July 12, 2011
Few people are more deserving of being called a Power Player in our business than "the most listened-to radio voice in Country music history," Bob Kingsley. After working at stations such as KFOX, KGBS, KFI and KLAC/Los Angeles, Kingsley started producing "American Country Countdown" in 1974 and took over as host four years later. During Bob's tenure, the show was named Billboard's Network/Syndicated Program of the Year award no fewer than 16 times. Since 2006, Bob has been host and executive producer of Bob Kingsley's Country Top 40, in association with Dial Global Radio Networks on stations around the world. The ACM National Broadcast Personality of the Year in 2007, Kingsley was inducted into the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame in 1998. And he's far from finished; here he offers his unique perspective of Country ... then and now.
What did you get into first ...Country music or radio?
Actually, radio came first. It had nothing to do with Country music. I was in the Air Force, stationed in Iceland. I always loved radio, but I never thought about being part of it. Then someone said the AFRS station was looking for an announcer and that I should try out. I did; I went in and cut some copy that day, left and never thought about it. Several days later they called and said I was now in Special Services ... and all of a sudden I was in radio.
Safe to say, I had no idea what I was doing - and no one was there to tell me what I should be doing. I was announcing for a while, practicing every night. After I left the Air Force, I eventually went into radio because I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do. At that point, I didn't care what the format it was; I just wanted to get on a station so I could talk about music and play records ... Eventually I ended up at KEEN in San Jose -- and that's when Country music got a hold of me.
Describe what Country radio was like in Los Angeles in the '60s and '70s. How was it different from what was being played in Nashville and Country's home base in middle America and the south?
It wasn't all that different from what everybody else was doing. There weren't all that many Country stations at the time. I pretty much played what I wanted to play. Sure, there were a few hits in the rack that we had to play, but mostly we could play whatever we wanted. While there were regional hits, overall there were a lot more similarities with what Nashville was playing than not. Diversity was the key then ... and it still is today
When you took over American Country Countdown, did you want or consider doing anything different than the preceding host?
Oh yeah, absolutely. The show was pretty much a showcase for the previous host, so when I took over I decided to do what I had always have done, which was focus on the music and the artists. I always loved talking about the artists before playing their songs. I felt it was very important to connect the listeners to not just the song, but the artist. And I always believed that a great way to do that is by doing one-on-one interviews. So to make our Countdown special, I wanted to focus on the artists as much as possible.
I try to convince just one person why they should like this record and enjoy it. To me, it's like everybody else is just eavesdropping.
While every countdown show "plays the hits," you seem to place as great if not a greater emphasis on your one-on-one interviews. Do you feel that has set you apart from the rest?
Absolutely. When I was a jock, it was a matter of taking things off albums ... back in the days when you had extensive liner notes. That's certainly not the case today. We have to stay topical and the best way to do that is to have one-on-one interviews for every new album that has songs that make the Countdown.
With so many artists and releases, is it difficult deciding who to do each week?
No, because Rob Simbeck, our Nashville Bureau Chief, and I stay on top of it. Who they are really doesn't make any difference to me. If they make the top 40, then I need to talk to them. It doesn't make any difference if it's a superstar or a brand new artist.
After doing this for so long, what kind of things do you do to combat a feeling of routine, so you don't go through the motions?
You know, I don't need to do anything. This may sound a bit corny but I've got to tell you -- every time I turn on the microphone, it's a rush ... and it's always been that way from the first time I went on the air. Just to realize that I'm on the radio, this weekend ... it never gets old. In fact, it's like a brand new deal every single week ... and that's the truth!
How has the Countdown changed when radio went from reporting playlists and "paper adds" to monitored spins, or when the music industry adopted SoundScan?
In one sense, it's still the same thing. You get the top 40 every week and you play them. However, I have to say that what I love about Mediabase and BDS is that they take the "human error" out of it. These songs are all on the radio -- and that is hugely important. I believe in the accuracy of the numbers and that's what we get now ... and it's wonderful.
In terms of the time a record spends on the chart, it definitely moved faster than it does now. Back then a song would come and go in eight to 12 weeks. Now it takes them that long just to get started. One advantage to that is it gives the audience time to get familiar with the artists and their music.
Looking back, do you have personal favorites over the past 30-some years ... or do you look at the hits as parents look at their children?
You always have favorites, but my favorite song is whatever I feel like listening to that day. Anything from Johnny Cash to Jason Aldean.
It's kinda neat to look back and see how all these artists have exploded over the years. For me, it goes back to Waylon and Willie, then having seen Alabama before their RCA deal - boy, they were something and then they just exploded. I remember the very beginning of the careers of George Strait, Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw ... and then experiencing Shania, Garth, Toby Keith and of course, Brad Paisley, just to name a few. And for me, one of the best examples of perseverance is Blake Shelton. It's really been neat to watch.
Are there certain characteristics they all possess that enabled them to become so successful ... and how much of it was being at the right place at the right time?
Of course, you have to have the talent and the ability to perform, but you really need that one hit to break through. A great example is Neal McCoy. I saw him in the beginning of his career and I thought he was the greatest entertainer I had ever seen. I knew he was a hit away from making it. All that he needed was that hit ... and eventually he got it. It's always a joyful thing to see someone you like break through. Jack Ingram was the same way.
Are there any hits - novelty or otherwise - that surprised you at how successful they became?
A few. I remember record executive Shelby Singleton hyping me on this song called "Harper Valley PTA," and I told him it would never ever happen. I couldn't have been more wrong. Every decade has some hits like that. The same goes for artists. I don't think a whole lot of people figured Kenny Chesney would be as successful as he is today. He's a talented guy; a good guy who works hard and is a great singer. But the label really believed in him and that's what made the difference. It's really important that labels stay with their artists. It has been great to see how Kenny Chesney has become one of biggest stars in our business.
Having been a programmer and purveyor of hits for three decades, are the characteristics of a hit in Country radio today different than what it was in the '70s, '80s, etc. If so, what are the differences?
I don't know, other than "a hit is a hit." Certainly there are differences in the sound of Country over the years; the popularity of various styles shift and whenever a style shifts, some like it and some don't. Some people liked it when Country had more of a pop edge; others didn't. But when it comes down to it, "a hit is still a hit" - and Country music has never sounded better than it does today. There's great music out there, which makes it fun to do this thing every single week
Have you ever felt that Country was veering too close to the pop and/or rock mainstream?
It happens. What immediately comes to mind was the late '70s. It wasn't so much of a rock influence but a real pop influence. Yet 1980 and '81 came along with the likes of Ricky Skaggs, John Anderson, George Strait and Randy Travis. It all came back around. You can even get away with a little rock feel in the music and lyrics, but those who stray too far away from their roots almost always pay a price.
At that time, one of the best things to happen to Country was the Dixie Chicks. It's too bad about the firestorm they started, but they influenced a lot of artists by bringing a different sound from traditional Country; how contemporary they could sound with a banjo and dobro! Today, the hottest female in Country, Taylor Swift ... I see her walk out on stage with a banjo, so it's all there ... and all good.
Do you have any urge to program a station again? If not, why not?
(Laughs) Yes, it has crossed my mind. But then I remember when I was programming, I had one radio station with four to five jocks to deal with. That's basically all I had to take care of. That's pretty much unheard of today; there's a lot more work to do. The only way I could do it is to give up the Countdown -- and there's no way I'm going to do that, but it's still fun to think about.
Is this the type of a job that you can, pardon the phrase, "die with your boots on"? Can you ever see yourself retiring?
I gotta tell you, retiring has never crossed my mind. I'm still healthy ... and I'm having way too good a time to even think about that.