The Formats That Make Too Much Sense To Work (Until Now?)

Part I: The Country/Classic Rock Hybrid

They’re the formats that almost make too much sense to work. They’re the formats that always come up when programmers hang out and somebody says, “You know what somebody ought to try?” They show signs of life in research. They sound like nothing else on the radio. Then somebody gets them on the air and they never get traction. Or their success is short-lived.

One is the young male-targeted format that finally plays hard rock or alternative rock and Hip-Hop on the same frequency, geared to the 18-year-old guys who profess fondness for both. That one has been around since today’s 18-year-old was in elementary school.

The other is the Country/Classic Rock hybrid; built around the not-so-stunning-realization that yesterday’s Lynyrd Skynyrd fan is today’s Van Zant (and Big & Rich and Montgomery Gentry) listener. That one goes back to at least the ’80s, and has roots that extend back to when Classic Rock was current rock.

From the beginning, attempts at either hybrid have often ended with a station forced to choose one side or the other, whether it’s WTDR (Thunder Country) Charlotte, N.C., (now WKKT) pulling the Classic Rock cuts after a year or so in the late ’80s or KXME (Xtreme Radio) Honolulu (now KPHW) dropping alternative and becoming more of a straight-up hip-hop station. And it’s probably no coincidence that each station eventually chose to rebrand itself down the road.

But both formats are showing signs of life, or at least renewed programmer enthusiasm:
For the Rock/Hip-Hop hybrid, which we’ll discuss at greater length in next week’s column, it’s the heavily publicized KMBY (X103.9) Monterey, Calif.

And the Country Rocker has found numerous new champions in recent years, among them Citadel’s KKND (Rockin’ Country 106.7) New Orleans , WLFV (93.1 the Wolf) Richmond, and WSDM (Crock 92.7) Terre Haute, Ind., which went 2.5-4.0 in the just released spring book.

Joel Folger, consultant for many of the American Bob-FMs, and Entravision/Dallas OM (and country veteran) Dean James have launched a syndicated hybrid format, the Bar, whose first affiliate is KPBR Billings, Mont. WKIE/WRZA (Nine-FM) Chicago PD Matt DuBiel has just announced a new syndicated format, “Blue Collar Country.” Former KYKY St. Louis PD Kevin Robinson has also been talking up what he calls “the NASCAR format” for several years.

There’s also a Rock, or more specifically Classic Rock, component to many of the expanded-library Country stations that have sprung up over the last several years, including WSM-FM (The Wolf) Nashville, now the market’s No. 1 Country station, WKWS (the Wolf) Charleston, W.Va., WLHK (Hank FM) Indianapolis and KWLI (Willie FM) Denver.

Howard Kroeger, who programmed Canada’s first Bob-FM at CFWM Winnipeg and was one of the architects of WLHK, sees the “Rock revival in Country at the tipping point, this one being based on Southern Rock influences more than anything else, and more than just lip service like in the past [during the era of] Confederate Railroad, Kentucky Headhunters, etc.” Kroeger sees an opportunity for Country to grow by co-opting the “disenfranchised Classic Rock listener who is burned out on the same 350 tracks, hasn’t been seduced by Bob or Jack, and isn’t interested in bands that wear eyeliner.”

The Classic Rock element has, of course, existed in Country since most of the songs in question were current. WMAQ Chicago and WHN New York would always play the right crossover product, from not just the Eagles and Marshall Tucker Band, but Bob Seger, the Atlanta Rhythm Section and others. Classic Rock gold remained a key part of the library for many country stations, particularly outside Country lifegroup markets, through the ’80s. Those titles were filtered out only in the early ’90s when Country had enough strong product of its own that filled the same need. And as soon as Country hit its first product shortage in the mid-’90s, consultant John Sebastian was hauling those same records out again, first at KZLA Los Angeles, then more successfully at WSM-FM.

In that regard, the Country/Classic Rock hybrid was not unlike a more male version of the Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrid that became Bob-FM, Jack-FM and friends. Both were geared to listeners who grew up with ’70s Rock and ’80s pop. The only real difference was which new music you wanted to hear in between those titles. And why wouldn’t Dierks Bentley be a better fit than Avril Lavigne, at least for guys?

