Why Country Radio Still Matters

In this age of on-demand listening, terrestrial and satellite radio remain the key power players in making or breaking a star

Country radio powerhouse Luke Bryan performs at the iHeartRadio Festival in Austin. Credit: Bob Levey/Getty Images

In Luke Bryan's 2014 smash "Play It Again," magic happens when a girl's favorite hit of the day drifts across the airwaves and out of pickup truck speakers on a breathless Georgia summer night. Bryan's been waiting all evening to make his move, and his tan-legged crush has been waiting just as long to hear this one song until — here it is. She lights up, takes Bryan's hand and the pair dance and kiss through the fade-out. "Play it again," she says on repeat, and Bryan would if he could. "I'd give that DJ my last dime," he croons. But all he can do is keep "scannin' AM, FM, XM," desperately hoping for an encore.

Meta-radio singles are nothing new to pop music. Classic rock is rife with examples: Queen's "Radio Ga Ga," R.E.M.'s "Radio Song," Elvis Costello's "Radio Radio" and Rush's "The Spirit of Radio" are just a few that come to mind. Those are timeless tunes, to be sure, but doesn't the sentiment in "Play It Again" seem a little, well, antiquated in 2014? Since we know by the SiriusXM reference that the song isn't a period piece, in an era of Spotify streams, lyric videos proliferating on YouTube and high-speed Internet on Smartphones, there's no reason the girl in that country song should have to wait all night to hear her favorite jam. And yet, she does. Likewise, Bryan should have no problem queuing up the song on repeat to keep the sparks a-flyin', and yet, he doesn't.

The premise doesn't seem so ridiculous to Scott Borchetta. "[Fans' and artists'] relationship with country radio, it's still the Number One source of discovery in country music," the Big Machine Label Group CEO tells Rolling Stone Country. All Access Music Group country editor and veteran radio programmer R.J. Curtis echoes Borchetta. "From every piece of research that I've seen and reported on, it's still the most important methodology for an artist to get mass appeal," he says. "Country fans rely on radio to discover new music."

The numbers back up those claims. According to a 2014 study conducted by market research and media polling firm Edison Research, 75 percent of listeners discover new music on terrestrial radio, trumping SiriusXM (20 percent) and Spotify (18 percent). That's certainly true for country music. Per Nielsen, it is the "top national format among Millennials and Generation X'ers."

According to an April 2014 story in The New York Times: "Country has been one of radio's biggest success stories over the last decade. While the number of country stations has remained relatively stable over that time, at about 2,100, country's share of the audience has been gradually increasing, with about a 15 percent share among people 12 and up, according to Nielsen." In short, more people are listening to country radio stations.

Consider that fact and all requisite suspension of disbelief evaporates — in the face of technology, "Play It Again" tells a story that's still very much a part of American life. But for how long?

"I don't think decision makers on Music Row, in private, think that country radio is going to continue to matter in 10 or 20 years," muses Richard Lloyd, Associate Professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University.

This week, hundreds of program directors, station managers, media moguls and Music Row types — the broad brain trust and backbone of the country radio industry — will congregate in Nashville for the annual Country Radio Seminar. Over the course of three days of conferences and networking shindigs, minds will meet and try to figure out how, going forward as a format, they can prove Lloyd wrong on his proclamation. Or maybe they'll just congratulate one another on another year of singular success for a genre and format that's thriving at a time when so many others are withering on the vine.

In advance of this week's confab, Rolling Stone Country talked to a handful of country artists and industry insiders to get their take.

One thing visitors from the country radio industry can count on while in Nashville is some grand ole red-carpet hospitality. For country artists, big and small, and Music Row suits alike, it's in everybody's best interest to keep country radio's gatekeepers happy. Not just this week, but every day.

"We dedicated all of 2014 to radio," Scotty McCreery tells Rolling Stone Country. "This is a relationship business; it's all about folks being friends." Cultivating and maintaining those relationships paid off for McCreery; the 21-year-old 2011 American Idol winner's 2014 single "Feelin' It" cracked Billboard’s Country Airplay chart's Top 10.

Likewise, Chris Young has made visiting country radio stations a top priority. "We've been to every single radio station in the country at least once," he says, "and that adds up quick." Indeed it does. Young's had six Number One singles in his nine years on RCA Nashville.

