June 30, 2015
An interesting thing happened to Clay Hunnicutt during his Power Player interview. Around the same time he was discussing the pertinent issues surrounding Country music and radio from his perch as EVP and GM/National Programming Platforms at iHeartMedia, a new challenge and opportunity came his way. Soon to be the new President of Big Loud Records, Hunnicutt can now look at his business life, as Joni Mitchell once sang, from "both sides now."
Before we discuss your perspective on Country music and radio, what made you decide to join Big Loud and what do you hope to accomplish there?
It's a great opportunity to do something different with a great group of people, who will try to create some dynamic music and see if we can make a difference. We're going to be looking for unique artists who will push the envelope a bit. When you've got people as experienced as Big Loud partners Seth England, Joey Moi, Craig Wiseman and Kevin "Chief" Zaruk, to work with those four guys to try create something dynamic musically and otherwise, it's a great opportunity that I wanted to go try.
What's your overall take on Country radio? Is it still peaking or has it reached a certain plateau?
It's still doing great. Every format is a bit cyclical, depending on the quality and timing of the music, things like that, but we're still were not seeing this format cool in any way, especially in the summer, which brings on a lot of new releases and stadium tours that, at the end of the day, shows that Country is as strong as it has ever been - and it will continue to be that way. I'm not worried about the entire format cooling off; it just continues to grow ratings on stations across the country. Of course there will be soft spots - individual stations that need work - but that is all part of the ebb and flow within the format. Overall, we're very engaged and positive about the format, and I don't see it slowing down any time soon.
Target demo-wise, where do you see the format headed?
I still think this format is very good at attracting anyone from 8 to 80. Go to any show, be it Kenny Chesney, Eric Church or Sam Hunt, and you'll see who they bring to the format. Country music that started out in the fringes is now mainstream and crossing over to other formats. Those are the kind of kind things that will continue to see this format grow and flower. All these new Country artists will prompt the established Country stars to be interested in pushing the envelope and go beyond what they're supposed to do; they'll only continue to get better and continue to have mainstream appeal. That makes for a very wide variety of music for Country radio stations because in the end, you expand in the fringes. And you will see a load of great new albums come out in September and October before the holiday shutdown. I'll be interested to hear what Luke Bryan and Carrie Underwood have on their next album, as well as Zac Brown and several other artists who are working on new projects.
There seems to be a debate among those who believe Country radio is shifting more 18-34-centric, and those who believe it is headed for a split, with two targets - 18-34s and 35-54s. Where do you stand on that?
We've got to find a nice sweet spot in the middle of that. But the target demo can be different for every station; every market has a different dynamic. The target demos for Country stations in Milwaukee and Minneapolis can be quite different than what they are in Austin or San Antonio, or in Phoenix or Atlanta. They're all fighting different battles, too. One station's big competitor could be the Hot AC in the market; the other could be a direct Country rival. Sometimes the audience wants more of a gold-based playlist, while a station in another market caters to listeners who want almost nothing but currents. It's a case-by-case basis. A radio station's decision to program for a target audience can also be dependent on it being an insurgent, the new station in town that targets young listeners, or it being a heritage station that's protecting its turf. It all depends.
Where does Classic Country fit into the mix?
Classic Country does very well when it's programmed very well. I guess it depends on what you call Classic Country these days. I know Cumulus does NASH Icon and has had some success with that; whether it's a long-term mainstream format, we'll see, but no one has proven anything yet.
The definition of Classic Country is changing. To some people, Classic Country is Merle and George, Tammy, Dolly and others. To others it's the late '80s-'90s stuff, with a lot of Alabama. There are some great songs that are 30 years old that a lot of the younger end of the Country audience have never heard. Each type of Country audience has their own vision of Classic Country. There's no hard line in the sand. KJ 97 in San Antonio and K102/Minneapolis offer different kinds of gold because their audiences want different things. KJ's audience is a little more gold-based, because that's what works there.
Is there "a line in the sand" when it comes to recurrents?
No, it's not a one-size-fits-all thing. It depends on the record, the research we see on it and the audience reaction. Some songs come on fast, burn fast and just go away. Other songs would get hot, hardly burn at all, and be here five years from now. We look at every song individually and take into account what the listeners are telling us in the research data.
Speaking of research, how do you view the brouhaha that erupted after consultant Keith Hill described female artist records on Country radio as "tomatoes in the salad?"
