Country Radio and Hispanics: Looking Beyond The Misperceptions

For Country Radio Seminar attendees who were at the Edison Media Research survey of Hispanic attitudes toward Country music and Country radio, one of the pleasant surprises was not just the overall openness of the Hispanic audience to the format, but also that targeting them did not require making changes to the product. Expanding Country’s horizons was more a function of intelligent marketing and outreach.

Many of the truisms about why Country cannot court Hispanics have already proven not to be true and deserve to be addressed directly.

For all the positive attention the survey received, there were still a few pundits and programmers who believed that any sort of outreach to Hispanics would alienate Country’s existing audience. Or that Hispanic listeners could have no predilection to Country radio. Many of those responses were from people who had not attended the presentation, which is why you owe it to yourself to read the survey and then to read Larry Rosin’s analysis and recommendations. But many of the truisms about why Country cannot court Hispanics have already proven not to be true and deserve to be addressed directly.
“There is no Reason Hispanics would be particularly interested in Country”: For starters, the notion of attracting Hispanic listeners is anything but a random fancy. Anybody who programmed Country at the time will tell you their format has had some Hispanic usage going back to at least the late-’70s, a time when the “Tex-Mex” feel was as common as today’s “island” themed Country music. In the Urban Cowboy era and again in the early ’90s, Country, like any hot format, often outperformed its demographic cliches–attracting the listeners who just wanted to be part of what was hot now.
In 2007, Country is hot again, but this is an era where it is much harder to build a coalition by osmosis. While better, younger music alone has helped push the format beyond its late ’90s/early ’00s doldrums, returning Country to its early ’90s strength doesn’t just mean fixing the music, it means recruiting. Some upper-demo Hispanics have previous experience with the format. Their younger counterparts should have no more antipathy to the format than any other 18-24 who is suddenly choosing Country over (or in addition to) traditional youth formats.
Hispanics have a lot more directly targeted choices, including the Regional Mexican format that is most often described as the Hispanic equivalent of Country, than they did in 1990. But so does everybody else. And until the recent introduction of reggaeton-based Latin Urban formats in some markets, almost all of their Spanish-language choices were believed to be irrelevant to younger Hispanics, who, again, have a history of listening to the same music as their Anglo counterparts.
“Why try to expand the constituency”? Because the greatest growth in any format is always when a core becomes a coalition. More important, over-focus on a narrow target is not only what many believe drove CHR listeners to Country in 1989, but also it’s also what whittled Country down to its lowest numbers in years in 1999. It’s important to remember that as recently as a few years ago, there were programmers who viewed even 25-34 listeners as an unattainable goal, or who looked at Rascal Flatts, Gretchen Wilson or Big & Rich and saw only the potential to alienate 35-plus women whose sole usage of the format was as a soft AC.
“Why would Country make any more of an effort than other formats”? Good programmers in other formats have indeed reached out to Latino audiences, whether it’s Kevin Weatherly at Alternative KROQ Los Angeles or Jim Ryan at AC WLTW New York. That counterparts in many similar markets have not matched their outreach shows that these choices were hardly automatic ones. Acknowledging the broadest viable audience in a market is smart for any programmer. Country, in particular, however, has seen its numbers whittled down in certain one-time “lifegroup” markets, such as Atlanta, Houston and Dallas. We don’t think it’s outrageous to try and reassemble a coalition that once existed in markets like Houston and Dallas. In fact, in those markets, it is perhaps more outrageous to concede the possibility of being a market leader.
“Will this alienate the existing audience”? Our recommendations–advertising on Spanish-language TV, putting Country artists in front of Hispanic audiences, and reaching listeners through their peers–do not involve changing the product. For that matter, with the possible exception of making a Spanish-language stream available on your Website, they are not visible to the existing audience. It is, essentially, the same stealth marketing that broadcasters use so effectively in other ways.
We have also heard the anecdotes about the very vocal listeners who have objected to even the small-scale outreach that has existed in the past. While programmers are historically reluctant to risk alienating even one existing listener, Country has to look at its late ’60s/early ’70s period of angry race- and hippie-baiting songs like “Welfare Cadillac” or “The Fighting Side Of Me” and artists who campaigned for George Wallace, and ask if it really wants to be the reactionary format ever again. This is a format now dedicated to the notion that “Some People Change.” And one thing that has always fostered understanding is common interests, musical or otherwise.
Some programmers will undoubtedly read that and believe they are being given a mission of engineering social change in an era where it’s difficult enough to find 90 minutes a day to schedule music. In reality, the social change has already taken place and Country’s real task is to acknowledge it. Fortunately, Country radio has been doing that for more than 30 years now.

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

    As I had mention to Sean Ross when this first came out, I had beat the Hispanics in Country drum at CRS in the 1990’s because I was programming a very successful station in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Half of the population is Hispanic and our estimates were that half of our listeners were, too.
    Just listen to the music in the areas of Mexico where Latino influences come from. It’s Bolero and Ranchero music which is, in essence, Country music.
    We did little more than have a couple of Hispanic air talents and regard them as a part of our audience and there they were. It wasn’t brain surgery, just a simple invitation followed by making them feel welcomed.


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