"Radio is truly the reason I am allowed to do what I do," Chase Bryant, a new act on Red Bow Records, tells Rolling Stone Country. "They are the gatekeepers. Without country radio, you're not going anywhere. It's all kind of up to them sometimes."

Rising star Thomas Rhett agrees. "It's the most important relationship," he says, offering a glimpse of the hustle stars-in-the-making must go through on a daily basis at country stations across America.

"When you start out as an artist," he explains, "you get to basically go on this six-month radio tour and you are blindsiding these people, getting to go into their conference room with just you and a guitar and getting to play them three songs you think they should add to their radio cycle. It's amazing how they get to know us and believe in us and champion for us and allow us to have Number One songs."

Rhett recently notched his third consecutive Number One single with "Make Me Wanna," off his debut album It Goes Like This. If Rhett's success isn't proof enough of the power of radio, take it from Taylor Swift, who, known for gestures like handwriting personalized thank-you notes to DJs, told Esquire last October: "Country music teaches you to work . . . In Nashville, if you don't care about radio and being kind to the people who are being good to you . . . It's a symbiotic relationship, and if you don't take care of it, then they won't take care of you."

Though Swift identifies as a pop singer now, it's country radio that made her a superstar. While reaching her stratosphere of success might seem ambitious for country hopefuls like Rhett or Bryant, becoming bona fide arena headliners isn't such a lofty goal. Each spent the last couple years working their way up bills topped by the likes of Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Brantley Gilbert. Even in these, the music industry's darkest economic days, Nashville is producing dozens of relatively young arena headliners, including Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Jake Owen, Lady Antebellum and Florida Georgia Line, who headline a sold-out show at New York City's Madison Square Garden this week.

"Live Nation recently reported that audiences for its country concerts grew 50 percent last year to seven million," The New York Times noted in April 2014, "and the company said that it now views country as one of its two fastest-growing genres, along with electronic dance, the hot youth trend of the moment."

Meanwhile, talk about the amount of rock acts that are able to fill an arena in 2015 and you're in for a very short conversation — you can count the number of non-legacy, contemporary arena-level rock stars on one hand.

"Rock as a format has suffered," Mike Moore, program director for Portland, Oregon, country station KWJJ/99.5 the Wolf, tells Rolling Stone Country. "There isn't a home for new rock, if you will. At least there aren't as many homes or places of exposure. That's why you've had people like Sammy Hagar and some of these other old rock performers attempt to cross over to country."

Despite being household names, Hall of Famers in some cases, even rock stars of Hagar's vintage should count on courting country radio and playing the promo game if they want to cross over successfully. Veteran industry mogul and former senior vice president of promotion at Sony Music Nashville Skip Bishop, who spent years building his career in the pop/rock world before moving over to Music Row, tells Rolling Stone Country that the willingness to fully submit to the country radio hustle is what sets country stars apart from rock stars. "The [country] artists are absolutely engaged with their radio stations and [have] no hesitation in doing what they need to do to continue those partnerships," he explains. "There is an understanding, and a respect and appreciation between the artist, label and the radio station that is not duplicated in any other format. It feels a bit like they all understand it's a level playing field — you've gotta have one to have the other to have the other."

One thing country's stadium- and coliseum-filling stars — from recent graduates Bryan and Aldean to veterans like Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney — have in common is they all arrived at that point by way of radio airplay. And most wouldn't have gotten that airplay were they not on a major label. In that sense, country radio and the Music Row machine are the last stronghold of the old music business, where major labels and terrestrial radio can launch superstars who go platinum with first-week sales, and fresh faced-singers can work up from clubs to arenas in a matter of a few record cycles.

"If those three chains don't play your records, you won't have a hit."

In 2015, there are only three major labels: Universal, Sony and Warner Music Group. Likewise, the vast majority of America's major terrestrial radio stations are owned by one of three near-monolithic broadcasting conglomerates: Cumulus Media, CBS Radio and iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel), companies that have much more direct pipelines to major labels than indies, let alone unsigned artists.

"If those three chains don't play your records, you won't have a hit," Curb Records chief Mike Curb tells Rolling Stone Country. "And today there isn't any real firewall between radio and [major labels] . . . There are weeks when a company like Universal can have half the records on the chart. It's an environment now. I mean, we've really, really been let down by our government."

