"I Wonder If They Ever Think Of Me"
April 12, 2016
“No matter how current we are, we are still a Country station.”
That’s Cox Media/Houston Dir./Operations Johnny Chiang, who also serves as PD for Country KKBQ there, talking about how the station recognized Merle Haggard and his music last week following the Country legend’s Wednesday, April 6th passing.
“We obviously were all over it on socials at KKBQ,” said Chiang. “On the air, I had each one of our shows do a personalized, twenty-second tribute and play a Merle song.” When Chiang talks about being current, he’s not kidding. KKBQ features a nearly 80-20 ratio of currents/recurrents to gold titles, and 74% of his library is made up of songs from 2014 to the present. Scheduling any Merle Haggard tune is an extreme lane change for a station like KKBQ – which, in terms of music vintage, is a station a lot like crosstown CBS Radio KILT, with its playlist composition suspiciously familiar to iHeartMedia’s WSIX/Nashville, which bears a striking resemblance to Hubbard WUBE/Cincinnati – but is just slightly more current than Bonneville KYGO/Denver, Entercom KWJJ/Portland, or SummitMedia WZZK/Birmingham.
I guess what I’m saying here is err’body plays a shit-ton of current music these days.
And therein lies the $64,000 question for local, terrestrial Country radio in 2016 – which is a vastly different landscape than in Haggard’s heyday, on so many levels: clock architecture, sonically, thematically, younger targeting, and image-wise. In what way do you recognize and honor a Country icon the likes of Merle, whose last chart-topper was 29 years ago, when even today’s oldest 18-34 Country fan was just five years old?
That’s a tough query, actually, because with Haggard, it’s far more appropriate to use the broader “musical icon” descriptor; that’s how he was characterized by national news outlets – and because it’s a fact. His death was a headline story for all of them, whether it was network or cable nightly news or morning news shows like “Today” or “Good Morning America.” Some of us had known it for years already, but Haggard – it turns out – was kind of a big deal.
Indeed, Haggard’s music transcended genre descriptions, and his career – which spanned more than five decades – saw his cultural relevance evolve just as his music did. He was the rare, uniquely talented artist who made gritty records spiked with informed social commentary beginning in his 20s, sustaining his sharp, every-man perspective well into his 70s. He consistently charted singles beginning in 1963, although his last #1 song was 1987’s “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star.” Two years later, he logged his most recent top 5 hit with “A Better Love Next Time” in ’89. But his music lived in the Country arena, and that’s the venue which made him famous – even outside of it.
Today – and this is something that can probably be discussed at length another time – even his most defining music is rarely, if ever, played on Country radio and doesn’t come close to matching any of the current, aforementioned characteristics of the format. Haggard’s signature tunes predate the term “back in the day.” Hell, songs like “Silver Wings,” “Fightin’ Side Of Me,” and “Okie from Muskogee” were considered old school, classic cuts even “back in the day.” So, programmers hearing them on their high tech, 2016 version Country stations – even while respectfully paying tribute – had to feel a bit odd. Being a hard-core Hag fan myself, I don’t say that meaning disrespect to Haggard; I feel conflicted even thinking it, but I know it’s true. Nonetheless, whether it was longtime Country PDs or those new to the format, the reverence for – and understanding of – Haggard’s significance to Country radio ultimately prevailed … which is as it should have been.
Social media appears to have been an effective a way to address the significance of an artist like Haggard on a larger scale without dramatically changing the sound of the radio station. That said, Cumulus combo KPLX and KSCS/Dallas PD Mac Daniels also programmed tributes to Haggard. “On KSCS, I produced a :60 second music and interview montage highlighting the legendary status of Merle and his contributions to Country Music, and the fact that if it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have made it this far today,” Daniels told me. “To know where you’re going, you gotta know where you’re coming from. He set the bar high and is still an inspiration for Country music today and the future.” That played every 90 minutes, said Daniels. Clustermate KPLX (The Wolf) also had a :60 produced piece featuring a music and interview montage. “That ran in the hours we didn’t play a song. We played about a half dozen of his biggest songs with voiceover stagers to set them up. We rotated a Merle song in about every 90 minutes.”
