person."

Perhaps the most remarkable confession of the convention came from Luke Lewis, president of Mercury Nashville. "I love traditional country music," he said in a panel discussion on whether country radio has been too influenced by pop music. "I left pop music to come to Nashville. And [country] seems a bit fake to me right now. I'm sorry. Even some of the stuff that we make. It's a pop song with a fiddle or a steel in it. And at our label, we're not inclined at all right now to make a record that sounds very traditional. The message we get [from radio] is that really isn't playing well. So we can't take a record all the way to the top of the charts if it's got too much twang in it.

"The creative community in this town and those of us at record companies right now are very frightened. I've got one of the best traditional country singers on earth in a development deal. I'm afraid to put an album out on the guy."

For the CRS agenda-setters, however, there was little evident nostalgia for twang. Presentations about country radio's erosion focused not on questions of artistic content, but on strategic questions of branding, ratings, and revenue. At panel discussions driven largely by the professional consultants who recommend what radio should play and how often, the core themes centered around shortening playlists, emphasizing proven hit songs, and broadening the format in the direction of adult contemporary and Top 40 radio. In one session, consultant Rick Torcasso, president of The New Research Group, provoked an audience by floating a scenario in which country radio had embraced Celine Dion's Titanic hit "My Heart Will Go On" or Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me," implying that country music is whatever country radio says it is.

The inner workings of how radio stations manage the song charts was also on display. One year ago, consultant Larry Rosin warned the CRS that country hits didn't stay at No. 1 as long as hits did in other, more successful formats. His talk had dramatic results. Instead of 40 different No. 1 songs, as country radio had had during each of the previous two years, 1999 saw only 18 No. 1 songs, suggesting that hit songs, or at least their duration, are hardly the sole product of grassroots enthusiasm. Rosin was back this year urging even shorter playlists and even greater emphasis on hits.

Consultants and label heads alike were worried about country's place in the larger media world. The best news hovering over the convention was that Lonestar's song "Amazed," already a blockbuster for country, had crossed over to pop radio, where it became the first country song since Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's 1983 single "Islands in the Stream" to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The bad news: Even eight weeks atop the country chart wasn't enough of a story for RCA Records to land the band on a major talk show--it took the band's crossover success to earn an invitation to perform on Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. "TV people still feel that this is very much a niche format," lamented RCA chief Joe Galante. Consultant Torcasso told a seminar that country music suffers because it only has five "icon"-level stars (Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks, Reba McEntire, and George Strait), and that it desperately needs more if it's going to reenter the mass-media consciousness.

Rosin also presented research showing that most of country's audience erosion has come from men, who are more likely than women to say that country radio is less interesting than it was a year ago. That shouldn't come as a surprise. With the notable exception of the Dixie Chicks, most of the new acts and music on country radio in the past two years fall in two categories: warm and fuzzy (The Wilkinsons, Steve Wariner) or young and perky (Jessica Andrews, Alecia Elliott). Recently, with acts like Montgomery Gentry and Clay Davidson, major labels appear to be offering a grittier sound to win males back. Rosin suggested a format split into "male" country and "female" country, an idea that seemed to bewilder more people than it impressed.

Commercial country music was born on records, but it grew to adulthood on radio. From the 1920s on, radio was the chief medium through which new country music first reached its fans, although in the early days the music was largely presented in live broadcast segments. You might have heard a young Ernest Tubb six days a week over KGKO in Fort Worth, Texas, circa 1940, or the Stanley Brothers or Flatt and Scruggs over WCYB in Bristol, Va. By 1949, at least 650 radio stations nationwide featured regular, live country music programming as part of their broadcast week.

Formatted radio emerged after 1950, according to author and Country Music Hall of Fame historian John Rumble. Nevertheless, he says, "It was a pretty freewheeling system. The deejays essentially had control over what they played." Some moonlighted as promoters and favored the records of the artists they booked. Others spun the artists they loved and those who elicited responses from their hardscrabble audiences. When the payola scandals of 1960 sliced through the world of rock 'n' roll, country radio became more conservative and controlled as well. Stations adopted formulas for mixing up the old with the new, while leaving the deejays some choices within those parameters.

