Edison Research’s ethnographic study, “Country Radio’s Heartbeat: The Lives Of Your Listeners,” took Edison’s Megan Lazovick and Steve Lemma into the daily routines of nearly 20 Country radio P1s nationwide. From those visits and interviews, they observed that:
• Country music had a personal relationship — a friendship — with its listeners. Yet, Country radio continues to talk to them in the same marketing slogans of two decades ago. And now those are augmented by social media messages that are always selling something — not very friendly.
• Country radio, despite its special purchase on listeners’ affections, is in danger of becoming a primarily in-car experience like radio listening overall. Country is not immune to radio’s diminishing place on the night table, or in the house altogether. While we continue to push for radio’s inclusion on cellphones, Edison president Larry Rosin suggested that radio seek inclusion on TV cable systems, like other places around the world.
And to those observations, I’d like to add the following:
Throughout Edison’s Country Radio Seminar presentation, respondents talked about a lot of different songs that tether them to Country music. Some are titles that are still available on the radio: “Bless The Broken Road,” “What Hurts The Most,” “Friends In Low Places.” Not all are songs of earthshattering emotional significance, as evidenced by “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” and “Country Girl (Shake It For Me).”
But it was clear that there were a lot of songs that Country listeners are still visibly touched by that aren’t still on the radio.
Some were enduring hits that are just starting to fade with time and artist turnover after years in power gold (“Ain’t Going Down [Til The Sun Comes Up],” “Don’t Take The Girl,” “Amarillo By Morning,” “It’s Your Love”).
Some are Country anthems of generations long previous, such as “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
Some songs were never as iconic to begin with: Alan Jackson’s “I’ll Try,” George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey,” Ricky Van Shelton’s “Statue Of A Fool,” Chuck Wicks’ “Stealing Cinderella.”
Nobody would argue that most of those songs, especially the last group, would easily fit on a hit-driven mainstream country radio station. Even if you agree with some CRS attendees that country’s youth movement is driving it too far, too fast, the likely response would be to hold on to a small handful of ‘90s smashes a little longer. And yet the songs associated with key life moments were more likely to be “The Song Remembers When” than “Dust On The Bottle.”
Country P1s, in other words, like more music than is readily available on today’s Country radio, or should be. Put even the biggest early ‘90s songs back on some stations and you’d be playing records that many of today’s listeners haven’t heard. And that’s why it is time to once again ask if there should be two types of Country radio stations in most markets — one of them older and more variety-driven.
In a few of Country’s stronghold markets, that model already exists, certainly more so than a decade ago. But the “hits and variety” position is tamped down by the reticence of stations to cede the younger position (especially now), the reluctance of GSMs to sell that format, and by a music industry that really does not want to promote two charts.
This would not be the first CRS where somebody has identified the opportunity for older music. In 1994, PDs returned from Nashville and mistakenly sought to head off the possibility of an older targeted format by throwing the ‘80s titles back into their young country formats. Over the last decade, a desire for older Country has provoked knowing titters, but little change, during several CRS presentations. But seeing listeners moved to tears by songs that aren’t on the radio makes the demand harder to laugh off.
And because the Edison presentation was a tribute to the power of personal testimony, we can add one more revelation. While a then-and-now Country format has to play the hits, there is probably room for a tier of Jack- or Bob-FM-like depth. Those songs should be staged by a liner not about remembering the Country legends, but by listeners talking about what individual songs mean to them. After all, even a room full of Country PDs paid attention to that.