10 Questions with ... Gator Harrison
October 9, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Gator Harrison and Nashville have seemingly been on a collision course since he began his radio career at WSMT/Sparta, TN in 1990. His September move to Music City as SVP/Programming for the iHeartMedia cluster - which includes Country WSIX - was actually a return there. From 1990 to 1996, he was an air personality at Top 40 WYHY/Nashville before starting a 14-year run at Country WGSQ/Cookeville, TN, carving out his duel threat reputation as a skilled programmer and award-winning personality as part of the station's "Gator And The Stykman" morning show. Next, he was recruited by iHeart in 2011 to oversee its Chattanooga cluster and program the legendary WUSY brand. He later added iHeartCountry Brand Manager duties. Last month, he arrived in Nashville again, overseeing the iHeart cluster and handling day-to-day programming for another legendary station, WSIX.
1. You just spent the last six years overseeing a legendary brand, WUSY/Chattanooga, which is probably stronger now than ever. Today you're in Nashville, at the wheel of another iconic brand, WSIX. Your experience in Chattanooga must have prepared you well for this challenge, correct?
Absolutely. We're all products of our environment. Surround yourself with great people, and great things happen. [WUSY] US101 has and will always be a great brand because of the great family we have there. People who are passionate about the music and the message always create something incredibly special that extends beyond being a radio station. The same could be said of [WSIX] The BIG 98, with a long history of incredibly talented and passionate people. I'm looking forward to The BIG 98 Family being the village to my idiocy. I still have a lot to learn, and honestly, I get excited about how much I'm going to be challenged to grow over the next several years.
2. The market now has five Country outlets following the Labor Day weekend launch of WSIX sister "Legends." 'SIX currently trails WSM-F (NASH Icon), but WKDF (NASH FM) is formidable, too - WSIX and WKDF feature nationally syndicated morning shows - the market is clearly more competitive and dynamic than ever - so what have you identified as goals or opportunities for The Big 98 moving forward?
I LOVE IT. This is MUSIC CITY. Nashville makes it, so we should be the city that REALLY plays it. Listen, the goal is to WIN. Always WIN. How you define WIN can vary. Obviously, there are ratings and revenue goals/wins, but for me, in competition, the real winner is the Country music fan. The BIG 98 will champion the biggest hits that impact listeners' lives. We'll give them "Only in Nashville" kinds of moments with their favorite artists. And from programming to personalities, we ARE Nashville, so naturally and authentically we care about what Nashville cares about, because this is our home. Ultimately, if you do that, ratings and revenue goals will follow. But for me, it's more about the music and ministry.
3. This is not your first rodeo in Nashville, having jocked here in the '90s at WYHY. I know you've visited here frequently in recent years during your time in Chattanooga and Cookeville, so you've kind of watched it grow - how has the market changed in terms of sophistication, radio listening, and the competitive landscape since your first stop here?
Now that is a BIG question. I remember being a punk kid playing in my backyard in Sparta, TN hearing Nashville legends like Coyote McCloud scream up nitty gritty Rock & roll records. Nashville radio has been my life and measuring stick since falling in love with music. The city has certainly exploded with growth and meteoric change with a more metropolitan feel and even higher profile industry association and world view. But as much as we could expound about all of the new listeners and new kinds of listeners in Nashville, I'm still that very simplistic Sparta boy who thinks we complicate a very simple medium. Whether you're a minivan mom, new suit in from NY, or a co-op cowboy, the thing that's universal is personal connection and passion for music. So in the midst of all the Nashville cranes and change, the one thing that remains and will always be the same: Connect Country fans with your head, heart, and on the human level, and you create a very special unbreakable friendship.
4. Six years ago, a guy we featured in "10 Questions" offered this outlook about radio: "I'm not one of the doom and gloomers. Radio is vibrant and healthy. Like everyone else and all businesses, we have to revisit our business model to adapt to a changing society and industry. But radio IS and WILL BE alive, not because of technology, but connection. No other medium connects on a personal level like radio. If we can maintain the connection, we maintain our relevance." By the way, that guy was you - still feel that optimistic?
Yes, yes, and yes; now even more so. A radio is no longer that thing in your car or sitting on your kitchen counter top when you're getting your kids ready for school. As technology evolves, so does the delivery method. So now your radio is in YOUR pocket, and with iHeartRadio, it goes everywhere you do. As radio, we used to be limited, but now there are no limits. With one button I can connect with radio hiking, running, grocery shopping, in line at the bank, in the shower - literally wherever listeners are, we can be there with them. As far as perceived competition from stream sources or other music providers, radio will continue to have what they do not: the human connection. We naturally crave it, because we were created for it. With radio, you discover new music, but not by a perceived robotic algorithm playlist, but by your trusted friend who's playing you a new song that they've fallen in love with. It's the same reason I fell in love with music. Whatever new song my older brother was playing in his bedroom when I was a kid was the coolest new song that I instantly loved. It's the human connection. Only radio gives you that.
5. We've seen a steady decline among 18-34 shares for Country in 2016 - down year-to-year every month so far. Some PDs say the music cycle is down, others say that demo is flighty. And others say Country radio put too many eggs in that younger basket in the past four years. What's your take?