Nobody knows which was the first full-time country station, but according to Bill Malone's Country Music U.S.A. it's believed to be KXLA in Pasadena, Calif., or KDAV in Lubbock, Texas, circa 1950. No sooner had the format been born, however, than it was blasted by the rise of rock 'n' roll. In response, the CMA was formed in 1958, and it put heavy emphasis on building a country radio base in the U.S. In that, the organization was an unqualified success. The format grew from 81 stations in 1961 to a peak of 2,427 in 1994. Today, there are just under 2,300, but it is still the nation's leading radio format, with more than twice as many transmission towers as the next largest format, news/talk.

The CMA's campaign was about proving the value of the country listener demographic to advertisers, not preserving the heritage of country music. One of its early brochures, quoted in Malone's book, noted that "the 'C' in country music means cash." As such, questions of content and artistic integrity have cropped up regularly over the years. After Olivia Newton-John won the CMA's Female Vocalist of the Year award in 1974, for example, a group of country greats led by George Jones and Tammy Wynette launched the Association of Country Entertainers. Until it disbanded in 1981, ACE was a ragtag advocacy group that urged longer playlists, a more traditional orientation, and a wider variety of country radio formats. In other words, the problems facing country radio today are simply the latest incarnation of a dilemma that country programmers have grappled with for decades.

The Country Radio Seminar grew out of a disk jockey convention started in 1952 by WSM. Ostensibly held as a birthday celebration for the Grand Ole Opry, its real agenda was as a showcase and lobbying session for Opry artists, who were booked by WSM's own Artist Service Bureau. "It was a real hoo-ha," Rumble says, recalling the time Hank Snow rented an elephant and marched it down Broadway with a big sign on it thanking the country deejays.

Today, artists don't thank country deejays; they thank "radio" as if it were some monolithic thing. They're not far off. Following the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which removed caps on total station ownership, acquisitions of radio stations by publicly traded corporations jumped sevenfold in two years to $27.3 billion for the period 1996-97, according to broadcasting analysts Veronis, Suhler & Associates. As prices were bid up, total radio station assets skyrocketed from $5 billion in 1995 to $31.5 billion in 1998, and stock in broadcasting companies did almost as well.

In other words, more and more radio stations are being swallowed up into fewer and fewer companies. And the consolidation continues. Clear Channel, the nation's largest radio chain and a major player in the Billboard business, is about to acquire another chain, AMFM. Even after some anticipated divestitures at the request of the Federal Trade Commission, the combined company is expected to own almost 875 radio stations nationwide.

Chain ownership has changed virtually everything about radio except for the towers and the flying subatomic particles. The average price of a radio station has soared, making it hard for independent stations to remain independent and almost impossible for a new independent to get on the air. Public companies have asked each station to return higher profit margins than they ever needed to as independents. Unprecedented pressure on overhead has led to layoffs of air staff and programmers, whose decisions have been moved up the chain of command to group heads, who are often responsible for multiple formats at once. In some places, local on-air talent has been replaced altogether by virtual jocks who "host" shows on several stations in several cities at once, with computers playing music out of digitized libraries.

Not surprisingly, these forces have saturated the industry with anxiety and institutional conservatism. John Blassingame, general manager for WGAR, a Clear Channel station in Cleveland, agreed to host a CRS roundtable called "Career Survival in a Consolidated World." When he sat down for the appointed session, he had an ironic confession to make. He'd been fired less than a week before. "Even general managers feel like we're getting phased out," he told me. "More and more, [the corporations are] dictating the programming. They're changing everything, and we're lucky if they let us know about it."

