A Conversation Piece: Borchetta And Dickey
October 24, 2014
Scott Borchetta and John Dickey, in the same room, at the same time?
There's an App for that.
I had questions and a gadget called "voice memo" on my phone. BMLG Pres./CEO Borchetta and Cumulus EVP/Content & Programming Dickey had a combined 10 minutes.
It all went down shortly after Reba's Tuesday (10/21) announcement via Cumulus' nationally broadcast "America's Morning Show" that she was the first artist signed to Nash Icon Music, the label co-venture between Cumulus Media and the Big Machine Label Group.
Things were already going splendidly when I snagged some quality Q&A minutes with Reba. Typically, she was forthright, patient and a total class act. To spend time with Reba in this context renews one's appreciation of her artistry, while affirming her qualities as a human being.
Programming note: An All Access "10 Questions" feature with Reba is on its way soon.
Then, fortuitously -- like a kid in a candy store, a mosquito in a nudist colony or a pig in you-know-what -- I found myself staring at two of the industry's most powerful heavyweights.
I hit record, inquiring about Reba as an anchor artist and what's next for the Icon brands. Borchetta said more signings are imminent and the Icon label success starts with the Icon radio brand. Dickey teased a greater role for Reba, beyond that of an artist for Cumulus and hinted at a third layer of the Nash brand. That brand includes the term, "Classic," which is a pretty timely tidbit, given my column last week discussing the difference between what is an Icon vs. a classic for Country music.
Here is our conversation, word-for-word:
ALL ACCESS: Let's start with both of you describing what it means to have Reba as the anchor artist for Nash Icon Music?
BORCHETTA: Reba was absolutely the prototype for the idea of this coming together from my point of view. After I mentioned it to John, he was like 'Oh My God, do you think we could get her?'"
DICKEY: Today is the culmination of a lot of dreaming; a lot of vision on Scott's part and my part. And it's just personally been a very rewarding morning seeing it all come together. I mean, you look up the definition of Icon ... and Reba just pops out at you.
BORCHETTA: I've wanted her to always make records. We've been together since 1991, except for a stretch when I went away to start Big Machine. Then I was able to get her to come over to join us [at Valory Music Co.]. Having her back in the family and so excited about new music is just a dream come true.
DICKEY: And I think this is great for Country overall. It's all about the music. It's all about giving these artists who have built Country to where it is today, who've have made Country great and provide them a platform to get in the studio and do what they do best, which is to inspire us, to pull us closer, to have us think about our lives, to give us music that allows us to bookmark moments in our lives that will be forever linked to one of their songs.
ALL ACCESS: Reba's resume includes not just music, but film, TV, Broadway and so much more. Meanwhile, Cumulus has already taken an artist like Kix Brooks and utilized his talents on so many of its radio and syndication platforms. Is there a plan to utilize Reba's talents in a similar way?
DICKEY: We would be remiss if we didn't tap in to all of those talents and to utilize them. So I would say, as a tease: I fully anticipate Reba having an even bigger influence on Nash Icon, the format and the platform as it relates to radio and what we're doing in broadcast radio. She's just amazing, and she really is sort of the beacon. And her vote of confidence in what we're doing and support of what's been created here I think will be the shot heard - not only around Nashville - but the shot heard around the world.
ALL ACCESS: What about getting other radio groups beyond Cumulus on board with support of music from Reba and future "Icon" artists?
BORCHETTA: The platform is really custom-built to start at Icon. And if we have something that is so dynamic that it does cross over and spill in to mainstream Country, then fantastic. But NASH Icon starts with NASH. And when we have the appropriate record, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that you push all the faders up and it gets to start at the NASH brand as well as NASH Icon. So it remains to be seen. The music has to compete; that's the bottom line.
We're not coming in to this with any kind of free pass. We have to make compelling music and continue to do our jobs as a record company. So, when we get to that moment, there are a lot of opportunities we have just within the Cumulus platform, to make enough noise to sell tickets, to sell music, to continue to keep these artists vital. If it crosses over, fantastic. But we've got to be honest with ourselves. If there are other broadcast companies that might put up a wall or something, we have got to be good enough to where they buy past that. And I'm confident in our artists and in our A&R teams and in our company that we'll be able to do that. So that will remain to be seen for right now, but we know what our job is.
