Country Must Be Country Wide
April 2, 2015
Now that we've beaten to death the topic of what Country radio is allegedly NOT playing (Google "Girl Crush"), let's discuss songs it IS playing.
Specifically, Cumulus Country outlets KSCS/ Dallas and WNSH/New York.
WNSH PD Brian Thomas and his KSCS counterpart, JR Schumann, are both understandably mum so far, but everyone else is buzzing about some stark musical adjustments on their respective stations in recent weeks. In both cases, these appear to be a tactical move to add mass-appeal texture on both Country outlets, with the inclusion of highly familiar, non-Country titles from #1 ranked Pop stations in their markets.
For KSCS, it's the addition of a handful of Top 40 titles already found on iHeartMedia's crosstown KHKS. A look at Mediabase shows KSCS featuring titles such as Magic!'s "Rude," Capital Cities' "Safe And Sound," Avicci's "Wake Me Up," Ed Sheeran's "Don't" and "Thinking Out Loud," along with a number of titles from Taylor Swift's self-declared pure pop, "TS 1989" album. In fact, KSCS is playing darned-near one Swift song per hour, combining what would be considered Country recurrents and the "1989" cuts.
Right now, KSCS is committing one slot per hour to these songs. A look back at the station's list from 30 days ago shows these slots formerly occupied by a Country Gold title.
In New York, WNSH seems to be borrowing music from iHeartMedia AC WLTW, as a look through the NASH playlist last week -- April 2nd, specifically -- turned up these titles: Sister Hazel's "All For You,"" Eagle Eye Cherry's "Save Tonight," Howie Day's "Collide," Edwin McCain's "I'll Be," Train's "Hey Soul Sister" and Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me."
While KSCS is spiking songs once per hour round the clock, WNSH's spice category seems to be appearing once per hour between 10a-6p.
Naturally, these moves provoke questions.
I realize the prevailing belief right now is that younger listeners, let's call them 18-34-year-olds, don't categorize music with format or genre labels, instead putting everything in a big mixing bowl and simply calling that collection "songs I like." Additionally, I have anecdotal research -- three kids in that demo and a fourth on the cusp of it -- to verify this behavior. But that's music THEY are curating. Conventional programming wisdom says that when a radio listener purposely punches a button for a Country station -- no matter what age -- they are making a decision about they want to hear at that moment. That decision comes with expectations, which are to hear Country songs.
"As far as crossing genres all together, I think that's pretty risky business; they come to us for Country music. That's what we are," says Glasco Media's Bob Glasco, unofficial programming consultant for The 'Ville, and a veteran architect of many 18-34-targeted Country stations.
"There isn't really a soft line between Pop and Country," he continued. "Taylor? Yes, I get that -- but when it really gets down to a real Pop record and a real Country record? That's a pretty thick, dark line that runs between the two."
So, thinking out loud here, if I punch up a Country station and hear Echosmith, how do I react if my aforementioned expectations aren't met? Well, maybe it depends. If I'm 40, I might punch out right away and go somewhere else -- if there is an available somewhere else. If I'm 22, maybe not, because I kinda like Echosmith … but maybe I'm still somewhat confused.
Remember, both KSCS and WNSH are just spiking these songs -- only one per hour so far. If the presumed strategy is correct and the stations are trying to appeal to users they share with KHKS and WLTW, is one play per hour enough to affect listener behavior?
According to Glasco, "If it's a core Country listener, I don't think they'll sit through the song. They'll go elsewhere, or if there's nowhere else to go, they will sit through it and be dissatisfied or turn it off and go to an alternate entertainment source."
In Dallas, a KSCS fan unhappy with hearing "Rude" from Magic! can march right over to Country sister KPLX, so the cluster still wins, theoretically.
How? Well, speaking of KPLX, I looked at its Current/Recurrent/Gold ratios for the past 30 days and noticed a slight shift coinciding with KSCS's adjustments, which appeared to have started on Monday, March 23rd.
From March 3 -- March 22nd, KPLX Gold percentages averaged 38.7%. That has since increased to 45% from March 23rd to April 2nd, with Current/Recurrent averages dropping from 61% to 54% in the same period.
If the occasional -- and dayparted -- music selection from Sister Hazel or Train alienates WNSH core Country listeners, where do they go? That's the $64,000 question. Maybe nowhere. There are so few slots for these songs and they are all well-insulated by gigantic, familiar Country artists and songs. A Goo Goo Dolls title ("Name") was book ended with Blake Shelton ("Lonely Tonight") and Luke Bryan ("Rain Is A Good Thing"). How much safer padding can you ask for?
"JR and Brian deserve kudos for the courage of their convictions here and the actions they are taking," adds Glasco. "Ditto John Dickey and Mike McVay -- they deserve credit for giving both programmers the opportunity to try something daring and different. I hope it works for them."
One last point, circling back to 18-34s, the large mixing bowl of "songs I like," and how that may or may not work for a radio station. There are two stations setting that expectation right now and you may want to give then each a listen.
If you remember, last year I wrote about West Virginia Radio's WKAZ/Charleston, WV, which launched as "Tailgate 107.3" last August. Nielsen designates "Tailgate" as Classic Rock, but it's a blend of that, Top 40, Country, and some mainstream Hip-Hop. A sample hour on Friday, April 3rd, shows Keith Urban's "Raise 'Em Up," Manfred Mann's "Blinded By the Light," Kelly Clarkson's "Heartbeat Song," Jason Aldean's "Just Gettin' Started" and DJ Snake w/Aluna George's "You Know You Like It."
Tailgate is branded with no format or genre tags, but rather "Party Songs For Party People," and it's an absolute blast to listen to. Check it out here.
Then there is Sinclair's recently-launched KSXY (Y100.9)/Santa Rosa, CA, which is running an outdoor campaign featuring the smiling faces of Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Blake Shelton and Arianna Grande, with the positioner: "All The Hits -- Pop. Country. Alternative."
Y100.9 Skews more Top 40 than WKAZ in both music composition and sonic feel. I checked a playlist from earlier this week and saw the station averages two to three Country titles per hour (out of 15 total hourly titles) from the likes of Florida Georgia Line, Cole Swindell, Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean.
Listen to Y100.9 here.