A Generational Split At Country … And What To Do About It

“I think the CMA finally made history tonight. We as an industry should realize that the 49-54-plus audience is gone. Thank God. The music industry and the charts should stop accepting radio’s excuses and out-of-date research, and [realize that] the audience that radio seems to cater to most no longer reflects the reality of the music and the artists that are making the format interesting again. Country radio now belongs to a much younger audience.”
That was Tim Riley of Syndication Services, Inc., as quoted last Thursday in R&R Country Daily’s wrap-up of the previous night’s CMA Awards Show: the one that accommodated everybody from George Strait to Kid Rock & Lil Wayne but could certainly be viewed as a passing of the generational torch, despite Strait’s two wins. And having been part of a lot of very up-to-date research on the topic recently, I’m going to surprise some people here and agree . . . up to a point.
The generational split is hard to deny. During the early ’90s Country boom, there was traditional leaning but freshly-packaged music that a 44-year-old and a 27-year-old could agree on. In the late ’90s doldrums, nobody cared if there was music for listeners under 35. Now, there’s a lot more music for 25-to-34s, but it doesn’t all work for a 45-year-old. The split is exacerbated by the greater likelihood of a 27-year-old listener to be female and the 45-year-old to male, a legacy of the very different pre-Randy Travis lean of the format. And some of the once-enduring songs a 45-year-old male likes have finally reached the point where they mean nothing to younger listeners.
So why not just write off those older listeners and move on? Because the older audience is not gone. They’re less satisfied. They’re willing to head off to Oldies or Classic Rock if they hear too much music they can’t relate to. But the available 45-to-54 audience is still larger than the 25-to-34 audience that will consider listening to Country in most places. It would undoubtedly be fine with many on the label side if Country focused exclusively on the audience they perceive as buying music. But walking away from a third of the target – often the largest target – isn’t a realistic proposition, particularly in markets where there is only one Country station.
But, perhaps, after nearly 20 years of false starts, it is time for a true, younger-skewing Country format to take shape in any market where there are two Country stations. Over the years, Country radio has been very good at coming up with Country stations that have a younger, more energetic presentation. It has been eager to embrace the “young country” or “new country” handle. (Cox is using the latter on stations in Louisville and Birmingham, Ala.) But it has been hard pressed to create anything truly different. In a format that has always seen strength in unity, Mainstream Country stations were willing to become just contemporary enough to block off any opportunity for something younger.
In the early ’90s, there was no need to force the issue. If a second Country station popped up playing roughly the same music, it would still grow the existing audience for the format, rather than merely cutting it in half. That happens less often now, and if a second station is going to expand Country’s listener base, it’s going to have to happen by offering something truly different.
On a truly younger Country station:
* Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, and Sugarland would already be core artists (alongside Rascal Flatts), instead of the tier behind Kenny, Toby, Tim, etc.
* The core artists of the ’90s would have to earn their way on with tremendous, relevant records that tested at the young-end, or maybe they just wouldn’t be there at all.
* The early ’90s gold that carried the format for many years when the currents weren’t as good would finally be retired; so would the late ’90s music that caused Country’s doldrums and forced radio to burn out the early ’90s in the first place.
* Songs would become hits (or not) in far less than 40 weeks.
* The format’s goal would be recruiting 18-to-34-year-old Country fans on their own terms, without compromise; helping them to learn to use the format and creating excitement about the artists.
Until now, the industry has assumed that the younger leaning Country station would be edgier and more rock-leaning. Certainly, we have seen that the growing handful of Country records with Hip-Hop elements work better for younger listeners. But we are also dealing with a more female audience at the younger end. It might be the older-leaning mainstream Country format – the one where “A Country Boy Can Survive” remains valid – that takes on the more Classic Rock flavor.
Are Country PDs the hold-up here? I don’t think so. This format would likely be the personal preference of many of them. They already make most veteran artists fight for every hit now. The real question is whether Music Row is ready, since so many facets of a truly young-end Country format would represent a radical change in the current way of doing business. So you have to ask:
Is Music Row ready to work more than one Country format? For 20 years, any whisper of fragmentation has been rapidly shouted down by an industry that finds nothing scarier than trying to go for No. 1 without having every Country reporter in lockstep.
Is Music Row ready to drop “one-size-fits-all” A&R and let more Taylor Swifts emerge? Some new Country acts appear on the scene with songs that could easily be sung by a 45-year-old artist. Others make their initial statement by being just edgier than the competition, and then go in search of that more adult-leaning, female-friendly “career song” that dilutes their identity. When there are two real choices, fewer hits will have to super-serve a 39-year-old woman to the point of patronization. But how long will it take for the labels to adjust their current notion of what a hit sounds like?
Is Music Row ready to let programmers pore over a new album and find their own hits again (assuming there are still stations willing to do what Houston’s KKBQ did 15 years ago)? Are labels willing to let a great song that wasn’t right for every station go to No. 9 at Country radio instead of No. 1? And even if labels were willing to accept a No.9 record that sells more albums than a No. 1 chart hit, are artist managers? For the younger leaning Country station to have enough music to truly differentiate itself, the industry will have to surrender some of the symmetry it has gotten used to.
There have always been a few Country broadcasters game for a new variant of the format. There have been fewer with the tenacity to perfect it; it’s usually easier to default back to mainstream Country when there’s not immediate traction. But if there’s an opportunity to build a younger-leaning format, it’s now when there are the burgeoning superstars to define it. It’s the best way to recruit 18-to-34-listeners without deliberately alienating the existing audience, and the best way to ensure that when 45-to-54s age out of the format once-and-for-all, there’s an equal number of listeners waiting to replace them. Forcing existing Country stations to become more current might be more satisfying for the music industry; building two strong formats would be the greater achievement.

