First Listen: Atlanta’s “The Walk”

Last week, Myrtle Beach, S.C., got a new Country/Southern Rock hybrid, WJXY (Outlaw 93.9), on a frequency that had already attempted the format in the mid-‘90s. The ongoing attempts at finally merging the two styles sent us back to a 2006 article on “The Formats That Make Too Much Sense to Work (Until Now?)” And the industry enthusiasm hasn’t waned any since then.

The notion of a Country/Christian AC hybrid hasn’t sparked as much interest over the last decade. But we were proud to be part of the 2003 launch of Entercom’s WOLI (The Walk) Greenville, South Carolina. And clearly that concept still resonates, following this week’s format change at Cumulus’ HD/translator combo WWWQ-HD2 Atlanta, which has embarked on its own version of “The Walk.”

The original 2003 launch of “The Walk” came at a time when the power of Christian AC was still becoming apparent to the industry—well ahead of its string of PPM successes.  It was also at a time when edgy lyrics—from Gretchen Wilson’s call for a big “hell, yeah” from her redneck women to the Montgomery Gentry song called “Hell Yeah”—were first becoming an issue. And for certain listeners, “hell, yeah” was in no way a mild expletive.

Despite its promise, Greenville’s Walk had the same issue as a lot of hybrids, never fully taking hold with either constituency. It was cumed but never supplanted the more traditionally defined Mainstream AC and Christian AC stations, neither format being in short supply in that market. There were also issues with some of the mainstream Country lyrics. On Country radio, there was no contradiction in Brooks & Dunn drinking their first beer and finding Jesus on a “Red Dirt Road.” For Walk listeners, any mention of drinking was an issue at the time.

Although there was no shortage of spirituality in the Country lyrics of the mid-‘00s, there were straight-ahead positive love songs that worked for the Walk at the time, including Lonestar’s “Amazed,” Faith Hill’s “Breathe,” and the Alison Krauss version of “When You Say Nothing At All.” Those songs sat alongside “I Hope You Dance,” “God Bless The U.S.A.,” “Live Like You Were Dying” and “In My Daughter’s Eyes” among the top country testers.

The top Christian song was, not surprisingly, MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine,” also a potent song for many mainstream ACs at the time, but there was also a strong praise-and-worship component. As Christian AC evolves, the titles encountered in our initial listening to the new Walk weren’t particularly Country or even acoustically flavored. In fact, you’ll see Toby Mac and several visits from the Newsboys, two of the format’s boundary-pushing superstars.

When I heard Atlanta’s Walk in its first few days, the musical balance was leaning toward country, with positioning (“positive uplifting radio”) reminiscent of Christian AC. Artists in the launch promo were Carrie Underwood, MercyMe, Tim McGraw, Steven Curtis Chapman, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, and LeAnn Rimes. Like Christian AC, the station promises to avoid “anything inappropriate or embarrassing,” adding, “We’re perfect to listen to when you want to escape all the negativity in the world.”

Like its Greenville counterpart, Atlanta’s Walk has no shortage of competition on both sides, including Cumulus’  own country WKHX (Kicks 101.5). Edgier lyrics come in cycles at country radio, but between the Zac Brown Band’s much-discussed “Toes,” Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup,” and a handful of songs about drawing (an unspecified) smoke into one’s lungs, it does now seem like Country’s always-carefully-tended balance between the sacred and profane might be tipping a little. Then there’s Brad Paisley’s “Southern Comfort Zone” and Kacey Musgraves’ “Merry Go Round,” which actually acknowledge that not everybody might share the same spiritual values.

It’s ironic that Country, with its burgeoning young-end listening, has finally become compelling to the whole family at a time when it has finally jettisoned being “safe for the whole family.” So an opening may have finally appeared between [Atlanta’s Christian AC WFSH] “The Fish” and “my baby likes to f-f-f-fish.” And while other Country and Christian AC stations haven’t gone anywhere, it’s notable that Atlanta no longer has a traditional soft AC, following WSB-FM (B98.5)’s shift to a newer, more contemporary stance.

Here’s the Walk at 6:30 a.m., February 5:

Lady Antebellum, “Wanted You More”

The Band Perry, “All Your Life”

Newsboys, “God’s So Bold (Like A Lion)”

Tim McGraw, “Not A Moment Too Soon”

Big & Rich, “That’s Why I Pray”

TobyMac, “Steal My Show”

Keith Urban, “For You”

George Strait, “Love’s Gonna Make It Alright”

Hunter Hayes, “Wanted”

Casting Crowns, “Until The Whole World Hears”

Blake Shelton, “Home”

Lonestar, “Mr. Mom”

Newsboys, “Your Love Never Fails”

Dierks Bentley, “Home”

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