Amidst all this consolidation and conformity, the buzzword of the year at CRS was "passion." Programmers are supposed to be "passionate" about the music they choose. Songs get "passion" ratings in some charts. Stations are supposed to generate "passion" among their audiences. But if all this ravishment is going on out there, why isn't it translating into much individuality or adventurism in what actually goes on the air?

The musical taste of a station is typically defined by its program director and/or its musical director. Ideally, he or she listens to all the new product emerging from Nashville and adds the best songs to the list of "currents," or newly released songs getting regular airplay. But program directors are finding that they have increasingly fewer choices about what they can put on the air. That's because the consultant-driven, corporate forces in the radio industry have severely limited their options In a given week, a station typically adds between zero and two new songs to a currents list of about 30 tunes.

Program directors' choices are restricted even further by the fact that the pool of potential "adds" is also limited. Although major labels provide promotional CDs to the stations that report their playlists to the trade magazines, a bi-weekly, label-sponsored CD anthology of new singles called CDX reaches the 2,100 or so other stations not in that privileged position. This means that the vast majority of stations don't receive albums to listen through, but rather pre-ordained singles straight from the label. CDX says it includes only one or two songs from independent labels on each disc. Only rarely are those cuts granted precious airtime.

There's yet another bottleneck: Standard operating procedure dictates that major-label artists release only two or three singles per year. At CRS, Ken Kragen, a music industry veteran who's managed everyone from Lionel Richie to Trisha Yearwood to the recent revival of Kenny Rogers, criticized country for this trickle of product from established stars. It creates enormous pressure for any given single to catch fire, while a healthier industry would toss out four or five songs per year to see what worked. Moreover, he said, "the 'right' choice right now tends to be what sounds like what else is on the radio. And yet the biggest records are the ones that don't sound like what's on the radio."

Beyond questions of how much music is available, Country radio's "monochrome" quality owes a good deal to the pervasive influence of charts, consultants, and research. In the old days, programmers had to trust their instincts. Now a variety of online survey tools lets programmers see up to the day what other stations are playing and what they're dropping to "recurrent" status or dropping altogether.

Programmers also rely more heavily than ever on audience surveys. "Call-out" research is the bane of most country radio critics; it involves focus groups of 100 or more people whose demographics match the station's core audience. Surveyors play eight- to 10-second hooks from dozens, perhaps hundreds of songs, and the listeners rate them. Contrary to popular belief, call-out research is not used to sample new music for airplay. Instead, surveyors generally test a song once it's been spun hundreds of times, the idea being to find out just how long it takes for the radio audience to tire of a particular record--a quality consultants actually quantify as the "burn" factor. A number of consultants at CRS urged playing hit songs longer and more often, offering yet another way to keep new music off the radio.

Programmers rationalize consultants and their research as essential in a competitive environment, but some acknowledge that these tools get abused. Gregg Swedberg, program director for AMFM's KEEY-FM in Minneapolis, says consultants don't demand control over radio stations' playlists. Instead, he says, "It's given away by general managers, corporations, or program directors who really don't care. There are plenty of guys who just don't listen to music. In our consolidated world, we are all being asked to do more, and some guys are being asked to program three radio stations or more, not all of them country. So you have situations with pop guys programming country stations, and maybe they're not that interested in it."

In some cases, program directors do indeed care, but they still end up following the same research and making the same choices. Michael J. Foxx, music director and an afternoon drive-time deejay at WPOC-FM, a Clear Channel station in Baltimore, doesn't delegate programming to anyone, but his philosophy is that radio is ultimately about familiar, hit songs. "People listen to the radio to hear records they're comfortable with and familiar with," he says. "We use research as a tool to find [that] out." Of stations that play unfamiliar songs by unfamiliar artists, he says simply, "God help them."