ALL ACCESS: Now that you have Reba on board, who else is on your radar for the Nash Icon roster?
BORCHETTA: Well, I think you could look at any of those great artists from the late '80s through the '90s who really made an impact, and we're going to consider them. [Nash Icon Records GM] Jim Weatherson is on this every day, and signings are imminent. So it's very exciting. But I don't think you have to really be too much of a guesser to look at who's out there and who's working. You've got Martina McBride who is still very relevant in the marketplace. We won't give them away, but it's not too hard to guess.
ALL ACCESS: John, at a conference call for industry press in August, you shared the blueprint and some heady expectations for the NASH icon brand. Based on September PPM results, this brand is off to a very strong start.
DICKEY: I didn't want to play the role of the futurist, but at that point I felt it was appropriate. And whether my predictions turned out to be right or wrong, I wanted to put it all on the table. At that point, when you've got something that's been sort of inspired from deep inside you and it's a creative passion, you just throw it out there. The first month was September when those predictions started to look like they were turning into fact. October is not in the books yet, but we've had the opportunity to see a little bit ahead with Nielsen and leaders and everything else on the phases of October. October is going to be stronger than September, and already we've got a week in November and November is showing those signs. So a couple of things I would point out since that press conference: Not only are we taking Nashville by storm with the NASH Icon format on 95.5 [WSM-FM/Nashville], but since then we're up to almost 20 markets that have this format on.
And then as they say, imitation is the best form of flattery. We've had another very, very smart broadcast company - people that I respect immensely - look at what we've done here and buy in to the wisdom of the fragmentation format and have done something very similar in Dayton with a radio station [Alpha Media WCLI (Hank-FM)] up against Cox [WHKO] there. That ought to be a very interesting competitive situation to watch. So, I'm thrilled that a lot of the stuff we all talked about on the phone together in August is starting to take shape and again, I'm trying to remain cautiously optimistic. There's a very healthy energy and enthusiasm for what we're doing with this format. I still hold to what I said in August. I think you will see, in the next 24 months, a NASH Icon format in each of the Top-100 markets. It may be 36 months; it may be a year longer than what I'm predicting. But I really think when people see - and this is even before we've got the benefit of hearing Reba's unbelievable new stuff and the artists that Scott and Jim are working together to bring aboard NASH Icon -- I think you're going to see that there is going to be such a huge appetite for the product. Ratings and listeners are going to support that, and distribution follows that.
And that's the way our business always works. Dayton is a perfect example of that. And I'm almost glad that was done separate and apart from the NASH Icon brand. I'm glad somebody as credible as Larry Wilson and Scott Mahalick and the team at Alpha Media looked at it and decided to do it. That's just another independent reinforcement of what we're seeing. Which is, this format and these artists, the vision of putting this together in a sort of Hot AC template has staying power and will be around for a long time to come.
BORCHETTA: And John, when we've talked about this, too, you don't see this hurting the mothership of the 18-34 phenomenon that's really going on in Country?
DICKEY: You're right. The 18-34s have actually -- to my amazement and surprise -- been one of the stronger cells in the format, as we've seen here in Nashville and we're starting to see with early returns in some other markets. It's there on the younger end, as well. Garth is a perfect example. You go to his concerts, and you've obviously got his core audience, but there was so much excitement from the younger end of the format around Garth. People were both discovering him for the first time and rediscovering him. It was amazing. So, I think, as you see in Hot AC, in markets where it's done well, a format that will not cede anything to the current Top 40 variety of the format.
Among 18-34-year-olds, you'll see a format that is very well balanced male to female - maybe slightly more male than female, but very well balanced. Icon will be a little more male. And of course it will change with songwriting changes. But just slightly a little more in that direction, but not skewed to the point that someone will look at it and say, "This is a gender complement to mainstream Country." It is very well balanced, male-female. To Scott's point, it is doing exceptionally well 18-34.
