The Songs Country Listeners Love, And Can’t Hear

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.

3 replies
  1. Sean Michael Lisle
    Sean Michael Lisle says:

    Hi, Sean here… back in Country radio after 8 years of doing news. Seems those who came to Country from shows like American Idol are now outnumbering those who inherited the format or “Gone Country” in the ’90’s. To that end, the Top 40 for White People format seems to be where things are trending and treating it as such is an important part of the equation. I’ve been seeing heritage Country stations becoming more and more vulnerable as they rest on their laurels. Today’s music makes its own emotional connection and I don’t think playing songs that have only special meaning to a shrinking percentage of your audience does justice to the songs that can impact all of your audience. Time marches on and so should we.

  2. Kenneth E. MacAlister Jr.
    Kenneth E. MacAlister Jr. says:

    This problem doesn’t exist just on country radio stations. Rigid oldies & classic rock formats have done the same thing to rock’n’roll. Classical, blues, & jazz are limited to public radio, if at all. Folk & bluegrass? Unless you live down south forget it. Could anyone picture Elvis Presley, Dion, or Ricky Nelson getting airplay on classic rock stations? Even so-called oldies stations have basically dumped all music from the ’50s & early ’60s with the exception of a handful of hits. Even independent stations such as The University of Pennsylvania’s WXPN are too ridgid in their formats & there is just too much music ignored all around by radio. Too many suits who are disconnected from the radio listeners just assume that I want to hear A, B, & C, but am no longer interested in hearing D, E, & F. This is precisely why my record collection has become as large as it is. Radio now caters to the lowest common denominator in terms of listeners. Repetition of very small playlists are the order of the day now. If you like jazz, blues, bluegrass, folk, or classical, too bad. You’ll have to buy it to hear it. And radio wonders why the listeners don’t tune in as much as they did decades ago. The following video of a performance by an extremely famous band (their name is a household name) in a totally different & totally ignored incarnation is proof that great musicians can make great music & still be ignored totally by the penny pinching dolts running commercial radio who believe they know what listeners want to hear more than the listeners themselves do. Many will be surprised if not shocked to know that this band wasn’t always a chickified top forty band:

  3. Earl Nesmith
    Earl Nesmith says:

    I’m in agreement with Kenneth. Teh issues are multi tiered. The one that glares out at me the most is the ‘Programming’. It seems to be in the hands of people who have a ‘Billboard Top 40′ book on the various generas and select the ‘Top 10’s’ of each from different years and have no clue about the ‘music’ itself.

    Some of the greatest hits aren’t necessarily the ‘biggest sellers’. For that they need to have conversations with people who actually ‘lived’ in the periods they are programming for or at least have a broader knowledge of the music and artists.

    It is no wonder that the Internet and YouTube (if you know what you’re looking for and don’t mind addressing ‘single play’ at a time, are leaving terrestrial radio in the dust.

    Then again there is so much music and so many artists, they are left with setting a criteria that puts some sort of limit on just how much they will program. For people like myself I just as soon create my own playlists in my Media Player and include the music that will never get played.
    Just a thought……..


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