44 replies
  1. John Hendricks
    John Hendricks says:

    You’re right on many counts, but the age-old question persists: Is there enough COUNTRY cume to support a fragmented genre?
    There’s no question that PD’s are under intense pressure to produce younger demos, but those country stations who direct their efforts exclusively at those demos lose every time for that one very important reason: they just can’t attract enough cume to get over the hump.
    Denver is an excellent example, as is Seattle, San Diego, Atlanta and Dallas.
    If you’re seeing evidence of a massive 18-34 P1 Country cume, they you’re seeing something most PD’s (and Consultants) aren’t.

    Reply
  2. Sean Ross
    Sean Ross says:

    John – My point exactly is that the 18-34 Country audience isn’t yet big enough to win the coin toss over 45-54 at an existing station. You would have to hope that you could grow that audience by offering something truly targeted to them, instead of what we often get — a second mainstream Country station with gutsier stagers. (I hasten to add that this isn’t meant to describe every station John cites above.) And what I am seeing 25-34 is not that there’s a massive cume yet, but those that do exist have distinct tastes.

    Reply
  3. Chris MacDonald
    Chris MacDonald says:

    Side question
    I would imagine there is a much smaller but highly loyal group of listeners that fall into an “alternative country” segment. For those who are not aware of this niche, it is a format that reaches way back to the roots of country and provides new hybrid manifestations of country with rock influence. Examples of alt-country musicians include Uncle Tupelo, early Wilco, Son Volt, Steve Earl, Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, Casey Chambers, Gillian Welch.
    This niche appears to appeal to listeners who are not terribly happy with the commercialization of the music appealing to either demographics you account for, who are looking for a strong bond to the roots of country, brought into the present.
    Where does this niche fall within the analysis or demographic spectrum? Is it just a sliver? Does it matter, or in some way counter-balance the analysis?

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  4. John Hendricks
    John Hendricks says:

    You’re points are all very-well taken, Sean. I’m replying back because I think you’ve written perhaps the most thoughtful piece on this issue I’ve ever seen.
    Sales Managers, I’m sure would happily abondon those 45+ listeners IF they could get enough 18-34’s to replace them.
    Sean, I’m just not sure that country’s cume will ever be big enough to do that. Our biggest cume came in the mid-90s and even then, the format wouldn’t fragment. Remember “Young Country”? If it EVER could have worked, it would have been then…but it didn’t.
    I would have bet a lot of money that Scott Malalick, after his success with KWWF/Seattle, had the “formula” to win over younger country demos. Dispite all he brought to the table and all that station’s hard work, they’ve been unable to make that happen for them in San Francisco; with NO country competition.
    It could just be that country really is a niche format–a very LARGE niche, but not large enough to be competitive in the mainstream.
    And so, to your point: who replaces those 45+ Country listeners when the “grow” out of the format forever?

    Reply
  5. Sean Ross
    Sean Ross says:

    Chris – My initial instinct is that, as with Texas Country, it’s easiest to cherrypick Americana/roots/alt.country and find a few songs at any given time that would work on a cutting-edge Country station than to expect to build a big radio station around it — at least on a local terrestrial dial. KPLX (the Wolf) Dallas did a good job of finding a Pat Green song here and a Cory Morrow there, but KIKK-FM Houston had a hard time finding enough viable Texas music (even with some Triple-A thrown in) to power a whole station.

    Reply
  6. Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine
    Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine says:

    You have indeed said a mouthful there, Professor Ross. At the onset, I would say that the comment attributed to Tim Riley could be perceived as being inflammatory. But in reality, as you have noticed, there is a bit more to it than that.
    Little did we all realize at the time that it was happening that the boom of the late 1980s and the early 1990s that brought together Buck Owens, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Bill Anderson, Merle Haggard and other pioneers with such sympathetic newcomers as Highway 101, the Desert Rose Band, Dwight Yoakam, Clint Black, Patty Loveless, etc. would have been the last gasp for purist country. Country seemed to be the one format that had been able to sidestep pandering to the lowest common denominator. It instead seemed poised to retain its loyal audience for the long haul.
    Boy, little did we know. You can take your pick of whatever artist that you believe was responsible for widening the gap – Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus, Brooks And Dunn. It doesn’t matter.
    What mattered was that for the first time, there was a schism in country’s audience. It had much more behind it than mere chronology. A lot of it had to do with the purity of the art and the deviation from the constant quest for excellence to instead pander to a perceived lowest common denominator.
    In the process, an attempt to cater to that LCD demographic meant incorporating different styles of music and inspiration under the country umbrella. But rather than creating a melting pot that would attract new listeners, it merely divided the purist element (whose ranks defy such pedestrian defaults as age and gender and whose clearly defined parameters were not so much an expression of exclusivity as they were of solidarity) into a spinoff group that was not to charitably at the time referred to as the “Hat Brigade”.
    Only recently have certain perceptive artists like Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney and Trace Adkins made serious overtures towards closing the gap. Their efforts to date have been successful, though their work is far from done. If country radio and related media would quit trying to create a gap where there wasn’t (or shouldn’t be) any (and they can start by finding someone to appear on the CMA Awards who recorded before George Strait did to fulfill their token concession to vintage country), it would be a major step towards reconciliation and may indeed save the format from diluting itself out of existence.

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  7. patti marshall
    patti marshall says:

    As much as I’d love to say AMEN…..I just wonder if arbitron will find country 18-34’s any better than they do pop and rock 18-34’s. Really, until Arbitron fixes it’s recruitment issues with cell phone only households etc….I would be afraid to put any money towards an 18-34 radio station….no matter the format.

