Having worked in music radio, most of that at Country music radio stations, for the past 35 years, I recently stopped to reflect on the evolution of Country music that I’ve seen and way Country music radio has reacted.
As with everything, Country music and radio aren’t as straightforward or simple as they once were. When I first started playing Country in Eugene, Oregon in 1971 the raging discussion was the emergence in some markets of a “Country-politan" format distinctly different from the traditional Country format that everybody else was playing. Essentially the discussion revolved around programming “crossover" artists and music styles, and whether the “harder" heritage Country acts were acceptable as Country music radio evolved.
To put this into perspective, in 1971 the debate was whether John Denver and Ann Murray were Country acts and should be played, and whether a contemporary Country music station should play Hank Williams in regular oldies rotation! By today’s standards this is laughable, but it does serve to make the point that as the Country radio format sought to broaden its appeal and attract a larger audience some felt that compromises would be necessary. More importantly it signaled the recognition that Country music fans were a more diverse group than they had been given credit for. This discussion of segmentation of the Country music format was the start of what we now have come to accept as the diversity of the tastes of Country music fans.
Today there are recognized music “charts" for the traditional Country Singles and Albums, but there are also now Bluegrass, Americana and Texas Music charts as well, all under the umbrella of Country music.
I find it most interesting that while Country music has quite obviously diversified, AM and FM Country music radio stations generally haven’t followed this trend and branched out to any great degree. If you were to go into any market today I would lay odds that you will find the Country music station or stations will all be much the same – playing 10 or 12-in-a-row, with a station playlist of fewer than 750 songs little of which will be older than 10 years. Some of these stations will have an “oldies" or “bluegrass" show as we did in San Diego, but the station that weaves these elements into the day to day format is very rare indeed.
To be fair I must acknowledge that in some markets you may also find a “Classic" Country station, generally on an otherwise unused AM frequency, but I find these stations personally unfulfilling. I suspect that this may be because I like a good deal of contemporary Country music and want to hear it, and that by and large the people behind classic Country formats weren’t alive when these songs were hits, and, but that’s another gripe!
As one who has been part of the research and strategy behind the contemporary Country music approach I don’t criticize playing either extremely contemporary or exclusively “classic" Country music. On the contrary I understand that this kind of conservative approach is dictated to capture the most desirable (saleable) segment of the audience possible. I do suggest, however, that stations do this at their own peril as they continue to narrow their focus and leave larger numbers of Country music fans disaffected and unserved.
This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem except that AM and FM radio no longer has a monopoly on delivery of music. The emergence of satellite and more importantly internet “radio" where startup and operating costs are negligible now presents an alternative that will play an increasingly important role. The fact is no matter what your personal flavor of Country music is, there is an internet station playing it. If you like ‘mainly current hits but some 70s and Bluegrass", someone offers it. If you Texas Country and Bluegrass, it’s there.
Although internet radio has been around for more than a decade it is still in its infancy. Indications are, however that it will grow up to be a 900 lb. gorilla. Estimates are that something approaching 50% of the younger and more adaptable age groups are already turning to the net as their primary source for new music. At the other end of the spectrum, the 55+ generation is the fastest growing segment of internet users. As the 55+ group represents an increasingly economically attractive audience, and one that used to be the domain of Country music radio, this is an ominous sign for traditional broadcasters who will be increasingly forced to compete with low budget operators.
This will likely be a double-edged sword. On the one hand the audience will be able to find a “radio" format either on a satellite service or more likely on the net that more closely approaches their ideal music mix. On the other hand the audiences for individual stations will be much smaller than broadcasters are used to working with. This will have the effect that the sterility and compromises of low budget broadcasting that has turned some listeners off will become more widespread. This will in turn further erode and put economic pressure on AM and FM broadcasters’ in a vicious downward cycle.
John Peterson is a 35 year radio veteran who has announced, programmed and owned radio stations in the US and overseas. Currently John owns and operates The Ranch Online (http://www.theranchonline.org ) which plays a traditional mix of contemporary and classic Country music. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org .