Curb remembers the days a large independent label like his competed against a behemoth like Universal on a level field, without having to buy in and become one of its subsidiaries. "[Now] you couldn't count the number of record labels that are owned by Universal," he says.

Curb also remembers when getting shut out by one broadcast company didn't potentially mean getting dropped off the playlists of dozens upon dozens of nationwide stations at a time. "Today it's a lot more complex," he explains. "It used to be one owner could only own seven radio stations. Now you've got three companies owning most of the radio stations."

As of the week of February 28th, of the 30 artists with singles on the Billboard Country Airplay chart, 29 are on major labels, major label partners or major label subsidiaries. Lee Brice stands as the only artist on the chart from an independent label, recording for Curb Records. (While Big Machine and Broken Bow Records are also technically independents, they have partnerships with Universal and Sony respectively. )

And if the younger artists topping the Airplay chart want to keep their record deals, they better hope and pray they stay in programmers' favor to keep getting spins on radio. "If you're not on country radio, you don't exist," Sony Music Nashville Chairman and CEO Gary Overton told The Tennessean last week. Look no further than (former) RCA Nashville up-and-comers Love and Theft for a cautionary tale that backs up Overton's words.

In 2012, the duo scored a Number One with their wistful country-rocker "Angel Eyes." Three years later, after three subsequent singles stalled before cracking the Top 30, the band was dropped from Sony. Now, by Overton's metric, they don't exist. Or rather, by country radio's rubric, they don't exist. At least not to radio listeners.

In a Rolling Stone Country story on the situation published earlier this month, Love and Theft's Stephen Barker Liles recalled how the rise of bro country may have contributed to them losing their RCA deal. Yet many believe the swaggering, Fireball-shooting sub-genre is on its way out.

"The bro country thing worked for a couple years and helped advance the format and bring new listeners in," says Curtis, "and I think we'd be kidding ourselves if we didn't think some songwriters purposefully moved it in that direction, and artists, too."

Curtis explains that, while bro country is still a hit with fans, internally within the industry, programmers are growing tired of the genre and its broad, populist tropes. "The real fatigue on it," he says, "has been with [radio] programmers and the people who have to listen to it a lot and evaluate it — the air personalities and the program directors. The people who aren't really sick of it are the listeners."

But part of the programmers' job as gatekeepers is to be ahead of trends, when they're rising and when they're falling. And if country radio's hive-mind is growing as cynical of bro country as its critics, the way the tea leaves are reading doesn't bode well for the still-stadium-packing sub-genre. "As we look at 2015, I think we're entering into a period where we're not going to see a lot of that [bro country] stuff anymore," Curtis says. "I think everybody is trying to be aware of that [paradigm shift] — they're trying to see what else is coming down [the pike] and what else could be successful for them."

Curtis offers a reminder that, by the mid-Nineties, country radio started cannibalizing itself with Class of '89 knockoffs in a similar fashion. "There were a lot of copycat artists," he recalls. "And I think that's what got the format into a lot of trouble back then. Artists were trying to cut songs that really weren't who they were. It made the format seem cliché and just not very real."

Mike Moore remembers a similar climate of cynicism brewing among programmers in the mid-Aughts, as country radio burned itself out on post-9/11 patriotic anthems, beachy party ditties and shout-outs to the man upstairs. "We used to joke and say, 'Geez, if you could write a song with some sort of patriotic overtone, something about soldiers, and maybe they were on a beach somewhere fighting for God, we'd have a hit record,'" he recalls, making a comparison to bro-country fatigue. "Has the theme of pickup trucks and red-dirt roads and hot-looking girls in painted-on jeans, has that been overdone a bit in our format? Absolutely.

"Whenever we get into a theme like that," he goes on, "what happens typically is that the format drifts back to more traditional values — songs about life and things that are meaningful. This particular cycle, bro country, is coming to an end and we'll be on to the next thing. But my guess is that whatever direction we ultimately go will slide back more to the center, which is traditional values."