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  8. John Michaels
    John Michaels says:

    I really believe that you can program two separate country formats. One would be your traditional mainstream 70-30% current/gold with all the bells & whistles(Jingles/young sounding sweepers & hip jocks.) The other would be just the opposite 30-70% current/gold. Your gold would be from 89-95 with your secondary 96-2000’s. A legends catagory playing the outlaws of country like Haggard, Hank Jr. Waylon & willie, Marshal Tucker…. Currents are Toby, George, M&G…No Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood or Rascal Flatts types. You also need to look at the Texas country charts, there is some great country there. Imaging needs to be outlaw style & attitude needs to be over the top. The station is still very familier & very country without sounding old. Let me know what ya think.
    John Michaels

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  9. JERRY HUNTER
    JERRY HUNTER says:

    I AM 63 YEARS OLD AND HAVE BEEN A COUNTRY MUSIC FAN PRETTY MUCH ALL MY LIFE…IT SEEMS THAT COUNTRY MUSIC HAS FORGOTTEN THE OLD TIMERS COMPLETELY…I AM ALSO A MUSICIAN AND SONGWRITER. I BELIEVE IF THE INDUSTRY WERE REALLY INTERESTED IT JUST MIGHT FIND OUT THAT THERE ARE A LOT OF “OLD-TIMERS” WHO WOULD LISTEN TO COUNTRY RADIO IF COUNTRY RADIO WERE STILL COUNTRY. MOST OF WHAT THE STATIONS PLAY NOW IS SO FAR FROM THE ROOTS OF COUNTRY MUSIC IT IS UNRECOGNIZABLE…WHEN LEE ANN RIMES FIRST CAME ON THE SCENE SHE DID IT WITH “COUNTRY” SONGS AND THEY WERE GREAT HITS…I BELIEV HAD SHE STUCK WITH A COUNTRY FORMAT SHE WOULD HAVE BEEN THE GREATEST THING SINCE PATSY CLINE…WHEN JOE NICHOLS FIRST CAME ON THE SCENE HE DID IT WITH “COUNTRY” SONGS AND HIS FIRST ALBUM WAS A TREMENDOUS HIT….ETC., ETC., ETC….GET MY DRIFT…TEXAS SONGWRITER…JERRY HUNTER

    Reply
  10. Pat Chandler
    Pat Chandler says:

    I SO MUCH AGREE WITH JERRY HUNTER..I AM ALSO A soon to be 63 YEAR OLD COUNTRY MUSIC FAN THAT WAS LITERALLY RAISED ON COUNTRY MUSIC.. THERE ARE SO MANY MORE OF US OUT HERE THAN YOU GIVE US CREDIT FOR, BUT WE DON’T REALLY CARE BECAUSE WE JUST DON’T HAVE THE TIME TO WASTE PROVING ANYTHING TO YOU. HEY WE ARE COUNTRY MUSIC, BECAUSE WE LIVE IT. Thank you very much and have a nice evening. Pat Chandler

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  11. Pat Chandler
    Pat Chandler says:

    Hello there again..This not so modest 60+ songwriter/musician would like to add these few comments.. If the 45-54 audience is larger than the 25-34 audience it is because my generation successfully killed off about fifty million might-have-been COUNTRY listeners with ROE versus WADE, MAY GOD FORGIVE US ALL. This might also explain why the 18-34 COUNTRY audience isn’t yet big enough to support efforts to build two strong formats. I am happy to say that my ten year old grandson can sing right along with me on most all age level COUNTRY music, so perhaps there is HOPE somewhere in the mix. Yeah, GO AHEAD, I HOPE you succeed in your efforts to build two strong formats; I LOVE IT ALL, and perhaps there is enough COUNTRY cume out there to support you guys. What I don’t like I will just shove it to the side of my plate. If I sound resentful it is because SeanRoss said “the 49-54-plus audience is gone. Thank GOD”. We’re not Sean; we are very much here..HAVE A GOOD ONE, Pat Chandler from Bowie, Texas.

    Reply
  12. Pat Chandler
    Pat Chandler says:

    Okay, so I’m a nite owl. I might add that I agree with John Hendricks in saying that Sean Ross has written perhaps the most thoughtful piece on this issue, that he’s ever seen. Sean deserves to be congratulated; his piece of work is thought provoking. Two questions: How old are you Sean Ross? Do you adhere to the present day throw-away generation that no longer values the COUNTRY cume that made you?… I’m just thinkin’ out loud.. I don’t fear this train of thought because I know who I am, and I am proud that my produce does not reflect this attitude. And by the way, please don’t blame it on the artists for widening the gap. They labour hard to bring us FANTASTIC COUNTRY MUSIC. Good evening, once again, Pat Chandler, Bowie, Texas.

    Reply
  13. Dick Carr
    Dick Carr says:

    I’m older than all of you. That’s why I’m awake writing this at 3 AM. I managed and programmed some very interesting radio stations (WIP, WMMR, WNEW-AM, WNEW-FM, WIL) The most interesting was KCMO, Kansas City. The years were 1971 and 1972. It’s huge signal at 810 begged for lots of programming know-how in order to give a wide-area population many reasons to listen. With Chiefs NFL football and University of Missouri football and basketball already very profitable commitments, we created a music, news and personality combination around those sports cume builders. We chose Paul Harvey and a combination of local and regional news. But most interesting was our mix of country rock and current country music. We already had the adults. Most surprising was our ability to attract the young people. They were delighted with the music mix and our funny billboard campaign that featured a spaced-out looking, bearded cowboy wearing a Charlie Daniels hat. What to call this amalgamation of fun that consultants and sales reps couldn’t explain? I didn’t try to coin a music oriented description. Instead, I called it RADIO 81, KCMO.
    So what’s the point? How about this…stop worrying about purity in music. Start looking at your signal and coverage area and the people available who are seeking (no, make that starving) for more reasons to listen.
    Dick Carr

