You Say Classic, I Say Iconic ... Let's Call The Whole Thing Off
October 16, 2014
Are we done here, with the "Classic" handle?' Is it suddenly and finally time -- all at the same time -- to kick 'Classic Country' to the curb as a format descriptor?
It kinda sorta feels that way. There appears to be a younger, more dashing and muscular version of the word "Classic" emerging in 2014. Perhaps you've heard radio's latest big idea.
Say hello to "Icon," also referred to by some of its new besties as 'Iconic."
Cumulus started this when elevating Icon from a mere word to its very own brand in August, while transitioning dozens of its mainstream Country stations to "NASH Icon," with EVP/Programming & Content John Dickey declaring, "It is time for Country to fragment." Dickey went on to describe the music mix for Icon as predominantly anchored in the '90s-2000s, with a little bit of the '80s, adding, "NASH Icon is to Country what Hot AC is to AC."
So ... does that then mean "Icon" branded Country stations will be to Classic Country what Adult Hits are/were to Oldies?
I started wondering because last week, Alpha Media flipped Hot AC WCLI/Dayton to Country as Hank-FM, with a playlist steeped in '80s and '90s songs that included Conway Twitty's "Tight Fittin Jeans," Faith Hill's "Piece Of My Heart," Alabama's "Why Lady Why" and Wynonna's "I Saw The Light."
In announcing its change, the station's press release was crafted to include the "I" word, twice, saying, "101.5 Hank-FM will play iconic artists that made Country music popular," and continuing, "The icons of Country format connects us to a passionate and underserved audience that continues to grow."
On-air imaging also consistently employs the word "icon" to describe the station's music. "The all-new Hank-FM, where we play the icons of Country music," says one sweeper. As Alpha Media EVP/Programming Scott Mahalick told me, "The words 'icon' and 'iconic' are more stately and pristine. It's another way to describe music from the '80s and '90s; 'Classic' sounds old."
And who wants that?
If you're a 35+ Country fan and more specifically, in the 45-54 cell -- the tail end of the Baby Boom generation --perhaps it's time for a fresh coat of paint on stations that play songs that may have molded your love for this format. Because let's face it, some people in that cell -- not you or me, mind you, but some -- look in the mirror and see their 20-something selves and are not emotionally prepared to call anything they use "classic." I mean, jeez, that unsolicited AARP card was painfully insulting enough; now we're all "classics?" No thanks.
"To me, 'Classic Country' is the same as when you come across a fan of the format that still calls it 'Country and Western Music'," believes WJVC /Nassau-Suffolk PD Phathead. "The word 'Classic' makes you seem old and makes listeners feel old. 'Icon' or 'Iconic' would seem more appropriate these days."
Cameron Broadcasting VP/Programming Craig Powers, who oversees Country KFLG/Bullhead City, AZ and still features a "Country Classic" each hour, likes the word "iconic" just fine, asking rhetorically, "Who doesn't want to be an icon?" But there's a caveat: "It feels more like someone inventing a new catchphrase." That's not necessarily how listeners perceive classics, Powers asserts. "The Country audience respects the classic artists and our rich Country heritage of the past; I believe Country fans view the term 'Classic' as a positive. It also tells them something great from the past is coming up."
As Glasco Media's Bob Glasco reminds us, "Radio-speak is usually different than listener-speak." And it's a point that Powers illustrates anecdotally: "I'm not sure if people who listen to Adult Hits actually tell their friends, 'Oh ya, I listen to Adult Hits!' I have a brother-in-law in Los Angeles who listens to [KCBS] Jack FM there - and he calls it 'Oldies.'"
Which is why Glasco says, "It's always wise to research your verbiage if you can. I think saying you're playing the icons of Country music would still need to be explained with music hooks of those songs. Otherwise a person could easily think you mean present-day icons like Luke and Blake. After all, the definition of icon, according to Webster's, is 'somebody or something widely and uncritically admired, especially somebody or something symbolizing a movement or field of activity.'"
The four songs on Hank-FM I listed earlier were part of an 11-song stretch from Thursday's (10/16) 10-11a (CT) hour on launch day. That hour's playlist toggled songs strictly from the '80s and '90s. Eleven of the songs I tracked in WSM-FM (NASH Icon)/Nashville's Wednesday (10/15) 10a hour featured an average vintage of 2004, the oldest being Steve Wariner's "Small Town Girl" from 1986, with the newest, Blake Shelton's current, "Neon Light." Somewhere in the middle was Doug Stone's "Why Didn't I Think Of That" (1993) and Sara Evans' "Born To Fly" (2000).
A look at 'SM-FM's entire music era for Wednesday on Mediabase shows the combined percentage of '80s and '90s music in the station to be just under 38%, with 23% of the day's library from 2014.
By the way, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that during WSM-FM's first full month as "Nash Icon," the station improved 4.3-5.3 (August-September) among persons 6+ and, according to Dickey, is Nashville's #1 Country station among adults 25-54 (6a-7p). It's just one month, but they sure did move the needle.
All of which begs the questions: 1) Is there a difference between a Classic Country station and an Iconic one, or is it all semantics? 2) If I'm 25 years old, is Luke Bryan an Icon and Alan Jackson a Classic? 3) If I'm 54, is Garth Brooks an Icon and Merle Haggard a Classic?
"If someone chooses to use Classics, Legends or Icons to brand a gold-based Country format, more often than not I think it's whatever rolls off the tongue best, rather than anything strategically chosen for the mission (unless you are somehow trying to own a position -- but even that gets fuzzy)," said Kroeger Media CEO Howard Kroeger, creator of the Hank-FM brand. "The description means the same to everyone, but who they describe may be different. I think it all comes down to the demo and their perception of what is 'classic' 'iconic' or 'legendary' music, and all three do a great equal job in describing the music for the listener."
Back to the original question: What about existing Classic Country stations? Are they collateral damage if Country's potentially successful fragmentation -- no matter what we call it -- becomes the aforementioned, "Something symbolizing a movement or field of activity."
Does Classic Country as a format handle go the way of travel agents, Encyclopedia Britannica and phone booths? And if we're ready to phase out the word "Classic" in favor of, say, "Iconic," is the upcoming World Series now The Fall Iconic? Is that really awesome display of older, yet impeccably maintained -- not to mention, shiny -- vehicles in my local supermarket parking lot each Saturday morning now referred to as an Iconic Car Show? Neither of those roll off the tongue so well.
"If you want to keep the '60s and '70s Country around, I suggest the creation of an "Adult Standards' type Country station," suggests Phathead. "Maybe that is where the term 'Classic Country' is used. The people who would be listening to that station already know they're old so you're not offending them (funny, but true)."
As always, I rely on you, the vast and unpaid research department to share your observations.
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