Well, there have been a number of reasons, so far:

1) There is not that much viable Southern rock that tests reliably at Classic Rock radio, much less at an adjacent format. “Sweet Home Alabama” and “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” are huge records that transcend genre. But even in the Deep South, there are fewer enduring titles than you think. While it might be fun to hear “Jim Dandy” by Black Oak Arkansas or “Nicole” by Point Blank again, there is, unfortunately, a reason they’ve disappeared from most Classic Rock stations. So if you’re filling even 2-3 rock slots an hour on a Country/Rock hybrid, you’re forced to trade strength for tempo and flavor. Or you find yourself playing hit Classic Rock titles without much of a Country feel.

2) To truly pursue the Classic Rock/Country hybrid means gearing towards men, and very few stations are willing to walk away from female listeners altogether. Unless market circumstances make it untenable, most would rather follow the path set by KPLX (the Wolf) Dallas in the late ’90s: be palatable to men, but don’t superserve them.

3) In many markets, stations like Jack-FM are indeed filling the same need for variety and tempo. And often when a Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrid comes to town, the variety-driven Country station is one of those most noticeably affected.

4) Quiet as it’s kept, there’s still one key disconnect between ’70s Classic Rock and today’s rock-flavored country, which is still often female-friendly and almost always pro-social. They may sound tame now, but the Allman Bros.’ “Ramblin’ Man” or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “What’s Your Name” just couldn’t have been written in Country five years ago. Songwriting law would have required the singer to embrace family life in the final verse. It’s only now in songs like Dierks Bentley’s “Lot Of Leaving Left To Do” or Eric Church’s “Two Pink Lines” that Nashville is again veering even slightly away from happy endings.

5) For that same reason, there hasn’t always been enough current Country product to sustain a male-slanted or tempo-driven Country format. Even the songs with tempo that had the feel of Classic Rock were often female-skewed lyrically. How dangerous, really, is “Chicks Dig It?” If you wanted to maintain a sonic difference, you were again forced to sacrifice strength. And if you play the hits, even when they are “Live Like You Were Dying,” it becomes hard to maintain a point of differentiation, particularly when even a contemporary Country station has no problem reaching back for the right ’70s or ’80s title.

Which leads back to the question of what the Country/Rock hybrid is supposed to be. DuBiel’s version is heavy on male attitude liners and more consistently rock and tempo-driven than most of its counterparts. The James/Folger format being heard in Billings is more hit driven and separated from other gold-based country stations more by its Bob-ish positioning than anything else. In fact, the format has been most mass-appeal in its least pure format: when it is, essentially, a gold-based Country outlet that has a few Skynyrd titles.

One thing that might distinguish the new stations going forward is some sort of current rock component. There’s not much country-flavored product reliably coming from the pop/rock side, unless Shinedown does a Lynyrd Skynrd cover. After all, anybody who wants to make a southern rock-flavored record these days is already doing so within the confines (and that they are) of Music Row.

But there are “Texas Music” and other Americana artists who provided the point of differentiation for KPLX and who occasionally make some surprisingly viable hit records that aren’t on Country radio’s radar. Clear Channel’s KRPT (92.5 The Outlaw) San Antonio, Texas, plays only that music –no mainstream current Country and no Classic Rock. Those records are largely off programmers’ radar. For them to become part of the format, Kroeger notes, “would take a miracle, or good timing.”

It’s worth noting here that Country/Rock hybrids have also proliferated in the world of HD-2 multicasting and satellite radio, ranging from WKIS Miami’s “Gretchen” channel to Sirius Satellite Radio’s Little Steven-overseen “Outlaw Country,” which combines Country Gold, alt.country and even rockabilly. Clearly, a niche for some sort of Country and Rock hybrid exists; the question is how it can be built into something more.