    Reply
  14. Mark Moffatt
    Mark Moffatt says:

    Nashville is a town desperate to rock but unfortunately country is such a tightly controlled format that there is no real groundswell of new artists as in other genres.
    Most young signings become designer built

    Reply
  15. Anita
    Anita says:

    Let new country music build their art on A/C formats and leave country radio alone. There is no need in ‘splitting’ the country format when the Rascal Flatt’s, Lady Antebellum’s and Taylor Swift’s can slide into a POP/A-C format just as easily.
    The article begins with Tim Riley (Syndication Services, Inc.) trying to convince country music listeners that CMA is on the right track to building country music’s audience. I watched the CMA awards and I was disgusted by Kid Rock having the ability to perform as a country artist, let alone the star-filled audience giving the rocker a standing ovation! Also, Kelly Pickler’s performance of her new single, “Best Days of Your Life,” co-written by Taylor Swift, was a disreputed performance for the once honorable Country Music Association. Her attire was nothing less than ‘madonnaish’ that was more ‘femme fatale’ than representing the once wholesome country music genre.
    “Now, there’s a lot more music for 25-to-34s, but it doesn’t all work for a 45-year-old. The split is exacerbated by the greater likelihood of a 27-year-old listener to be female and the 45-year-old to male, a legacy of the very different pre-Randy Travis lean of the format. And some of the once-enduring songs a 45-year-old male likes have finally reached the point where they mean nothing to younger listeners. ”
    Are you serious? From the circles I have been proud to be a part of lately, I have witness dozens of 20-30 year old emerging artists (male and female) who are resolute in their efforts to keep roots country music alive and kicking. And unlike the modern roster of CMA recording artists, they do not need their voices overproduced to the point of generating a computer vocal model in order to sell records for the big 5 labels. Like myself, they are thoroughly repelled by what Music Row is forcing down the throats of country audiences deeming ‘country music’ these days.
    What programmers and country music executives need to take a long hard look at is who owns (and most importantly is selling) stock in broadcasting as a whole. Also, they need to examine who are the owners and decision-makers for the advertisers who support radio. These owners are the 45-54’s that country radio and executives are alienating and they are pulling their ‘maturity’ dollars out of the once lucrative country formats and buying stock in international, private internet streaming radio stations who play the music we ‘old farts’ want to hear.

    Reply
  16. Ken Johnson
    Ken Johnson says:

    The argument to fragment the country format has been around since the early 1980’s “Urban Cowboy” era. However, the radio business has always been more interested in taking down the guy across the street rather than growing the pie. The early 1990’s presented an ideal opportunity to implement such an alternative strategy yet virtually every heritage country station chose to become “new country” to compete with the new upstarts rather than to mine an underserved segment of the country audience. There were perhaps a few minor variations, but for the most part radio followed it’s usual lemming “play-it-safe” mentality during that vibrant era for country music.
    Taking a new approach might make perfect sense for a lowly rated radio station to flank the market leading country powerhouse, but the current economic climate prohibits the allocation of significant marketing dollars and resources to be successful. Without a major marketing campaign any effort in this direction will be doomed to fail.
    I agree with Sean that there is an older country audience that has been disenfranchised by the shallow rock & pop (and sometimes hip-hop)driven drivel that now masquerades as country music.
    But for fans of anything other than the current incarnication of country radio, only the internet, satellite radio or their personal music collection is likely to provide relief.
    Ken Johnson

    Reply
  17. Gregg Swedberg
    Gregg Swedberg says:

    Sean, once again, you write down what I’ve been thinking for awhile. The best point (made by the brilliant Patti Marshall) here is the reminder that Arbitron does not do a good enough job locating country listeners every month. In a PPM world, this might be a very good option, but right now, any niche inside a completely unpredictable 18-34 sample is asking for wild ratings swings.
    There are some artists (Carrie, Chesney, Brad, Flatts) that span 18-54, but you nail it when you identify Taylor and Strait at the opposite ends of a pretty wide spectrum. Not a lot of people love both those acts. If you really want to succeed at a format like this, you have to break Nashville’s mold, which they SAY they want, but act otherwise. We have a station whose strategy is similar to what you’re writing about, and they get big pressure to support every act on the chart.

    Reply
  18. Greg Gillispie
    Greg Gillispie says:

    Most any musical style ultimately reaches a point where a demo split arrives & needs to be addressed.
    The early 80s had the newer sounds start to sound too hard for those rockers that have been there from the start, resulting in a newer appeal & start of classic rock. That process was reinforced in the late 80s/early 90s when the even harder & alternative music created a younger audience while classic rock took a big jump forward.
    In the late 90s/early 00s, alternative stations faced a similar challenge.
    Still, many “rock” guys/girls love classic rock, particularly because newer rock just doesn’t live up to its original expectation. My daughter got into the “current” music, but it didn’t take long for a Nirvana & RHCP fan to lose interest in everything else & learn a heck of a lot about bands from Hendrix to AC/DC to Guns N’ Roses.
    As far as country, my 55 year-old wife loves virtually all newer music & still has appeal for some of country’s classics – that being from the late 80s onward.
    Split country to a new music & classic music format? It could work, particularly as same-owned stations in one market.
    But on the other hand, can radio generate revenue with either separately? Why not get back to what we, in rock, did years ago – play the “old” & the “new.” Just create a balance that will never chase people away by playing more than one style in a row.

