We Get Letters, And We Read Stuff
September 15, 2016
Here’s a potpourri of feedback/observations from last week’s “Theory Of Everything” column:
“If you treat Country as if it’s CHR from Nashville, you’re making a mistake.”
That’s the gist of a just-published blog from the gang at Integr8 Research titled “Why Country isn’t CHR.” It’s a fantastic read, and one I found especially timely, given my column last week, “The Theory Of Everything.” I touched on superstar singles going in and out of the Mediabase Country singles chart in short order – sometimes less than 15 weeks – versus most of the others that spend the better part of a year on the charts.
Near the end, remember that WJVC/Nassau, NY PD Phathead said Country has been trying as hard as possible to act like Top 40 – something which he feels is not sustainable. And I said what I’ve repeated here so many times: Country is a burn it IN format. Well now, the Integr8 blog supports that – and Phathead’s assertion – with some interesting data based on streaming behavior.
They found it typically takes 13 weeks for Country listeners to warm up to a new song. So, if you move songs out to recurrent before 13 weeks, you’re not giving them enough time to grow. Is this a possible contributor to what I found when examining past #1 hits and the lack of follow-up airplay? Remember, of the past 80-something #1 songs on Mediabase, in a given week, 62 showed fewer than 2000 cumulative spins from the 159 Mediabase reporting panelists.
Citing data that shows Top 40 listeners are sick of songs once they’re between 20-28 weeks old, Integr8 says that’s typically when songs are past their prime in that format and moved out of current rotation. But in Country, that’s just about the time listeners are most into hit songs. “Fifty five percent (55%) of the Top 10 most-streamed Country songs are between 13- and 36-weeks-old,” says the blog, "compared to Top 40, where the most-streamed songs are between 8-24 weeks old.” Integr8 used the Billboard Top 10 Country streaming songs chart over a 26-week period to make their conclusions, and to the above point about an older vintage needed for familiarity on Country songs, found several specific examples: Eric Church’s “Like A Wrecking Ball” didn’t drop out of the Top 10 Country streaming chart until it was 31 weeks old. Billy Currington’s “Don't It” stayed Top 10 until it was 39 weeks old. Kelsea Ballerini’s “Love Me Like You Mean It” was Top 10 all the way until its 42nd week on the charts.
Their conclusion: “If you’re automatically moving Country songs out of your current categories at 26 weeks, you’re moving songs when listeners still want to hear them a lot.” Check out the entire blog here. It’s the first of a three-part series, with a look at recurrent next week.
“It’s Not The Music, It’s A Usage Problem”
That was the feedback to last week’s ‘Ville from Ed Hill, VP/Programming and Operations for the four-station Kroenke Sports Entertainment Radio/Denver cluster, which includes Country KWOF. Hill was talking specifically about Country’s 18-34 slide year-to-year, which has been going on for most of 2016 – although remember, I pointed out that Country is just .03 off its 47 month average of 9.1.
Several programmers told me they believe Country is in a down music cycle right now, and that has affected 18-34 shares. Hill doesn’t see it that way. “I think the 18-34 thing doesn’t have anything to do with music,” he said as we chatted this week. “They’ve just left radio, period. You look at the first generation of kids who grew up almost-fully on messaging plans, and they’re 25, 26, 27 now, right? Then you have the generation below them which is totally digital. And then the generation after that that’s growing up now – preteens. They’re massively non-broadcast audio. So I don’t think the music has anything to do with it. I think it’s usage.”
The music, says Hill “is freakin’ awesome. I love what’s coming out. I have no problem with Pop Country music, as long as you don’t try to pass it off as Country.” The issue goes beyond usage, too, adds Hill: “This is just the evolution of the digital age. Radio is relying too much on the standard old thinking and familiarity. I think that’s all gone. Every programmer in America has got to rethink it. They need to take a year off, like I did, and really listen and see what’s out there; what they’re going to find is that it isn’t the same world at all.”