In the case of Love and Theft, having four singles in three years fail to gain traction on radio and thus perform poorly on the charts wasn't for lack of trying. "For the last two years, we have done a lot of radio shows," says Liles of the festivals and guitar pulls that radio stations regularly sponsor. "We really committed to that. We were on the road 250 days last year, I think." In many markets, those efforts paid off. "Three or four markets in the country, we're [one] of their biggest artists," the duo's Eric Gunderson tells Rolling Stone Country. "We go there and can play to 15,000 people and go to another market and you sell 250 tickets. It's amazing what kind of effect radio does have on your ticket sales."

But there weren't enough of those top-draw markets to move Love and Theft into the stratosphere, which is clearly the level of success that interests major labels. And going up against iHeartMedia's model, where a program like The Bobby Bones Show broadcasts across 80 markets a day — giving it the power to make overnight sensations of any artist it puts in heavy rotation — major labels aren't going to necessarily be as motivated to stick it out with a mid-level artist, who must win over programming directors one city at a time. Especially when many of those stations and their programmers take their cues from the suits or play it safe by sticking with trends. "It's become very corporate now," says Liles. "A lot of these guys don't have much say anyways — a lot of program directors, they're trying to keep their job."

Though Love and Theft still have a major label distribution deal with Sony's Red Distribution, without the muscle of RCA behind them, the uphill battle for radio spins is only bound to grow steeper. Even still, Liles and Gunderson are happy to play ball. Because where exactly does a band go when they make radio-friendly music but terrestrial radio monoliths aren't all that friendly to them? "We're never going to stop promoting to radio," Liles says, "because we know how important it is. And we have a lot of good friends there. I had three or four radio guys at my wedding."

But not every artist that's been spit out of the major label and country radio wood-chippers is as eager to get back in the game. Take for example Ray Scott, who left Warner Music Nashville in 2006. Along with producer Dave Brainard, he's now a partner in the label deciBel Nashville. "I don't worry about radio," Scott tells Rolling Stone Country. "The big radio game is not necessarily one I try to play because I'm not a major label — even if I spent the same amount of money as the major label people, it's still political."

Luckily, Scott's found success through another channel — satellite radio.

"Sirius has been huge for me," he says. "[Satellite country station] the Highway is largely responsible for my moving over 300,000 units on iTunes. After a while you learn to play on your strengths and realize your weakness and find a side door."

According to Skip Bishop, exposure platforms like the Highway and tech and viral venues like YouTube and Shazam are more than just a side door. They're becoming an influential barometer for terrestrial radio, taking the place of more traditional, and less accurate, yardsticks like call-out research that audience-tests emerging artists.

"Yes," says Mike Moore, "there are certainly streaming services, Pandora, file sharing and everything else that has taken its place in the entertainment landscape for people, but I think radio still plays a very important role in that."

"Several years ago, we didn't have YouTube, we didn't have the streaming sites, we didn't have one big, powerful thing called SiriusXM," Bishop says. "The Highway in some ways is as important to breaking country artists as MTV was in the Eighties to rock and pop. The beautiful part of it is, to a really savvy record executive, you can go to the streaming services and to SiriusXM and you can find out if you have a hit record before you go out and test your relationships at terrestrial radio.

"You can only ask for so many favors, and you can only get so many marginal records played before your calls aren't returned as often [at radio]," Bishop goes on. "Now we've got this system where SiriusXM alone can show you if you're getting traction on a breaking band. Really savvy programmers, both on the satellite side and on the [terrestrial] side, are looking at streams and sales over call-out research."

Call-out research is essentially phone polling, where stations outsource marketing researchers to call random samplings of radio listeners, play them 40- to 90-second snippets of songs and then ask focus-group-style survey questions. Do they love the song? Like the song? Would they buy it? It's a less-than-exact science. The results on Sirius and YouTube are more tangible, however, and the stakes aren't as high.

"Listening to the Highway is like listening to country radio in 3D," Bishop says, "because they can afford to take more chances, because their ratings system is different — they need subscriptions, where terrestrial radio is dependent on [Portable People Meter ratings] and Arbitron; they have to be playing familiar artists and big names and familiar songs."

The Highway programs a mix of big-box hitters alongside cherry-picked cuts by lesser-known, unknown or even unsigned country commodities. In that sense, SiriusXM senior director of country music programming John Marks has become an influential tastemaker (contemporary country music's answer to John Peel, if you will). The Highway helped Ray Scott move 300,000 tracks on iTunes, with more than 200,000 of those for his 2013 single "Those Jeans," which Marks championed. The station is also more than partially responsible for breaking Florida Georgia Line and making "Cruise" a ubiquitous mega-hit.