This question of what to play on country radio goes hand-in-hand with an equally important, and confounding, question: Who's listening? The core audience at country, statisticians say, increasingly resembles the audience for Adult Contemporary music: mother-age to middle-aged women. Steve Mitchell, program director of WYAY-FM, an ABC/Disney-owned station in Atlanta, says, "We use research to get a visual image of who our listener is. For us, it's late-30s soccer moms. I tell my jocks, 'Imagine a mom and dad driving along with kids in the car. That's who you're talking to.' "

If country has made aggressive moves to expand on this relatively staid listener base in recent years, it's been by courting young people--the very group that swelled country's numbers in the mid-1990s. Witness the emergence of artists like Alecia Elliot and Jennifer Day, who sound like counteroffers to teens buying Britney Spears albums by the millions. One of the nation's top country program directors, Dene Hallam of KYCY-FM in San Francisco, says trying to attract young listeners is a big mistake, because Top 40 radio today is simply too strong to battle on its own turf. "Whether country likes to admit it or not, a lot of our success happens when Top 40 and AC is failing." Besides, he adds, "Country radio can't make any money on teen ratings. It's not what [ad] agencies buy."

So what's to become of this once unruly, but now safe and suburban, mass-entertainment medium we call country radio? If pop crossover continues to lose radio market share, can country radio instead lay claim to a hip, affluent audience that cares about the music itself and craves variety? Hallam says no. He argues that country radio of today and country radio of the past are simply two different things, and they should no longer be confused. "People who really love Hank and Merle wouldn't listen to today's country, even if you played [only] one or two cuts of it an hour."

But contrary to Hallam's wisdom, Nashville is rapidly becoming the hub for entrepreneurs, producers, journalists, and musicians who'd like to reclaim country radio for country music, and they all point to the burgeoning Americana/alternative-country genre as the format to do just that. For his part, Hallam thinks it'll never happen "I've never had research [that says] acts like Kim Richey and The Mavericks do well with the country core audience. A devil's advocate would say, 'Put this stuff on and people will listen.' Well, we could never put it on in such a dose. It's incongruous with this other music. Someone who likes that stuff is going to think 'This Kiss' is bullshit."

He may have a point, but the grass-roots enthusiasm for Americana will not be denied. Billy Block, producer of the Western Beat Roots Revival radio show and an upcoming version of that show on CMT, says country radio isn't just missing an aesthetic opportunity by ignoring roots country, it's missing a business opportunity as well. "Apparently, they're satisfied with going after that small audience [of over-30 women]. Maybe those are the people who are going to go buy Kenny Chesney records by the millions. But [alternative country] appeals to college kids, males, females, an educated audience, a monied audience. I believe that if we spent as much money backing the artists that we love, they'd sell similar numbers."

Nashville's major record labels have paid more than lip service to roots country, even as radio has played it safe. Jon Grimson, co-producer of the syndicated radio program "This Week in Americana," points to label exec Scott Borchetta, who in the mid-'90s persistently sold country radio on The Mavericks, a distinctly outside-the-box country act. Grimson also cites Mike Kraski, senior VP of sales and marketing for Sony Music Nashville, who is backing artists like Bruce Robison, his brother Charlie Robison, and Jack Ingram on Sony's Lucky Dog imprint. Kraski told Country Airplay Monitor early this year that "country radio needs to get its head out of the sand" and discover Americana as "the next musical wave in country."

Boosters of the format say that Americana is poised for some sort of breakthrough--one that may or may not happen on radio. "Country radio's sleeping, and it's just a matter of time before we get the one station on the air that is the statement, opens up the floodgates, and [starts a] domino effect," says Jessie Scott, Americana editor for Gavin, the trade paper that gave Americana its name and its leading chart. Right now, however, many of Americana's 90-odd reporting stations suffer from low power, poor capitalization, AM frequencies in many cases, and a variety of other obstacles.

But these stations have discovered the Internet, and Internet users have apparently discovered them. Three Americana broadcast stations--KFAN of Johnston, Texas; KPIG in Monterey, Calif.; and KHYI in Dallas--took three of the top four rankings in last October's survey of Internet radio station listenership by Arbitron. KFAN has logged as many as 89,000 listeners per month. "People are seeking it out," Scott says. "If it's not being served up to them in their market, they're going and finding it."

