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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

Luke Bryan country radio

Country radio powerhouse Luke Bryan performs at the iHeartRadio Festival in Austin.

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.”