Here are some sample hours of today’s Country/Rock hybrids:
Blue Collar Radio, 1:35 p.m., August 3, 2006
Mark Chesnutt, “Blame It On Texas”
Toby Keith, “I Wanna Talk About Me”
Tom Petty, “You Wreck Me”
Blue County, “Nothin’ But Cowboy Boots”
Steve Miller Band, “Living In The USA”
David Lee Murphy, “Dust On The Bottle”
Alabama, “Mountain Music”
Big & Rich, “Coming To Your City”
Sugarland, “Down In Mississippi (Up To No Good)”
Brooks & Dunn, “Hard Workin’ Man”
KPBR (the Bar) Billings, Mont., 9:15 a.m., August 4, 2006
Don Henley, “The End Of The Innocence”
Rhett Akins, “Kiss My Country Ass”
Vince Gill, “Feels Like Love”
Willie Nelson, “Help Me Make It Through The Night”
Chris Cagle, “Chicks Dig It”
Janis Joplin, “Me And Bobby McGee”
Pat Green & Radney Foster, “Texas In 1880″
Reba McEntire, “Is There Life Out There”
Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood, “Love Will Always Win”
Jerry Lee Lewis, “Whole Lotta Shaking Goin’ On”
Tim McGraw, “Just To See You Smile”
Alabama, “Love In The First Degree”
Billy Ray Cyrus, “Achy Breaky Heart”
WLHK (Hank FM) Indianapolis, 5:00 p.m., August 10, 2006
Brooks & Dunn, “We’ll Burn That Bridge”
Montgomery Gentry, “My Town”
Charley Pride, “Kiss An Angel Good Morning”
LeAnn Rimes, “Blue”
Jack Ingram, “Love You”
Clint Black, “Better Man”
Steve Wariner, “Holes In The Floor Of Heaven”
Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats” (that day’s “Hank or Stank” record)
Earl Thomas Conley, “Fire And Smoke”
Billy Dean, “Only Here For A Little While”
And here’s an hour of Kevin Robinson’s version of the format, circa 2004
Tom Petty, “Running Down A Dream”
Toby Keith, “Beer For My Horses”
ZZ Top, “Legs”
Marshall Tucker Band, “Heard It In A Love Song”
John Mellencamp, “Authority Song”
Alan Jackson, “Don’t Rock The Jukebox”
Bob Seger, “Hollywood Nights”
Johnny Cash, “Rusty Cage”
Aerosmith, “Walk This Way”
Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sweet Home Alabama”
Bruce Springsteen, “Glory Days”
Neil Young, “Cinnamon Girl”
Willie Nelson, “Whiskey River”
Brooks & Dunn, “Red Dirt Road”

8 replies
  1. Lou Pickney
    Lou Pickney says:

    Great article as always, Sean. KMBY, from what I’ve read, is similar in format to Sirius Radio’s excellent Faction 28. I see that format having real potential, particularly in markets where M18-34 is a sellable demo. But, as with most formats, I anticipate that we’ll have to see several success stories for it before the format takes off in a major way.

    Reply
  2. Brad
    Brad says:

    Hey Ross
    Great article. I am wondering how these stations are promoting and marketing their product? Do they start strong promotionally and then tail off when they start seeing success or are they doing enough promotion and marketing or any at all?
    Are they doing a good job of selling this idea to the listener and telling them that this format is new and it’s the coolest thing on the radio? Also do these stations have the type of on air talent that can relate and talk to the different and mixed audience that they are trying to attract? The formats are like a cake. If you make it with all the right ingredients but instead of sugar you use salt, the cake will look the same but it won’t taste the same and people will be left with a bad taste in their mouth and will go elsewhere for their cake. It’s great that someone is trying some different things. Everyone is saying things need to change but very few are really going out and doing it.

    Reply
  3. Matt DuBiel
    Matt DuBiel says:

    I hear a lot of people mention similarities between new formats. There often seems to be that line, “it’s just like Jack” or “it’s just like (fill in format here)”.
    I think the important thing here is to judge each idea based on hearing it. Blue Collar Radio (TM) is very different from Hank, and both are extremely different than The Bar.
    Our team has sampled every “country/rock” format we can find, and they are all very different.
    The one thing that is undeniable about Blue Collar Radio (TM) is that this format is flat out, hands down, a male targeted country station first and foremost. This brand we designed is founded on being a lifestyle radio format, about the target listener.
    Hank is Jack for country. The Bar is Bob FM with the same liners, a different voice and country songs instead of 80s hits. Blue Collar Radio (TM) is a country station built around men 25-54. Sirius, XM, Clear Channel, and others have formats that incorporate country and rock sure, but no one has developed a product quite like Blue Collar Radio (TM).
    We’ve been from Fort Meyers to Coal City to Charlotte to Las Vegas to Dubuque…in taverns, racetracks, john-boats, bait shops, board rooms, in cadilacs, pick up trucks and hum v’s…..on cell phones, email, and CBs….we have talked with radio executives and research specialtists, business owners, accountants, carpenters, doctors, software engineers, truck drivers and pipefitters…and we have studied country radio in depth. Based on various information we have paid for….overheard, and harvested ourselves…. This is what red blooded American men who listen to country radio crave.
    Anyone who wants to try it for a week, just email me!