Of course, the Internet of today represents a fairly clunky and unportable medium, but wireless technology, customized programming, and satellite broadcasting are getting set to change the way people discover, preview, buy, and listen to music. Sirius Satellite Radio, a company that goes online late this year, will pipe 50 channels of niche format music into automobiles through a quarter-sized decal antenna for a monthly subscription fee of about $10. At least one of those channels will feature classic country, with playlists longer than most people's CD collections. Other channels will host new roots country and folk, possibly branded with the Americana name.

All of which suggests that perhaps Americana has a chance to succeed on its own terms. But it's less likely to have an effect on the country format--despite the precedents from rock and pop, whose "alternative" formats of the late 1980s got so popular we now think of them as mainstream. It would simply be too radical a move for an industry as profitable, as leveraged, and as beholden to Wall Street as corporate radio. The CMA's Benson, for example, sees more limits than possibilities, arguing that formats founder when they get "too eclectic."

"Everybody's got such a big investment, they don't want to take risks," he says. "I don't know how you get out of that scenario." And yet he admits that the potential to influence country radio is there: "I know there's great music being made by alternative-country artists. It's one of those things that could perhaps interest more listeners if it was given the right kind of exposure. But that becomes a chicken/egg argument very quickly."

Grimson refuses to concede that Americana and mainstream country radio should go their separate ways. Country radio has been trying Benson's pop-crossover strategy for several years, he says, and it has only served to erode country's identity in the mind of the public. "[The consultants and programmers] seem to miss the fact that the format's in decline. All the radio stations that have tried to delve into Americana programming have found it successful. The people who claim that it's not a viable thing have not attempted it."

In his critique of media and literacy, Amusing Ourselves to Death, communications professor Neil Postman wrote that radio "is the least likely medium to join in the descent into a Huxleyan world of technological narcotics." That was back in 1985. One wonders what he'd say today. The overpriced towers, the ruthless pragmatism of programmers, the seemingly disinterested "listening" public have conspired to commodify music to the point where it's treated as little more than air freshener to sweeten America's endless commutes. That stings particularly hard for people who grew up when radio was an imaginative, varied, and vibrant source of music that wasn't already being piped in to every shopping mall.

It is difficult to believe that under these circumstances, an artist-oriented movement like Americana could really thrive in commercial radio, and given the rapid spread of new technologies, it's unclear whether that matters or not. Moreover, the "country" qualities of country radio have, since the 1950s, been seen as a pendulum that swings back and forth every 10 years or so. Given that it's been a little over a decade since the "New Traditionalist" movement spearheaded by Strait and Randy Travis, there are some reasons to believe commercial country radio may look back to tradition in the near future.

A number of programmers at CRS said country was in enough trouble that they're ready to use what control they have left to take some chances on new and unusual artists, even if they stop short of embracing hard-core twang acts from the Americana camp. The major labels are preparing to introduce a raft of new artists with more bite and soul in their voices than most contemporary fare. Eric Heatherly on Mercury, Clay Davidson on Virgin, or Sonya Isaacs on Giant may catch fire if radio programmers can find room on their playlists. And "Murder on Music Row," which is getting airplay on the strength of its star singers, may be just the manifesto traditional country needs to bring alienated fans out of the woodwork to agitate for better music.

But will the pendulum factor work in country radio's unprecedented corporate environment? Only if, as manager Kragen told a CRS "town meeting," programmers and station managers "quit being so scared." Yes, he said, consolidation is making everybody nervous about jobs and the bottom line. But, he added, "Thornton Wilder had a line I've quoted many many times, which is, 'Every great thing balances at all times on the razor edge of disaster.' You just don't gain without risk. Do the different thing. Make your station stand out as something special."

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