I don't agree or necessarily subscribe to that philosophy. I don't believe in such blanket statements. Hits are hits and they'll always find their way to the listener through the radio. It doesn't matter who's singing or doing it. There are tons of females involved in hit records. The thing I get most frustrated about is the majority of time, when people talk about the subject, they're only talk about solo female artists such as Miranda. But they don't talk about female-led acts such as the Band Perry, Little Big Town, Sugarland, Lady A, Maddie and Tae, and Thompson Square. There are all kinds of great female vocalists in those groups that people don't talk about at all. They only want to deal with solo females, but that shouldn't mean that female artists aren't strong or important to the format. There are plenty of them in the format, from established stars to up-and-comers. In fact, Bobby Bones just did a "Week of Women" special for his morning show.
So you haven't seen or don't agree with research that confirms Hill's contention that female records in general don't test as well?
Listeners will tell you a lot of things from different angles. We use social media for research and do lot of research on what they like and don't like. We also have the format's brand managers and coordinators as well as our own research; we look at stuff such as what they're buying, what's hot and what's coming up. It's what the Bell Curve is really about.
Speaking of Bobby Bones, iHeartMedia has been breaking him out nationally via syndication. Is everyone on the iHeart team pleased with the results so far?
Considering when Bobby Bones launched, I believe he's far ahead of game where we thought he'd be. He has done a great job adjusting the show to make sure it hits their targets. All of the key members of the show work very hard. "The Raging Idiots" have gone on the road for fundraisers; it's amazing to see how successful the show already is throughout the country.
In terms of how much he's syndicated, iHeart will take it market by market. There's no maximum number of stations or markets. The show will go wherever it fits a need for the market, such as a something to help a start-up station. Sometimes, he'll fit better with a heritage station. Again, it's not a "one size fits all" situation.
How is new talent developed at iHeartMedia? Does corporate put a concerted effort into on-air talent development - or is that done on the station level?
It's a two-pronged effort. The local market is responsible for finding air talent and coaching it on a day-to-day basis. On top of that, iHeartMedia works very hard as a company to give them the resources and continue to help coach them up through feedback, monitoring, best practices and trends. Dennis Clark leads the talent coaching division; he's one of best I've ever seen. They're seeing what works and providing the resources to the PDs, who talk to each other all the time. They share that resource with others with the same mindset. In the end, you've got to have both - a local effort from the PDs responsible for talent on a daily basis, and corporate for giving them the additional resources to effectively coach them up.
iHeart recently held its Country Music Fest in Austin: Will it continue to be a stand-alone show or will it eventually be folded back into the big show in Las Vegas?
It's going to continue to be its own stand-alone show. This is the second year it has been held, and it will continue to build iHeart's brand in Country, the company's biggest format, with 140 Country stations. New stations are growing in Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, Sacramento and Raleigh, and iHeart will continue invest heavily in the brand, and continue to dominate Country and grow in markets.
You stage On The Verge and World Premier programs: What's the process for selecting On The Verge and World Premier records?
An On The Verge record is based on an aggregate score and judgment of PDs in the local markets. The worst thing you can do is take something PDs don't believe in, and have it chosen by a "one and only voice." On The Verge records in every format are chosen as a group to create an "all hands in the middle" agreement and belief in the artist and song. The best song wins - a simple and pure decision.
That's the point of On The Verge -- to get a brand new artist off to a really fast start and break their record. iHeartMedia needs new hits as much as the artists and labels want new hits; iHeart needs great artists as much as they want them. The whole process helps expose great new music to the public.
The World Premiere program is for more established acts who have new singles that nobody has heard yet. They can be anyone from Zac Brown and Luke Bryan to Mumford & Sons. This is done in a lot of formats because to most people, radio is still the #1 new music discovery mechanism in the world. There's nothing better for a local radio station than have a stake in helping get both new and established artists' music to the masses.
Finally, how do you look at your career and what you still will want to accomplish?
I've been doing this for 27 years, and iHeartMedia has been the best media company in the world. The opportunities I have been afforded have come from working hard and having a lot of people believe in me along the way The difference is that at iHeart, it starts at top, with Bob Pittman and Rich Bressler encouraging people to speak up and out, to recommend things to do differently, and to come up with new ideas on big events. Anytime you have that kind of megaphone and opportunity with your bosses, with such an open door policy where the best idea wins, you produce your best work. You'll have more opportunities to grow and do more. A lot of people throughout this company have gotten the opportunity to move up and take on more responsibilities. I've been right there with them. I started out as an unpaid intern in college. To make it where I am today speaks incredibly well about iHeartMedia.
Anything you do should be an educational process. You're constantly learning all the time. I learned things as a production director, as a program director, an operations manager, a senior vice president and an executive vice president. Now I'm sure I will continue to learn like I've learned in past. There will be many new things to discover in the adventure that's Big Loud Records. Everything is a learning process in life. More great people will be entering my life to give me the opportunity to do something great. I'm just as excited about where this story is going as I was at US 101 when I started my career, as I was with the iHeart team for 27 years and now with my new partners at Big Loud.