First, I would say I don't fully agree with your math. Not saying you didn't put your 2 + 2s together correctly, just saying we need a different context for the conversation. We have A LOT of iHeartCountry stations that are UP 18-34. It's really frightening to me when we make blanket statements about formats or demographics. The last thing we need in Country music is PDs or record labels with excuses. Listen, I think we have enough metrics to substantiate that 18-34s are less loyal to ANYTHING and can jump ship based on trends. But I also think 18-34s could jump ship because it's a sloppy radio station with too many messages and not an effective music strategy, or there's horrible PPM strategy, or - even worse - zero personality to the radio station. Could be a music cycle, but it could also be a million other things. I would prefer to look at isolated stations that might be struggling or down 18-34 to be sure we're hitting the target on all the levels.
6. Also, we've seen Top 40 become a more consistent, stronger performer among 25-54 year olds, traditionally Country's money demo. Did we drive some of the upper end of that audience segment away - and can we regain their loyalty?
Again, not a fan of drawing drilled down conclusions off of national stats. Possible? Sure, but I'm just as convinced the upper end 25-54s who might love early [Tim] McGraw or a steel guitar are all of a sudden in love with Justin Bieber. Okay, overstated and not your point, but any blanket answer I come up with here is going to sound absurd. Top 40 could be hot because everything musically is cyclical, or it could be 45-54s have changed, and they want to feel younger. Or maybe when technology flipped to downloads, the upper end hasn't caught up. Or maybe melody is more important than lyric. Or a million other absurd conversations we could have around this topic. But I'm a big believer in controlling what you can control, do brilliant radio, play music your target is in love with, and champion what matters to them. That makes you relevant regardless of trends and cycles.
7. Probably the first thing every PD I talk to expresses worry about is the continued onslaught of new music coming across their desk. It's a good problem I suppose, but many companies - maybe even yours - have tightened up in 2016. How do you balance the supply and demand issue right now and still remain a great partner with the label community?
Blahwahwahwhaw. Seriously this topic always makes me laugh a little. First, I will be the last music lover on the planet to whine about having too many great new songs to choose from. Does it make for more honest and difficult conversations with your label partners? Absolutely. But the greater good is the opportunity to have even better music on your radio station. As far as "tightening up"
... iHeartCountry stations' new song adds are relatively flat for 2014, 2015, and pacing in 2016. Our listeners want to discover new Country, and iHeartCountry PDs are extremely passionate about sharing that new music in creative and innovative ways that go beyond simple airplay. I would argue that we're doing a better job of using multiple platforms to expose new Country in more effective ways, not less effective.
8. WSIX has traditionally featured strong on-air talent - and still does - with Bones, Amy Paige, and afternooners Tige & Daniel. How do we find the next generation of great on-air entertainers in a world where radio simply isn't as exciting and appealing to high school and college aged extroverts?
I'm not convinced that it isn't still an exciting career path for high school and college aged extroverts, but I completely understand the question and the concern. I get countless kids always asking me the "how-to" of breaking into radio, and it's true - I always try to talk them into computers or medicine. Not because I don't ABSOLUTELY LOVE what I've been blessed to do for the past 30 years, but because I know how rare the individual and what it takes to truly succeed in this industry. Radio is not a career - it's a passion; it's a lifestyle. You have to be the type of person that can't do ANYTHING ELSE, because you want to be on radio that desperately. I think that as an industry, we could do a better job of training up the people with this kind of passion. I'm not talking about radio companies doing a better job. I'm talking about individuals taking the time to invest in the people around you. I'm in radio today, not because of how great "I" am, but I'm here because people like my brother Hawk Harrison, Coyote McCloud, Marc Chase, Louis Kaplan, John Ivey, Clay Hunnicutt, Rod Phillips, and countless others took the time to invest in me. They didn't have to, they chose to. Who in your radio circle can you mentor, elevate, or challenge to be better? That's the real question we should ask ourselves looking for the next great Radio World Changer.
9. Six years ago we also asked you to name a few artists you were excited about at the time, so let's do that again - who do you see growing into the top tier, Mt. Rushmore artists in the next 12-24 months?
Mt. Rushmore, holy crap, we're gonna need to get a bigger rock! Definitely gonna need more than four heads. Where are Dierks [Bentley], Sam [Hunt], and Jake [Owen] on the mountain? I'll assume they're there or climbing. I'll start with obvious artists that I believe have superstar potential. Thomas Rhett is our next superstar. "Star of the Show" is a #1 song that solidifies TR in my book. Cole Swindell and Brett Eldredge are on the superstar track. Chris Stapleton has superstar status and sales; when we connect the dots on a radio smash, he's instant superstar and healthy for our format. If we're just looking at next level potential and projects I've been passionate about, then I would have to mention Old Dominion, Kelsea Ballerini, and Maren Morris. So many more names I could add to this list, and so much good music I'm excited about, but I'll just shut up now.
10. Six years ago, we also asked you where you saw yourself in five years - but things seem to move faster all the time now and that may not be realistic. So - is iHeart/Nashville the ultimate destination job for you - and, thinking a bit wider - where is Country then? Circling back to traditional roots? More diverse? The same?
I have a very simplistic life mantra, it's "God First." Jesus leads. If He leads, I will absolutely follow. I've never cared about money or market size. Radio has always driven me by the sheer passion of music and the power in being able to positively impact someone's day or life. I'm fully confident that God has led me to this city that I absolutely love, but I'm here for HIS purpose, and not my own. As long as He has purpose for me here, I'll be here. As far as Country, Country will always be where the song takes us. Whether it's a steel guitar in a honkytonk, or a backbeat vocal track in a club; the thing that makes it Country music is the same thing that's always defined Country music, and what differentiates us from all of the other formats - it's music with a message. We love it, because we live it.