Cumulus Country sister WNSH/New York connected the stars of today to Haggard, said PD John Foxx. “We played a bunch of audio from today's Country superstars sharing their thoughts about Merle and reading tweets, as well. Merle was so important to Country – we took the time to celebrate his legacy,” explained Foxx. “We did play some songs on Wednesday, and for the last 48 hours we played hook montages and some tribute clips.”
Of course, a big part of Haggard’s legacy was his role in furthering the Bakersfield sound for Country music. So naturally, KUZZ/Bakersfield – the station owned for years by the other architect of that sound, Buck Owens, which still remains in his family – played quite a bit of Haggard’s music, according to MD/Interim PD Brent Michaels. “We also let people share their stories, and even heard from the likes of Brad Paisley, Trace Adkins, Joe Nichols, Dwight Yoakam, and Jon Pardi, who all called in to the studio to share a Hag story,” Michaels explained, adding, “Sad day, but it was fantastic to realize what a hero he is to so many in our format.”
Similarly, Midwest Communications Corporate Country Brand Strategist Tom Baldrica, who works closely with the company’s Duke-FM brand that features a mix of 80s, 90s and 2000s music – and is a better match for Haggard music – was able to go deeper in tribute to the star’s passing. “Duke stations had special imaging pieces and salutes that started running about two hours after his passing,” said Baldrica. “Duke music logs were redone for Thursday (4/7) with additional Hag songs and imaging pieces.” Additionally, on his Radio USA show – available for stream 3-7p (CT) each weekday – Baldrica talked of Haggard’s passing, then followed up with “Mama Tried,” “Okie From Muskogee,” and Eric Church’s “Pledge Allegiance To The Hag.” Haggard songs were also played that evening and the following morning. Bonneville KYGO/Denver MD/Afternoon personality Brian Hatfield picked the same songs as Baldrica, while Alpha KUPL/Portland ran a sixty-second produced piece chronicling Haggard’s career, which was made available to other Country stations in the company.
Beyond terrestrial/local radio efforts, Satcaster SiriusXM was perhaps best equipped to dive deep into saluting Haggard, first going all-Merle on its “Willie Roadhouse” channel immediately following the news of Haggard’s passing – then completely renaming the channel “Merle’s Roadhouse” for a weekend of tributes, interviews, and special programming beginning Friday (4/8) at 6p (ET) through Sunday night (4/10).
Country Music Television aired a “CMT Remembers Merle Haggard” special the evening following his death, then offered up “All Merle, All Day” programming on Thursday (4/7). AXS-TV re-aired a Dan Rather chat with Haggard, then played a live Haggard show originally taped in 2004 from Billy Bob’s Texas. Syndicators were also quick to rally programming made available to local radio not nimble enough to create their own, with Benztown and Compass Media among those acting quickly. United Stations Radio Networks (USRN) shifted gears with its regular weekly show, “Rick Jackson’s Country Classics,” which was repackaged as "Sing Me Back Home: A Tribute To Merle Haggard" and is still available for a Saturday April 23rd and Sunday April 24th broadcast window. USRN EVP/Programming Andy Denemark told me that dozens of stations have already requested information about it.
The last icon that Country called its own, but who had a transcendent musical presence up until his death, was Johnny Cash, who passed in 2003. I remember similar, fitting tributes to what we saw last week for Haggard back then, including one on the Country station I programmed at the time. In fact, Cash’s aura and benchmark presence as a Country artist remains with us today, and I believe – or at least hope – Haggard’s will, too, as it seems just as worthy.
The signature, star-making, or defining music of artists like Cash and Haggard is frozen in time, unlike Country music, which keeps evolving, for better or worse (another debate for another time!). But in this case, I think Country radio, overall media in the format, and its program suppliers did all they could do to strike a balance between paying tribute to Haggard while remaining true to what they are today in 2016; remembering, as Johnny Chiang said, “We are still a Country station.”