Country Radio’s Heartbeat: The Lives of Your Listeners

CRS 2013

Throughout the evolution of radio research, spanning nearly 40 years, the industry has mostly concentrated on the hard facts of research, and the easily-quantifiable – answering questions like, “What portion of the audience likes this song?” or, “What portion of the audience works in an office?”  For that sort of study we call people on the phone, or now contact them on the Internet, or bring them to hotel ballrooms for auditorium music tests or to focus group facilities.  However there is one place that our research mostly hasn’t gone to – straight into the homes of the listeners.  There’s also an entire line of inquiry we largely haven’t attempted – understanding the emotions underneath the behaviors and the real connections that people have to country music and country radio.

We are in a time where broadcast radio has more competition than ever before.  Yet at the same time, the masters of the radio universe have pulled way back on the inquiries that we engage in about music and radio.  This is why we are lucky to have the Country Radio Broadcasters and their commitment to provide innovative research for the radio industry.  The project they tasked us with undertaking this year is what is known in the broader research world as ethnography, or the practice of observing and talking to people in their homes and natural environments.  In order to conduct the deepest-level inquiry we combined our experience in radio research with the expertise of Prosperity Productions, a New York-based company that specializes in ethnography.

There can sometimes be quite a difference between people’s actual behavior and what they say they do in a survey or focus group setting.  When you ask directly about the purpose of a paper towel, most people will say, “to clean up messes.”  However, when you actually observe people using paper towels, they often crumple them up into big wads before cleaning anything.  The real motivation underneath the behavior is creating a barrier between the hand and the mess.

For this study, we aimed to get underneath the story of Country radio music listening and get a glimpse of how people behave when they’re being their real selves in their real environments. This allows us to draw insights into who they really are, in ways that they often can’t even articulate themselves. At this base level, radio programmers can learn how to give their listeners a connection they may not have even known they wanted.

In an average ethnographic study, you might talk with eight to ten people – a smaller sample with a much deeper amount of inquiry.  We actually doubled that for this study, talking with people in four time zones and using a variety of methods.  We first created a connection with our respondents through telephone interviews. Then, some went on to do what’s called a video diary, where they film themselves and their families in key moments throughout their everyday lives. For others, our team actually traveled to their homes and visited with them for several hours.  We also followed up by telephone with additional questions based on what we had observed.  Overall, we spent over 60 hours with these Country Radio P1s, in 13 states, across four time zones.   That’s a substantial amount of time, and more than enough to see major patterns across our audiences.

We’ll start off by meeting Jason, a 30-year-old gym manager and fitness trainer who lives just outside of Fort Worth, Texas.  In the video, you’ll see what Country music means to him in his life and just how often and how deeply he connects with it, both personally and socially.  His favorite radio station is KHYI, “The Ranch,” and he listens to that primarily in his car – but as you watch this video, notice how much he’s relying on his phone now for music at work.  The good news for radio is that he has downloaded an app to listen to The Ranch on his iPhone, but when asked what he’d do without radio he said, “It would be kind of hard to accept at first, but I think with technology these days I could adapt.”  Take a peek into Jason’s life here:

Oftentimes in this type of work, it’s instructive to think about the things we could have heard, or expected to hear, but didn’t. Going into it, we thought we’d hear about the moment each day or throughout the day when listeners turn on the radio, in the same way that in other studies we hear people talk about the ritual of making their first cup of coffee.  But Country fans found it difficult to pinpoint the exact moments they turned Country on, because Country is always on. This in itself is a significant finding and points to how Country is different from other kinds of music in a fundamental way.

In the next video, you’ll see several respondents show us how and where they listen to music. One is a man named Dwight, who has an impressive amount of media hook-ups throughout his home – he has a radio in almost every room – but recently he’s also set up a wireless speaker that can play music from his iPad when he doesn’t like what he hears on the radio.  When asked about new technology impacting his listening he said, “MP3, iPod kind of stuff, it’s just made it so easy to plug it in anywhere – car, home, you can move to it real quickly…now you can have all that and so much more on just one small device.  It certainly makes it easier to move to that if you want to.”

The video also shows Terri, who has a radio in every room as well, but she inherited her parents’ home so the radios in her home effectively came with the house.  She does some iTunes downloading, but still has a strong allegiance to radio.  She doesn’t love the idea of moving to a service where DJs wouldn’t have a presence. She said, “They really do need those radio personalities on the air because you feel that there’s somebody that’s attached to it. It’s not automated everything. I don’t like it that everything has gone to an automated industry… you see that everywhere. It’s taking the actual person and personality out of those stations.”