    Reply
  19. Jaye Albright
    Jaye Albright says:

    I agree with the statement above that this may be the most productive and insightful article and attendant conversation on this topic I have read in a very long time. Since I was quoted in the R&R piece, I was lurking, learning from the perspectives of others here.
    Let the record show, Pat Chandler, that Sean Ross was quoting Tim Riley of Syndication Services, Inc., in R&R Country Daily, not cursing the upper segment of 25-54. You may want to re-read his article to be sure you fully understand what he’s saying.
    Further to the question of the viability of segmentation of country, I have client stations who very successfully employ at least four different ‘lanes’ already in markets where the country share is large enough to support it, however this fragmentation Sean is spotlighting here is not just age, it’s actually driven by gender polarization. Young females are a very potentially-exciting growth group on our margins for future development, but I don’t think you older people need to worry too much about winning country stations chasing them and alienating you as long as ad dollars to country are primarily 18-49, 25-54 and skewing female. The fact that classic country/legends now start at 1993 has little to do with the arrival of Taylor Swift in our mailboxes and more to do with the fact that formats targeting 55+ are a very difficult sell.

    Reply
  20. R.J. Curtis
    R.J. Curtis says:

    This is a batch of responses to everything I’ve read here, so bear with me, but … Puh-Leaze! Can we not let this discussion degenerate into a ‘poor me’ bitch-fest about how country radio is failing the 60-something set? I guess using that argument, so is TV, the movie business, most advertising, the internet and all media for that matter … In many large, ethnically diverse markets, country is indeed a niche format. Somebody here brought up Americana, and though I love that music too, here’s what it really is: a niche format, surrounded by a few zealous but vocal fans, wrapped in obscurity. You want a niche inside of a niche? Put a country station on the air that features all the classic stuff Jerry and Pat would probably love. With a few exceptions, in markets where these stations even exist, it’s the value-added flanker to the big sister revenue generating clustermate … Michael McDowell makes an offhand comment that implies George Strait’s CMA wins are “their token concession to vintage country.” Sorry Michael, but actually, George wins because he’s making vibrant, relevant, traditional country music that continues to sell a lot of albums to country fans of all ages and dominate the charts. Additionally, George is closer to 60 than he is 50 … Somebody here attributes the “49-54 audience is gone” comment to Sean Ross — no, that was actually Tim Riley … Country as a full-time music format is at least 50 years old. At some point, it’s going splinter off into two sonically different products. Are we at that point now? I dunno, but I’ve now listened to the new Taylor Swift “Fearless” CD about five times since Monday and the album –while filled with hits in my opinion — is far more relatable to an 18-34 year old female (with heavy emphasis 18-24) than anybody 35+. The million dollar question with launching a station targeted to the younger, 18-34 demo is this: Is there a deep enough talent pool of new artists making compelling music to sustain it? Taylor Swift is awesome, but I’m pretty sure we can’t build a format around one artist, not even her. Because of the country P-1 DNA, even the younger targeted, flame throwing, musically aggressive station would need to have a set of reliable, consistent “Mt. Rushmore” type artists to keep it alive, but Sean, isn’t it a slippery slope when you’re targeting younger, Generation Y listeners, who generally have the attention span (loyalty-wise) of a housefly? Personally, I’d listen a lot because I love new music, but I’m no millennial, that’s for sure.

    Reply
  21. Rick Koenig
    Rick Koenig says:

    I would love to see a format split into the competing camps of “Young Country” (as mentioned above for the Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Sugarland, Miranda Lambert, Rascal Flatts, etc) and “Real Country” for the 35+ and long term country fans.
    The key to success in the “Real Country” format would be a traditional country sound orientation in the music that includes NEW quality artists with a traditional sound like Jamey Johnson, Ashton Shepherd, and Joey + Rory. The downfall of “Classic Country” stations is that they are mired in the past and don’t usually offer any music that is new and fresh, so they become boring and don’t attract new listeners.
    The older demographic “Real Country” format would in contrast welcome new music from those traditional sound oriented established and newer artists that have been tossed off into the Americana format for being “too country”, like Patty Loveless for example. Even some bluegrass would be welcome on “Real Country” stations to increase variety. Here in Los Angeles KKGO skews young country, so I’ve tuned out, and their HD-1 “Classic Country” feed is boring. I’d sure like to have a traditional oriented broadcast station available rather than having to turn to satellite radio (or online Americana stations) to hear all the great new music that gets ignored by Top 40 country radio for being “too country”. The tag line for the “Real Country” format could be “Where The Music Can Never Be Too Country”.

    Reply
  22. Pat Chandler
    Pat Chandler says:

    Hey there, all you gals/guys. First, and foremost, an apology to Sean Ross;immediately upon posting my comments, I realized Sean was quoting Tim Riley of Syndication Service Inc. Thanks, Jaye, but I had already prepared an apology last nite, just didn’t have time to post it until now. RJ, I don’t think that country radio is failing the 60-something set, and George Strait is my favorite country artist. Greg, newer ROCK doesn’t live up to my expectations ALL the time, but who am I? Mark, I found this to be true about Nashville being a tightly controlled format;might this fact be part of the problem with the issue we’re discussing?.. Yes, Anita! I myself was sickened this summer by what was being forced into my EARS, but to my pleasant surprise that radio station turned into PLATINUM 96.7 out of Dallas. PLATINUM is blossoming like a rose! RJ, I dunno, maybe this could be a niche within a niche, for me and Jerry; why don’t you check it out, and let me know? Dick, I was STARVING for reasons to listen this summer, before PLATINUM 96.7 came on, and I respect all you pros comments, by the way. Anita, I think you are a sharp cookie..Gotta go now, multi-tasking calling me..Pat Chandler

    Reply
  23. Joel Dearing
    Joel Dearing says:

    Sean, another great article, thank you.
    Yes country has tried to splinter many times. Remember Album Oriented Country?? There just never was enough product, and interest from an audience to make it viable.
    In some markets, country has made a definite split into mainstream and classic. I did quite well with a mainstream and a classic in Roanoke-Lynchburg, running both . Yes, for some classic is boring, but with any oldies station it is what is between the records that makes it viable.
    Also consider that this may be one of those times when a change starts to happen, just as Toby, Tim, and Kenny are starting to feel the squeeze of Taylor, Carrie and Sugarland, and just as Randy, Patti, and Earl Thomas felt the squeeze from Toby, Tim & Kenny, and Johnny, Dolly, & Ronnie felt the squeeze, and so on. Time marches on.
    While a good programmer understands the “new” spice in the format, there is not enough of the new stuff that is acceptable to the lifegroup to justify a wholesale format change yet. As always for mainstream country, it will be an evolution.

    Reply
  24. jake
    jake says:

    Shania Twain is the only country artist I will ever listen to. She brought country music to its biggest audience ever worldwide.
    When she comes back with a new album and new world tour, tens of millions all over the world will flock to her.
    Country radio was jealous of her because she is bigger than country.
    But quite frankly she is the only country artists that has fans of all ages and genres all over the world.
    Shania is by far the biggest country female of alltime who changed the industry forever and I can’t wait for her return.

    Reply
  25. Chuck Geiger
    Chuck Geiger says:

    A bud of mine is working on an 18-34 Country format that is way more showbiz/entertainment based than CAT or WOLF. With CHR rotations of currents and the gold the listeners really want to hear regardless of era.

    Reply
  26. Chuck Geiger
    Chuck Geiger says:

    So the idea should be to split the format:
    18-34 and 35-64
    We should do it. Powers playing at hyper spins in the 80-95 range with crazy, off the hook, wild imaging and great young talent. Anyone over the age of 40 that listeners to Country hates it. They want classics or the old singers, they tell you too. Joel at Critical Mass called the audience “very nice and they won’t tell you they really hate something”. How many of us have heard from the older end of the lifegroup they don’t like the “new singers”. They hate Rascal Flatts, Taylor Swift and don’t mind Toby Keith and the timeless George Strait.
    To please all the ends of this lifegroup would be like CHR’s playing 90’s songs to please parents and today’s hits to please the 12-24’s.
    We will see a second station take the 18-34 approach in markets with multiple country stations. It will have to wait until the economy comes back. Night jocks need to be in RV’s broadcasting from night spots, hanging with listeners, on the streets, at school events, wired into texting, My Space, cell phone mania and reach the rurals instead of the urbans.
    There would be very few programmers who could pull this off. It would have nothing to do with Nashville and the music industries platform and all about downloads and web technologies.
    I would love to see this format in markets where there even two present outlets.

    Reply
  27. Kevin Kelly
    Kevin Kelly says:

    “The fact that classic country/legends now start at 1993 has little to do with the arrival of Taylor Swift in our mailboxes and more to do with the fact that formats targeting 55+ are a very difficult sell.”
    Jaye, am I the rare exception, or what? Yes, I’m 40 years old, but I got hooked on “Ring Of Fire” in the early 70s when it was already 20 years old… I got hooked on Beatles music in the early 80s when “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” was 20 years old. Does music REALLY have to be “brand new” to get people hooked? THAT attitude is programming to the “lowest common denominator”… Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” just became the first “oldie” to get over 2 million digital downloads. It didn’t do that because it was the latest song dropped by a hip hop act, it did that because it was a VERY COOL SONG that a lot of younger people have recently discovered. I swear, if you build a “very cool” radio station that plays a coherent mix of music, some of which happen to be older tunes, listeners will come. But I suppose there is research that shows that this is all wrong…

    Reply
  28. Mike
    Mike says:

    I’m 42 and have largely ignored country radio since about 2005. I just don’t hear much that excites me in the music, anymore. When I want to hear country, I pretty much rely on my own collection of Waylon, Buck Owens, Garth Brooks, Charley Pride, among others. I really wish that the music would go back to a more traditional style.
    I’ll mention, also, that I have a 3 year old daughter who loves music; her favorite songs? “Ring Of Fire” (which she sings along with) and “I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail”.

    Reply
  29. Bob Wood
    Bob Wood says:

    Note the difference between singers (you know who, and they are really, really good singers) vs. showmen and women (you know who THEY are too, and they create magic.) Now extrapolate to radio stations.
    Some people listen for the essence of the music, some listen to be entertained. Both are valid. I doubt in this corporate culture that many companies would have the interest in exploring the difference if they are ‘stand there and sing’ers.

    Reply
  30. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    A lot of good comments both ways from people kinda of tell the problem here. Country Music today is barley country music at all, it lacks connection to it’s roots and believe me it shows in todays music. There are some good songs that get recorded but they are few and far between what is needed now. On our radio station we play a mixture of traditional to modern country music while trying to keep the country music sounding country. Our listening audance covers most every age group strange as it may sound when younger people ages 6-35 tell us how they love the station and which songs they like half the songs they name are traditional country songs not just new songs. I believe that says something about the way we rate our age groups and how we influence their taste on music or how some groups try to do so even if we want it or not.