"[The listeners] want to hear the hits, yes, of course, and we play the hits," Marks told Rolling Stone County in January. "But a large reason of why they're tuning in to SiriusXM is for the curation of new music, us helping them understand what new music is out there and suggesting songs they may want to hear."

If the Highway prevails in setting the tone for what makes it into the country radio pipeline, it could open up the floodgates for some welcomed sonic diversity in country music. It's similar to how MTV about-faced from hair-metal homogeneity in the Eighties to setting a tone of relentless eclecticism in the alt-rock-embracing Nineties. Observe examples like neo-R&B-informed star Sam Hunt or Eric Church, whose 2014 LP The Outsiders slowly and steadily climbed to platinum status on the heels of four singles that sound nothing alike, and it seems that the country train is already chugging down the tracks in that direction.

"You talk about the rock format not having a home anymore," says Moore, "well, it's alive and well with Eric Church on country radio. He sort of broke the [bro country] formula and had success."

Even bro country, formulaic and maligned as it may be, ushered new sounds to the airwaves and imprinted hip-hop DNA on pop country. And while the prospect of country radio diversifying its sonic palate is cause for optimism, some insiders see things going the other way.

R.J. Curtis says that programmers are telling him the format will move back toward a more "traditional" country music sound, to a time when big ballads ruled the airwaves and country singers didn't try to rap. "When [the format] expands," he explains, "you get a lot of this growth from the outside — pop sounds, rock sounds. Bro country had its own thing; we'd never heard that before. And then as it contracts, it goes back to the middle and you get inside-out growth, and I think that's really good for the format." Curtis offers up Chris Young, Randy Houser, Thomas Rhett and Mo Pitney as examples of more traditional country singers primed to shine if such a shift occurs. "He's Keith Whitley reincarnated," Curtis says of young artist Pitney.

But Bishop sees a different forecast. "I think that people are trending towards programming their stations with more diversity and a little bit more aggression," he says.

In 2015, that leaves country music at a dividing line between courting an older demographic or a younger one. Will country radio narrow its focus back to tradition, even as the format attracts new young listeners who continue to widen the margins?

"Middle-class white people are buying rap and they're buying country," Richard Lloyd observes. "Where the cleavage is happening is age, and also gender, because, at least until recently, the perception has been that 'the boys wanna listen to rock.' But the listeners [of country radio] are women. And if you look at what's advertised, it's pretty clear.

"What I've been told again and again over the years is that the ideal country radio listener is, like, a 35-year-old dental assistant living in [the suburbs]," Lloyd continues. But, he attests, that reality is changing and cites edgier artists like Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark as singers who have caught the ear of younger, more open-minded Millennials — for whom, as it's been pointed out above, country is the top national format. "[Country radio] is clearly trying to figure out a way to reach a younger audience," Lloyd says, "to reach the download generation.”

But discussing Musgraves and Clark — neither of whom have had a major radio hit — brings up another concern facing Music Row: Will country radio solve its women problem and put more females on the other side of the dial? The experts are optimistic that it will.

"My gut is this," says Bishop, "I think it's going to be the next trend. [If] women don't work at country radio, then tell me why artists as different as Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift [worked]. We're going to see a trend coming in the next year or so of more female artists on the radio. This is just from programmers that I've talked to, who are looking for the next female to break."

"Everybody's chasing a female star," agrees Moore, "because there is the perception, I think, within certainly the label community that there aren't any really successful females breaking out. I don't know that radio, like the record community, is out there searching for the next female, going, 'OK, we really have a dearth of females here, so we've got to fill that hole.' I'm sure if you talked to some of my fellow [CMA] board members who are in the label community, they would say [radio is] absolutely resistant to females. I would argue the opposite: We just haven't found any that are super compelling over the last few years, but I do think there are some new [female] acts that are pretty exciting." He cites Texas singer Mickey Guyton and "Girl in a Country Song" duo Maddie & Tae as examples.

"A lot of people are saying this could be the year of the female," says Curtis. "I think the format is ready for it; I think programmers want it; I think listeners want it. It's time."

Additional reporting by Joseph Hudak and Marissa R. Moss.