August 23, 2011
Doug Montgomery may not oversee operations Country radio's largest or most renowned markets, but his acumen and efforts impact Clear Channel Country stations nationwide. As the Mainstream Country Programmer for Clear Channel Premium Choice, Montgomery leads a stable of air personalities whoso goal is to achieve local success on a national scale. At the same time, Montgomery oversees the operations of CC Country stations in West Michigan. Here, he explains how he - and Country radio - has adapted to the times.
How long have you been involved in Country radio ...and how have the changes in the business and the music impacted the way you work?
I've been involved with Country music since 1987, which seems like a long time, but it still feels new to me. Then I remember how impressed I was with the music a new act like Restless Heart was making on the scene. Now they're being considered classic Country act.
As far as the people I am working with at Clear Channel, every day they amaze me. There are so many smart minds here. I am especially excited for the release of the new version of iHeartradio later this year.
What are the biggest changes you've seen in Country music and radio?
The whole mainstreaming of the music. It's no longer a niche to the Southern Bible Belt, NASCAR-loving territories of the U.S. We have a very successful Country station here in Grand Rapids; there didn't used to be one a true Country station here prior to the Garth Brooks era. They called it Country Plus with the Eagles and other non-Country core acts. Even though we've (Country stations) have been so successful, there are still too many people who have a preconceived notion that Country radio can only work in certain areas of the country - now, it certainly isn't true. To quote Brantley Gilbert, "Country must be countrywide."
Has the Country lifestyle changed as it has become more mainstream?
I don't think its values have changed. It's always been God, home and country ... even to the kids who listen to Taylor Swift, it's still God, home and country. Country is an inclusionary format; we want to have everyone enjoy our music and be willing to accept Country music across America
How has the Country radio and label relationship evolved over the years?
In the past, the great label reps were able to get their songs played ... and always get their new acts to the attention of radio programmers. That's still the case today; the great reps still get things done, but now more than ever, with the Internet and all the different types of marketing, it's easier for smaller labels be on a level playing field with the big labels. I think it's great for Country music, when acts are doing well from labels such as Stoney Creek and Broken Bow. That tells artists that they don't have to be part of some big conglomerate to get their records on Country radio.
When all these independent labels offer their product on top of what the big labels provide, that must make the demand for vacant slots on a Country station's playlist even more sought-after. As a programmer, how do you handle such a demand?
It still comes down to the art of knowing what songs fit where and what songs you have room for. It often depends on the competitive situation. Some places want to play a lot of new music; some places like songs with a lot of heavy banjo ... and some stations don't. It always comes down to knowing your market.
Certainly there are a lot more stations programming Country music today than there were in the past; I do believe Country is most-programmed music format in the country now, so obviously there is a lot of competition.
Do you program any differently when there's a direct-format rival than you would if there wasn't another Country station in town?
In terms of in-market rivals, I don't know who it was - Vince Lombardi or Mike Holmgren - but one of them said, "You can't coach the other team." You have to worry about yourself and not the competition. You can't worry about the other guys; just worry about what you're doing -- if you take care of your audience, cater to your community and your clients, you're going to have a successful radio station.
As the PD of Mainstream Country format for CC's Premium Choice, how do you find suitable talent - do they come to you, or do you go out looking for them?
We have people sending in demos and we recruit from the best of air staffs in America.
To be on our Mainstream Country channel, we're looking for consistent performance on a radio station; personalities who are ratings leaders, and those who have great content every day. We've got a superstar lineup, a veritable all-star team, with personalities such as Billy Greenwood from Nashville's WSIX; there's Joe Boxer from WMZQ; Michael J from WPOC/Baltimore, Kix Layton from Greenville and a killer staff doing weekends -- Chris Randolph from WAMZ/Louisville and Angie Ward from Greensboro are exceptional talents; not to mention Catfish Hunter from WFUS/Tampa. It's kind of like the Yankees, where everyone a superstar.
How does one develop a Premium Choice talent to do a national show yet sound local?
Ultimately, the great talents are great talents, no matter what market they're working in. And great content is great content.
From the advent of voicetracking to systems like Premium Choice, there have always been those who complain that the use of those systems shrinks the talent pool because the up-and-comers have fewer and fewer air shifts to hone their skills. What's your response?
There are still opportunities for people to do great things. I've got a kid at WBCT who has been in the business for less than two years ... his name is Bobby Bare, and he's building his career from scratch. He has worked his way up from board op to part-time, to full-time ... and now he's amongst the leaders in the Grand Rapids' cluster in regards to building a social media following - all the while he's doing a great job on-air. So there are still opportunities, but a lot of those opportunities look different - especially for those who can take the digital realm and team it with what they do on-air.
Do you believe all personalities today should have an out-of-the-box mentality when it comes to utilizing the digital platform?
It's not necessarily out-of-the-box, but parallel to their work on-air. To be sure, digital is very important now; when Sugarland had that stage issue in Indiana last week, we immediately had guys tweeting about it; we covered it on the web and talked about it on-air. That is the mentality you need to have.
It's all about Country content ... the best content and in this particular case, compelling content about Country music and stars who make it.
Are you at all concerned that the growing trend of AM spoken-word formats moving to FM frequencies may crowd out music stations, such as the second or third Country station in town?
No, we've done that here in Grand Rapids ... taken an AM Talk station put it on an FM ... and it's been an overwhelming success. It's just a new way to distribute content, so we don't think it's either good or bad. The bigger issue you have is people's time, which is always going to be limited. Again, we don't worry about other stations. I certainly don't worry about other stations when we're really competing against the phone, the TV and everything else. Consumers only have X amount of time, so when they do tune into us, I want to make sure always they always have a great time.
Without burning any bridges with your label friends, care to tell us who you favorite Country artists is?
I'm kinda biased because he's from West Michigan area, but I like new Warner Brothers act Frankie Ballard a lot. He's a great guitar player and great singer.
By now, can you tell almost immediately after hearing a new record whether it will be a hit?
In some ways, in that the songs that become popular seem to fit into the system. A question I always ask myself is, "Does this sound like I could hear this in the mix on our station?"
Considering all that's on your plate right now, are you always working in the moment, or do you have eyes on some future date where you can finally kick back and enjoy the fruits of your efforts?
This is a Peter Pan job to me, where it's like I don't ever have to grow up. I know there are a lot of people out there, in the 80-degree heat, digging ditches ... and we get to play music and share it with listeners. It's great doing this for a living, so why stop?