    Reply
  31. Mike Robichaux
    Mike Robichaux says:

    Basically reading all of the posts remind me of country from early 2000s. You all remember them (ah who could forget much of the country that went edited almost straight to pop music during that era… Most of it isn’t even played on country radio anymore)
    I think it depends upon where you are in the country, how the area responds to new country vs classic country vs Mainstream country.
    Yes I do beleive country music radio is fragmenting, but to draw the line and say we are only going after one group or another is wrong in many parts of the country (the areas where families grew up on country, not just a new alternative to the A/C station as some parts of the country apparently look at country radio).
    speaking of something interesting, Some of these p1 18-24s actually love Johnny Cash, why? Because he represents cool, (blank) the man rebellion. Would these legendary greats be also played alongside taylor swift for instance on a youth oriented station? I still see people who are young owe allegences to both Hanks (Sr. and Jr),Waylon, Johnny,and Merle as they were the legendary bad boys of country music… Image sells to this group as much as the music does.
    In my area of the country, Mainstream country is the hottest commodity with the best of yesterday and today. However many country stations don’t realize that much of the country music made during the young country phase is still drawing interest from the younger crowd.. Look at much of the country from that period such as Restless Heart. stuff that I personally consider timeless as most people can’t tell if it’s a new song or like most of it, already 20 years old. However much of this music is shoved in the closet for some worn out early 1990s country that even older fans are tiring of.
    I think as Ross said, in multiple station markets, one leaning younger for that crowd may work if the market would look for it (Such as more of your younger audience states such as your blue states), but almost everyone of them in my area of the south that has tried has failed under a mainstream country signal in ratings. Some miserably. Only one or two that plays newer country than the other guy (however with much traditional like Toby) have been the ones to sustain.
    Much of the problem with classic country I think can be contained to a limited playlist of the station and consultants of the format than the actual classic country format idea. There are many in the 25-54 demo that love classic country but when you hear the same 200-300 songs like you do on classic rock or oldies stations, it leads to burn out. These are the same people who are turning to Ipods and downloads to get their fix, like the younger groups who are more likely to mix say taylor swift with Ne-Yo in the Ipods than some of the other country artists
    Much is being made over some of the music that is pushing the boundaries on country radio, however Rock had to do this the hard way in the 1990s, lost a few many fans (some that never got away from classic rock, but others after many years have now taken to mainstream rock) but I find they are coming back after the bands that was the grunge movement moved out and new bands are coming up that pay homage to the traditional ways.
    Country radio is the same thing, Yes I do beleive some of the country is too over pop (such as some of the Rascall Flatts songs that are released that should go straight to pop radio)but for most of the country, we need to come up with a happy medium instead of the pop vs traditional that fragments listeners and ultimately fans (who like me love the new and old country)

    Reply
  32. David Marquardt
    David Marquardt says:

    Interesting piece, Sean, and good comments from everyone else, too. I think it makes sense for Country radio to fragment into young- and adult-oriented formats. As John Hendricks said, this probably could be considered a niche format (albeit a very large niche) without a large enough cume. However, so too was Urban, which ultimately fragmented into two very distinct formats: Urban and Urban AC. Note that in Urban’s case, the split was truly younger vs. older listeners, not new vs. old music. Both feature new music, and sometimes share new music, so both stay fresh. Moreover, the younger Urban format had such an effect on CHR that it too fragmented into Mainstream and Rhythmic CHR. I don’t know if Country music itself will fragment as much as Hip-Hop did from R&B but I do see Country radio fragmented into Country CHR and Country AC (so to speak) and become even more successful in the future.

    Reply
  33. Tom Jacobsen
    Tom Jacobsen says:

    If you take a 25-54 format and try to concentrate on 18-34 year olds then you are in essence trying to knock down dominos with one missing in the middle. You either succeed in the upper end and conquer 25-54, or the low end and pop a number and then lose 2 shares 25-54. If you look at it sequentially and you should look at one demo down and work on increasing 18-49, which will allow you to hold your 25-54 numbers with the overlap at 25-49. If you pull 18-49 up, and learn how to maintain it, the drag will creep into the 18-34 cells. It works.

    Reply
  34. Ron Huntsman
    Ron Huntsman says:

    I moved to Nashville in 1970 to program album rock on WKDA-FM. Our brand of album rock included Waylon, Willie, Charlie D. et al because it’s what the market wanted.
    Bob Hamilton told me to hold a mirror up to my market and let my station reflect who they are and what they want. I don’t know that the answer to this question comes with a Wal*Mart mass marketing formula. I think the answer is local and requires programming that’s for your local audience. Spice the music up and entertain your listeners – they’ll love you for it and they’ll listen because of it.
    Thanks to Tim Riley and Sean for getting this conversation started. Tells me there are still a lot of us who love what we do and who care about the future of Country, whatever form – or forms- it should take.

    Reply
  35. Scott Lindy
    Scott Lindy says:

    Ok, completely off the top of my bald head,….
    It might not be enough to create a universe of music to solely support an 18-34 Country format but consider this: what if you targeted that demo without being a slave to the singles schedule the record companies ask top stations to adhere to? How many hits are being left on the table because the artist/label moves onto the next album ’cause the curent one has saturated sales? Both Paisley and Urban went back to old albums to get singles just this past year. There isn’t a Country PD in the land that can’t tell you a list of album tracks that should have been singles that never saw the light of day on the air. Which also begs the question, who’s fault is that? Radio’s? Nashville’s? I’m not pointing fingers but just bringing up something to consider.
    The artful approach of radio programming requires passion for the music and desire to share the joy, pain and laughter of a good or great song with their fan-listeners. We’re in a singles world now, so why wouldn’t a 18-34 targeted station add three songs from a Taylor Swift? I can hear the backsell now: “….that’s (title) from Taylor’s new CD and if you like that hang on, in 25 minutes you’ll hear another new song from Taylor on WXXX. And find out how to download any of them right now on WXXX.com.”
    I understand the argument for championing a single song, playing it enough times to get it familiar and then continuing to play it heavy when it becomes a favorite. I get it. But in a PPM world, in the right market, with the right on air promotion, music access on your website and marketing in the field, this seems like something worth the consideration/investigation.
    Does anyone really just like one song from CD at a time? Can that passion for an artists’ multiple new songs be captured in a radio format?
    Thoughts?