Radio Let This Happen
Since I apparently went on a blog-reading binge, I also happened to stumble across one from veteran Pop programmer Mark Edwards, most recently Dir./Music Technology with CUR Media, whose latest piece is “Radio Again Marginalized By New Technology.” In it, Edwards shares observations similar to Hill, while describing how radio is no longer the source for severe weather warnings, school closings, snow days, and other local notifications. Instead, that information is conveyed directly via phone text, push notifications, and social media based on zips or geolocations, in a way that recipients define for themselves in our on-demand world.
Said Edwards: “It makes me both sad and angry that the radio industry, to a certain extent, LET all of this happen. While radio was concerned with using websites and apps primarily as another revenue stream or place for bonus spots, keeping everything that was said on the air pithy so as not to anger the PPM, getting HD radio in every car, and putting FM chips in phones, broadcasters blindly allowed those who really did understand how to communicate in the 21st century and benefit consumers subvert their position as the place to find out important, sometimes life-saving, local information. To many ‘regular people,’ it doesn’t matter if they’re holding a transistor radio or iPhone in their hand, as long as they’re getting a benefit they need at that moment from the device. And, as a rule in 2016, radio doesn’t always deliver information as quickly or with as much detail as the right app, text alert, or email is capable of doing.”
Edwards also points out that nowhere on the agenda at next week’s NAB Fall Radio Show in Nashville is there any session on, “how to fend off new methods of information delivery and keep listeners tuned to their radios rather than their phones, tablets, and computers.” Wait – “fend off” phones, tablets, and computers? Really? I mean, good luck with that. I’ll believe in the power of radio ‘til the day I die – and yes, Edwards is 100% spot on that somewhere on the front end of this technological revolution we’re living in, radio had its priorities a tad sideways. (HD radio? A ginormous waste of time. Was that not my inside voice?) But I don’t think radio did anything egregiously wrong that could possibly have slowed down the reliance on and obsession with that little gadget that hundreds of millions of smartphone owners seem to have. At the risk of going to a catchall phrase, the iPhone and tablet explosion “is what it is” – an undeniable, man-made movement unto itself. Sorta like, oh … the printing press, industrial revolution, steam engine, and electricity.
What Radio Said
I also wanted to share some of the feedback on “The Theory of Everything” that came from programmers in the trenches, who live the challenges of supply and demand, push weeks, and demographic shifts day in and day out. Here are a few comments I saw on Facebook after the piece was shared:
Cumulus Country KIIM/Tucson PD/afternoon personality Buzz Jackson: “It drives me crazy when, in an average week, 47 of 50 songs on the chart have a bullet. That's not reality – that's songs that otherwise would have been dead a month ago being propped up by last minute spins on Saturday so they stay alive another week in the hopes that ‘this’ will be the week it breaks out. That doesn't benefit anyone. We need shorter playlists and the guts to say no.”
Owens Broadcasting Country KUZZ/Bakersfield PD Brent Michaels: “It's the biggest challenge for any programmer... How to navigate through what is out there and try to invest in what will still be in Gold in five years. There are just so many imprints, singles, and artists – and that's not a bad thing. There is a lot of genuine talent in Country music, but it takes a while for listeners to find and appreciate something. I agree one million percent about the format trying to find a signature sound. Not that music should all sound the same, or not evolve – in fact, the opposite. Where people scanning on the dial land on us, and know they've hit a Country station.”
Former Townsquare/Yakima, WA OM and Country KDBL PD Rik Michaels (who just transferred to the company’s Tri-Cities, WA cluster): “The format has been called a ‘from birth to death’ format, and that's a HUGE expectation from everyone, critics included. You can't please everyone, and that's the core of the issue. Country is the least fragmented of all the formats, and mainstream Country is still the overall preference. That's why stations are on top of each other. Too young, hard to win; too old, hard to win. Straight down the middle seems to be the format. It's what the majority of the audience seems to accept. Who buys the music and influences the wave? The young end of the format, while the grumpy older end complains about the good old days. Terrestrial radio has to serve the masses, and the wave ebbs and flows. We go lean when product is weak and expand when stronger, but the musical doldrums will always be there. All we can do as a programmer is be good shepherds and manage the flock.”