So what we’re seeing now is not just about listening, but about a kind of personification of Country. Country music is a constant companion. Country travels with these people throughout their days and throughout their lives. It’s there for them in all the important moments. For parents, it’s the difference in the relationship with your kids when you’re always there versus if you have to go away for a week or only see them at night. We’ll see more about why this makes Country different from other kinds of music, and later on how Country radio can capitalize on this difference. Our respondents overwhelmingly saw Country radio as a companion in their cars, and we explore that particular relationship further with this video:

The best marketing is often like a gift or a conversation you’re having with your listeners. The first order of business, then, is to understand the people. Who are they? What matters to them? How is today’s listener growing and evolving? We drove three hours from Dallas to a ranch in Hugo, Oklahoma. Nicky has his station presets in his truck for when he visits the city, but his selection at home is limited to one country station, KITX. He’s a bit of a character, and his rancher lifestyle certainly doesn’t match your average listener, but if you listen carefully and remember his words, they match the sentiments we heard from almost everyone in this study. Watch for the FM headset he wears when is on his tractor:

Country music is always on – traveling with these people throughout their days and their lives. This is where we start to see the special relationship that Country has with its listeners. It’s deeply connected to every important memory in their lives; and therefore has significant meaning, and it often begins early in life:

Now let’s look more deeply into the bonds that Country creates. Look for a deeper connection and the relationships here:

Now that we know a little bit more about who we are talking to in our marketing relationship, let’s look at what it all means to them by digging into that emotional connection and how that evolves over time as well. Why is Country so valuable, and how can radio tap into that sense of value more deeply?

Ashley is 20 years old and lives at home with her parents and two siblings. She’s been going to school and working part time. You might think a woman of this age would be itching to move out of her parents’ house, but she appreciates their support and they are a very close-knit family. For Ashley, Country radio means family. Her favorite station is WQRK. She’ll listen to it in her car going to and from work, but the station also plays a huge role during family time. Look for CMT playing in the background in the living room (the heart of the house) in the following video. At night, Ashley’s dad lights a bonfire in the back yard and that’s when we were first exposed to radio there. They roasted marshmallows, told stories, and the kids goofed around – all to WQYK’s soundtrack.

What we’re starting to see is that Country is there for them in all of their life moments. Other genres of music may come into and out of your life, but Country is with you every step of the way, like a good friend who is always there for you. If you’re a radio programmer, you should be thinking about this. If Country is a friend, and if radio used to be the way that everyone connected with that friend, how has that friendship changed? How is it evolving?

We asked, “What are some of the moments where Country music played a big part in your life?” and amazingly, these people told stories we weren’t quite prepared to hear. They opened up about some sad and very personal moments in their lives, particularly Erika from Aurora, Colorado (look for her at the end of this next sequence). The first woman in this clip is referencing “Ronan” by Taylor Swift, a song about a child with cancer.

So now we’ve seen that Country is part of every significant moment of people’s lives. For the most part, it’s the lyrics that create this bond. Country is like that great friend who is always there for you. Again, this lifelong relationship with Country used to be 100% radio, and we’re seeing that that is changing. If you’re in the radio industry, think about what you would do if you were a friend, offering this level of support and how that could apply to deepening the relationship with Country radio.

Studies on emotion show that a lot of happiness is not really experienced in the moment. Most of our happiness happens as we anticipate an event, and as we relive it. One of the key differences with Country versus other kinds of music is the degree to which it’s passed down to others. We’ve seen that with other music, people become kind of “frozen in time.” If you talk to kids whose parents love beach music, it’s a certain type of song. Country is shared with the whole family, from generation to generation.

We’ve already seen a lot of our next profiled respondent, Barbara, throughout the previous videos; she is 49 years old and lives in the suburbs of Baltimore. She is the mother of nine kids – several now grown with children of their own. We spent some time traveling around in Barbara’s minivan, where she had Country radio playing in the car the whole time. She had all the country stations on her presets bur her loyalty to WPOC developed mainly because of the personalities. She said that she loves radio “because it feels like community.” She doesn’t like all of the same songs as her kids, but as you’ll see it’s extremely important to her that she can relate to her kids through Country music:

Throughout this ethnography process we’ve seen that Country has a different kind of relationship with listeners than other genres, and we’ve seen that it stays with you, as Barbara said, like a lifelong “best friend.” It’s such an amazing relationship that people can’t wait to share it with their family and friends. Interestingly, even people who come to Country later in life feel the same way. So if Country is a lifelong friend, how is this friendship changing in 2013? As you watch this next clip, be thinking about how this relationship with Country is evolving and how radio can be a better “friend” to its listeners, growing and expanding that relationship to the next generation:

If we put ourselves into this mindset where we can think of Country music as a lifelong friend and constant companion, it allows us to talk about radio in the context of how it operates in service of this friend. It’s clear that when one spends time with these people, that radio has an at-home problem. Most people simply don’t have a lot of radios in their homes anymore – and acquiring them is a low priority. The priorities are television, Internet, and cell phones.

Radio is creating great entertainment every day, providing music people love, information they need, and a connection to their communities, but outside of cars, radio doesn’t bother with the hardware that enables it. When we asked people about radio, they talked about their cars.

It’s not just evident from this small group of men and women – it’s evident in ratings. In both diary markets and PPM markets, TSL at-home is declining – as is, to a smaller extent, cume at-home.

There are two potential solutions to this problem for the radio industry. One could try to convince people to buy more radios. We do see a little burst of purchase after every natural disaster. Hoping for natural disasters, however, is not a business strategy to be proud of.

The much easier solution is to make sure that radio is easily-available, top of mind, and works well on the devices that people already have and prioritize in their homes. Recently, Lew Dickey said on CNBC that he doesn’t see a revenue model for streaming. It’d be wise to figure one out, because for many people streaming through their phones is how they listen to music and radio, and how they want to listen to it. That phone is the hub of their lives.

Also, in almost every other country in the world, radio got itself on cable systems so that people could listen through their televisions. Is it too late for us here in America to offer our local radio products to local cable systems?

To this day, despite cable Country music video channels, services like Pandora and Spotify, iPods, or anything else, Country radio remains the closest relationship people have with the music. Only we can screw this relationship up by failing to deliver on the devices they want to consume audio on. Radio is competing not just with the other options along the radio dial, but with all the ways one can consume media today, especially in peoples’ homes.

Above all, what we learned from this study is that people mostly follow the path of least resistance to media. In their cars that remains, for now, the radio. At home, it’s increasingly not the radio – not because people don’t want to listen to the radio – but because it is harder and harder to find radio on the devices they use. Most people don’t even have a radio in their bedrooms, but they do have their phones, computers, and televisions.

They also do still have a relationship with the local Country radio station, and we’ve seen the depth of the relationships they have with Country music. As the medium connecting people to the emotions we saw throughout this study, radio programmers need to understand, develop, and nurture these relationships.

If you thought of radio’s relationship to listeners as a friendship instead of a consumer relationship, how could programmers act differently? How do you talk to your friends? When you send your friends e-mails, are you always selling them something? Are you concerned with commercializing your personal Facebook page? If you pull up the websites, Facebook pages, and even the on-air products of Country stations, it’s rare to find one that connects with the emotions we see in this study.

Most radio stations sell themselves to their listeners as something like “New Country,” or “Today’s Country and the Legends,” or “The Country Leader.” These are bland, emotion-free slogans. The one exception is the new Nash-FM in New York, which is taking a slightly different approach in a very different market with their “Country for Life” slogan.

What we saw in the lives of Country fans is that the radio is, or should be, a part of the relationship that connects them with their favorite music, not simply a pipeline that funnels the music to them. Do voice-tracked dayparts enhance that relationship? How about when one of Country’s truly emotional songs is followed by a fake DJ saying things that don’t connect with the song in any way?

And if every communication from the radio station is a sales pitch, what does that say about this relationship? Who would be loyal? If stations began thinking of listeners as more of a friend and less of a consumer, they might begin to re-assess some of their actions and marketing.

For the last 40 years of radio research we’ve done a great job with the clinical parts of the task – playing the right music, developing optimized clocks, and maximizing revenue opportunities. But before it’s too late, radio has to consider the emotional level of its appeal.

Thanks to the Country Radio Seminar and its leadership for helping us to conduct a study of this depth and enabling us to achieve some of these insights.

1 reply
  1. Sean Michael Lisle
    Sean Michael Lisle says:

    Great insight. Seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. Country has always been an emotional connection but other music formats appear to be getting farther and farther away from the real lives of their listeners. What was unsaid here but sounds like a natural companion to this research is that LOCAL LOCAL LOCAL could also go a long way towards these goals of connecting.


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