    Reply
  36. BK
    BK says:

    If I were running a country radio station,I would play NEW songs by Loretta, Dolly,Gene Watson,Merle Haggard,George Jones,etc.Surprise radio,but these stars ARE making NEW music,and we the fans wanan hear these stars NEW songs as well as old songs.
    I would also play NEW songs by people like Mark Chesnutt,Randy Travis,Travis Tritt,Marty Stuart,Doug Stone,Patty Loveless(like her new one”Why Baby Why),George Strait,Alan Jackson,etc,as well as new stars.
    Yes,the fans of these stars DO enjoy hearing old songs,but I personally believe many of these stars fans wanna hear these stars NEW songs as well.And,just because people are fans of these stars,and enjoy old songs too,does NOT mean people don’t wanan hear these stars NEW songs too.Yet,if you try to request these stars NEW songs on an oldies station,they won’t play the song because it’s new.If you try to request these stars songs on other stations,many(not all,but many)stations will use every excuse they can to get off the hook from playing the stars new songs,like the star is”too country”,”too old”too young”,etc.
    And I’m not saying ALL stations are bad.There are some good stations that do play these stars new songs,as well as old songs,and I listen to those stations,as well as support their sponers.I’m just talking about the BAD stations that won’t play these stars new songs,or any of these stars songs.And I’m not buying the statement no one wants to hear these stars NEW song,I beleive they do!I know I DO!
    By the way,I’m 44,and have loved country music since I was a kid.

    Reply
  37. Dave Sholin
    Dave Sholin says:

    re: the comment from John Hendricks about country radio in San Francisco and The Wolf having no competition. Not true. KRTY in San Jose is focused on the South Bay (the most heavily populated region in the SF Bay Area. In addition outlying areas (home to many country music partisans) like Modesto and Santa Rosa suck up a lot of potential cume

    Reply
  38. Chuck Smith/WLRE Radio
    Chuck Smith/WLRE Radio says:

    This is one of the first articals that has adressed the real problems growing with country music today. Michael Mc Dowell you answered the artical best when you said there is no age demo in true country music my radio station in our area has proved that age doesn’t matter if it is good country music and not some diluted mix of country and some other music and lets face it that type of country mix doesn’t sound good, it has no feeling behind the music, no chill bumps when it starts to play, it’s just cardboard country music. We have people of all ages that listen to our station and w are very proud of that. I am afraid you are right that the powers that be will keep diluting country music till it no longer exist and that is more than just a shame. Why do you think it is called country music (ie: USA United States of America) our country music or at least it use to be.

    Reply
  39. George
    George says:

    The key to country’s success for 20 years has been its ability to BRING TOGETHER various formats, ages, and tastes. The country format was “playing what we want” long before the Jack format. What do we need to find ways of dividing people into groups, with young country and old country? The successful stations are those that have a music mix that satisfies everyone.
    The thing I’ve noticed with the 25-34s is they have an appreciation for some of the older stuff. It’s not just the Taylors and the Mirandas, but the Straits and the Alans. One of the mistakes of Young Country in the 90s was it failed to recognize that you could appeal to younger audiences by playing older music, and vice versa.
    At the same time, it’s not just the music, but the presentation. THAT may be where country radio needs to change. Meaning that country radio will need to appeal to the younger lifestyle, which is very different. That may be harder to do than simply adjusting the music mix.

    Reply
  40. Maegan
    Maegan says:

    Obviously got a hold of this article way later than everyone else.
    I think what’s happened with country music is a real shame. Taylor Swift is nothing more than Avril Lavinge with a banjo in the backround. If people like that, fine, just don’t pretend it’s country music. I’m 23 years old brought up during the superstar era. Dwight Yoakam is a long-time favorite, also big on everyone from Johnny Cash to Brooks & Dunn and Miranda Lambert.
    Personally, I think Miranda, Josh Turner, Deirks Bentley (save for his latest single) are in a league of their own with the new music that’s out there. These 3 edge on the more traditional/early 90’s sound. They belong on country radio.
    Rascal Flatts and Taylor Swift can find their own genre.

    Reply
  41. Patrick
    Patrick says:

    John’s point about a large enough 18-34CUME is dead on! This is an age group that cut it’s teeth on singles and for a lack of a better term a “disposable” mentality by the record industry. The loyalty to one genre of music for these generations ” I myself being one of them…barely though” is not there. Not saying this is a bad thing, for this demo variety is definitely the spice of life.
    But what if the demo was large enough? Is this demo in any format what the advertiser is searching for now days? Unless your selling mp3 players and cellphones, then probably not. Best example to make this point is small market radio. The mom and pop store carrying farm supplies and feed stores aren’t interested in this demo and unless you happen to be the son or daughter of some one well to do in a small town, I bet there are not many car dealerships betting the lot on this demo to come in and buy up all those shiny ’08s and ’09’s parked in front of their dealership.
    The most disturbing trend is that programmers are not allowed to program any more…thanks to the “sales is the most important job” mentality by those that own and run most stations. Advertisers have more sway in deciding what goes on the airwaves now. If I’m 53 years old, own a business that spends nicely at station WXXX and I really loath a particular song, all I got to do is put my money back in my wallet and I bet you it wouldn’t take long for that song to vanish!
    These are all reasons why the “HOT” or “Young” Country format can’t stand alone (at least not yet). If they could would we really still hear the standard “Classic Country Song” once an hour?

    Reply

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