The thing that I was hopeful of - and I was on record early putting my nose out there during the press conference - this was going to be unlike how it's been attempted in the past as a flank format. That this was going to be a coalition-driven format capable of having a cume equivalent of the mainstream Country formats in the markets it competes in. Without hurting the cume base of the other stations across the street ... or in the case of Nashville, the two big Country stations across the street. It turns out that also proved to be pretty correct. The cume on NASH Icon here in Nashville goes back and forth between being the #1 and #2 cuming station Country station in the market and one of the top-five cuming stations overall in Nashville. And it hasn't hurt. It hasn't come at the expense of the other two Country stations -- in this case, NASH, which the company owns, and Clear Channel's WSIX. So, it really is pulling audience in. And it's the audience, unfortunately, that has had to find other places to spend time. It's giving them a home again. And you're seeing sort of magnetically all of those different listeners come back and coalesce with this NASH Icon format. When you're seeing something with a cume of that size, you realize you have something with staying power, and we're really excited about that.
ALL ACCESS: What about industry experts who contend Country's fragmentation is dependent on the sustainability of 18-34 shares? And that, if those listeners move on to the next big thing as a result of a down music cycle or some phenomenon beyond our control, then Country radio contracts back to a one-size-fits-all format, with no fragmentation necessary?
DICKEY: I don't see that being the case. Here's the beauty of this, and we've kind of glossed over it, but I think we should touch on it. The way the format was conceived, and the way it's being executed, is different than anything else that has ever been put out there. We have taken sort of the Hot AC model and pulled that in to Country. So now you have all of these amazing artists whose music hasn't been exposed on radio in a long time. Therefore, after the research part of this conversation, they have extremely high like scores, they have extremely high familiarity and virtually no burn. So you've got a huge amount of repertoire of music to choose from. We can platoon in and out endlessly and keep the station and the format fresh, and keep the stickiness to the format there. But most importantly, we're weaving in contemporary music into this format like a Hot AC does. We have the ability to pick and choose from the charts today. And we then appropriately play the music that fits from a tonality standpoint and from a lyric standpoint. And you still have some very prolific artists who are living in both sides of it, like Kenny or a Tim and anyone else. Then you bring all that together and 18-34s are not there by accident. The 18-34s love Eric Church, they love Lee Brice, they love Kenny's new stuff, and they love Tim's new stuff. And we're playing all of that.
BORCHETTA: There are a couple things you've put in that sound great. I heard the new Glen Campbell song last night.
DICKEY: Thank you for pointing that out. It is an amazing piece of work; an unbelievably moving song. So you weave all of that in and yes, it's roughly four calls an hour after 12-13 songs scheduled. When you do the math from that perspective, it still seems like a small percentage overall but when you look at actually spins and exposure, 35% upwards of 40% of the radio station is still current-driven from a spins and exposure perspective. You've got this beautiful sort of emerging of great new music. Plus we have the chance to pull the best great artists who still fit, so it's really a very good position. A 25-year-old man or woman listening to NASH Icon is not going to have to sit through more than a couple of songs - and by the way, the songs they are sitting through sound great and they're laughing, they're crying, they're singing ... they love it - to get to a brand new song that they love hearing as well. Or going deeper on a Brad Paisley or throwing a Ronnie Millsap in there. It just fits so perfectly.
It creatively gives us a lot more colors on the palette to be able to paint with. Because it is, at its core, a Hot AC format. NASH Icon is a Hot AC for Country. It's not Classic Country, it's not NASH Classics - stay tuned, that format is coming - and we're going to do that in a way that hasn't been done before, and that's really exciting creatively. But this is Hot AC. The time has come to put this out there and put this platform out there. And, if you just let your imagination run a little bit wild and think about all the new music like we're about to be thrilled for Reba and other artists signing to NASH Icon and even not signing to NASH Icon who are just motivated to be able to put new music out and are able to put that out and have it be exposed to radio for the first time in a long time, this is going to be a really amazing ride. And Classic Country, or in our case, soon-to-be NASH Classics, that is a niche format and it will continue to be a niche format. It sounds great, but it's no different than an Urban station putting on a great Gospel station. There's a lot of great product out there, and we're going to do it in a great way, but it will exist, and we're going to do it in a smaller way. It will exist in a smaller way next to NASH Icon and NASH.