    Reply
  4. Mike
    Mike says:

    Personally, when I tune to a country music station, I want to hear country music; not classic rock. When I turn to the classic rock station, it’s because I want to hear classic rock, not country. I would much prefer a country station that mixes 60’s-70’s country titles w/ new music. Then, when I have the urge to hear Skynyrd, Allmans, etc., I’ll turn to the classic rock station.

    Reply
    • Ed Salamon
      Ed Salamon says:

      Good point, Mike. The key to extending the boundaries of a music station is adding only those songs that listeners feel “fit” the format. WHN’s New York audience defined country music broader than most other markets, we had a lot of latitude, but were always cautious when we played Bob Seger or The Atlanta Rhythm Section that WHN listeners considered it a country song that fit the format, rather than breaking format to play a rock song. That took a lot of asking the listener (local music research), which proved a good investment for WHN.

      Reply
      • Buzz Brindle
        Buzz Brindle says:

        I appreciate the traditionalists perspective on what should be deemed “country” but my observations while successfully programming the format in the Northeast differ. Unlike in other parts of America, I found that the majority of my target audience grew up listening to pop or rock music and didn’t have much or any exposure to country. They were discovering country as a genre to which they could relate as they became adults with families to raise, mortgages to pay, and the other real-life challenges that suburbanites encounter in their late 20s, 30s, and 40s. So, the country artists to whom they related were those who incorporated the rock & pop sensibilities into their work. We used that perspective and were successful in our efforts to harvest new cume and build our brand.

        I find it interesting that now my 18 year old daughter, who grew up being exposed to country music but then rejected it during her middle school/high school years, has now become a country P1 because of acts like Taylor Swift (“bubblegum”?-Before she became an icon, I vividly recall being blown away by her talent & maturity during her 1st conference room tour, Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts, etc. Of course, Willie Nelson & Johnny Cash were initially dismissed by a traditionalists as were Garth Brooks & the class of 1992.

        So, as Ed pointed out earlier, I think the possibility for success of a country/classic rock hybrid on a broadcast radio station really boils down to the “local” aspect of where it’s being offered and if that particular mix satisfies the need of that particular “local” audience. (Note: Change the term “local” to “tribe” if the distribution platform becomes regional, national, or international).

        Reply
  5. Pat
    Pat says:

    Back in the ’70’s 1330 KPOK in Portland tried a “Rock’in Country format. The picture on their music survey had a cowboy in a rocking chair. It was a great station.

    Reply
  6. Kenneth E. MacAlister Jr.
    Kenneth E. MacAlister Jr. says:

    Whether or not this is a good idea is irrelevant if these country/classic rock stations become stale, predictable, & won’t deviate from a etched in stone playlist. I, personally am sick of “Sweet Home Alabama”, “Freebird”, “Ramblin’ Man”, “Can’t you See”, & just about every other “classic rock” song played endlessly by classic rock stations today. As for country, today’s “country music” is not country music. It has become very homogenized & predictable, not to mention bubblegummy. Country music is Marty Robbins, Chet Atkins, Hank Williams, Jerry Reed, Merle Haggard, Don Williams, John Denver, etc. The closest thing to real country music today is bluegrass artists like Rhonda Vincent, Bobby Osbourne, & David Grisman. Until repetition is removed from the classic rock format & more attention is given to classic country music & bluegrass music instead of bubblegum “country” poptarts like Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, & Faith Hill to name just a few, this format will not work. Unless most prefer “classic rock” repetition & bubblegum “country” poptarts.

    Reply

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