Ed. Note: Veteran programmer and CRB board officer John Shomby recently took a stationary road trip through Country radio at Country Aircheck‘s behest. Here’s what he found:
During my years as a day-to-day PD, I rarely had enough time to spend with my own radio station, let alone others in my market or across the country. But with unexpected time on my hands (who can relate?), I have been afforded the chance to sample Country stations in various markets from the comfort of my home office. I heard lots of good, solid and safe Country radio, but is that where we want to be heading into 2021 – considering everything that’s changing around us?
Methodology: In partnership with Alexa, I set a goal of listening to at least one Country station in each of the top 50 markets. I managed to actually get in the top 55 markets, making sure to get a balanced cross-section of stations owned by various companies. The dayparts or portion of dayparts I heard depended on the time zone. I would start four or five hours of listening each day around 10am ET, finishing 3pm and 5pm. That window was intentional, as I thought it would offer a better feel for imaging, local feel, promotion and personality.
Talk, With Personality: The patterns that emerged were interesting and undeniable. Across 55 markets, all but two stations had a woman in middays and only three had a female in PM drive. Those three stations had a male voice in middays. No station had back-to-back female personalities. For the most part, the on-air approach was very basic – back-selling or front-selling a song, a promo liner or typical show prep country/ pop culture news. Surprisingly, I heard very little about the pandemic or anything related to it. I could only single out three personalities in the top 55 who sounded extremely connected to their audience. Each had something to say every time the mic opened, giving their stations a much stronger local feel. Overall, lots of “live” but not a lot of “local” from the personality side.
Press Play: Musically, 90% of the stations played the same current music – give or take a song or two. Two stations I heard made a concerted effort to play newer music more frequently, along with consistent song and artist identification. I also found a higher percentage of ’90s and early 2000s gold than I expected. Lots of Garth, Brooks & Dunn, Reba and older Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. Not a lot of surprises: good, solid hits throughout the day. Very little in the way of special music moments. Country radio – across the nation – is very familiar, playing the biggest hits the most and being very careful with new music (meaning anything below No. 25 on the chart). Other than the two stations mentioned, I would hear newer music generally once or twice per listening session. The stars still rule. Lots of both Lukes, Carrie, Jason, Thomas Rhett and FGL. Others filtering in with some frequency include Morgan Wallen, Kane Brown, Maren Morris and Jon Pardi.
Say My Name: The positioning lines used by the largest percentage of stations were either “New Country” or the most-used “No. 1 For New Country.” Produced imaging was very music-oriented, selling the artists and upcoming songs two to three times per hour. Only about half of the stations used pandemic-related production – some of it very entertaining, though, with quarantine, work-at-home and home-schooling references. Not surprisingly, Alexa and Google were a big part of just about every station’s imaging. Some clever, but most simple and basic – how and where to find the station. Promoting streaming was definitely a big part of each station’s on-air presence. One company in particular had strong, entertaining imaging on each of their stations – consistently topical, funny and relatable. Most imaging voices were male with 25-30% of stations using a combination male-female approach. Two stations had a solo female imaging voice. On air giveaways showed up a little more in May and June in the form of virtual tour meet-and-greets, but still very sparse compared to pre-pandemic. Overall, there was little call for listener involvement.
Commercial loads seemed to increase from April to June, but still nowhere near prior levels. Breaks averaged three-to-four minutes. Very few stations – I counted five total – sold themselves as playing more music each hour. Those that did tout more music did it often and well.
Final Thoughts: Based on an admittedly limited sample, Country radio sounds safe and homogenous. Very few stations found ways to set themselves apart. Approaching it as a basic at-home worker, there were days everything seemed to sound alike, making it hard to distinguish stations from one another. If I were to issue a challenge to Country programmers/operators – myself included – it would be to find ways to break the mold. Special music moments to highlight, a local personality who breaks through, unique local events that beg attention and memorable promotions that create talk. Consumers have so many music media choices at their fingertips beyond radio. With the way habits are changing in this pandemic, there couldn’t be a better time to strengthen those connections with listeners!