Country radio gathering on stable ground

March 2, 2005

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Wednesday, 03/02/05

Country radio gathering on stable ground


Industry worries over payola, ad sales and competition, but the decline in country's share of listenership has stopped

The downtown Convention Center will be alive with the sounds of country music this week as artists compete for the ears of 2,000 radio personnel.

They're in Nashville this week for the 36th annual Country Radio Seminar, the industry's biggest convention that draws together Music Row record labels and the radio programmers who put their music on the air.

The scene is set against a backdrop of radio industry concerns, including investigations into on-air content and claims of payola, declining advertising revenues, concerns over whether radio is ''local enough'' and recent cover stories in national magazines proclaiming that radio will fall victim to paid satellite radio services and digital music downloads.

But few of the radio folks here for three days of workshops, seminars and artist showcases believe that broadcasting Armageddon is at hand — at least not in country, which still is by far the most popular station format.

In fact, country's audience share has held steady in recent years after a period of decline in the mid-1990s.

''In the last few years it's been one of the more stable formats,'' said Stu Naar, executive vice president and director of research for Interep, an advertising sales and marketing firm specializing in radio. Interep represents about 1,800 stations.

Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming for Edison Media Research, said radio is walking through a minefield of issues, but it remains vitally important to the Nashville record industry.

''If radio does not have the potency it had 15 years ago, it still has the ability to put a record on the consumer agenda more than anyone,'' he said.

Shot of energy

Ross said the country format got a ''shot of energy'' last year from music by new artists such as Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich, and that could bring younger listeners to a format long viewed as one that caters to an older demographic.

''In terms of being a format that more of the available listeners feel passionate about, country is on the right track,'' Ross said.

While country's share of the radio listening audience has declined from the Garth Brooks-led early 1990s boom, it has leveled off and risen in the past few years. Country radio's audience share was 8.4 for fall 2004, according to Interep.

That means that in any given quarter-hour between 6 a.m. to midnight during the week, 8.4% of the tuned-in audience is listening to a country station.

That's up from a low of 6.8 in fall 2001, when much of the nation was tuned in to news/talk stations for information about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and events that followed.

The numbers don't necessarily reflect the entire country listenership or the loyalty of its fans. They're based on figures from Arbitron, which only measures large radio markets. Well over half of country stations are in small- to medium-markets in the heartland.

''Country has huge strengths beyond the rated markets,'' Nashville independent media analyst Robert Unmacht said.

''When you look at the ratings shares, especially outside the large markets, it's huge.''

Top billing

Roughly one in five commercially licensed stations is programmed with country music, making it the most popular radio format. As of January, there were 2,028 country stations, according to M Street/Inside Radio, which tracks station ownership. News/talk was second with 1,318 stations, and oldies followed in third place with 793.

Despite the big numbers, it's also true that the number of country stations has dropped 23% over the past decade — from a total of 2,642 stations — in the wake of 1996 federal legislation allowing radio companies to increase the number of stations they can own in a given market.

The rules led many station owners to buy multiple properties and change formats to avoid competing with themselves, Unmacht said.

''In Seattle, they had three country stations, and all three ended up in the hands of Infinity (Broadcasting Corp. of New York City),'' Unmacht said. Now only one plays country.

Other analysts say the pace of consolidation seems to have slowed down since the early land grab.

Randall Mays, the chief financial officer of Clear Channel, the nation's largest station owner, said this week that the radio giant wasn't in acquisition mode and in fact would be selling underperforming stations from its portfolio of nearly 2,000.

About 10% of stations change formats every year, Unmacht said.

Rusty Walker, head of Rusty Walker Programming, was traveling to CRS from Iuka, Miss. He is a consultant to about 100 radio clients, including WKDF-FM 103.3 in Nashville.

Walker said he's excited about a dozen or so emerging major label artists who will appear at this year's Country Radio Seminar, and he thinks there may be another Gretchen Wilson or two in the pipeline.

One of the highlights of the seminar, which runs through Friday, is a series of artist showcases at music venues around town put on by Music Row labels.

Walker said country's different factions will be arguing this week about whether the new music is ''too country'' or ''not country enough.''

He likes to hear people talking, even fighting, about music because it means they care.

''The cool thing about country is its consumers are so emotionally attached to it, each believes that they are the true and individual owner of country music as a genre,'' Walker said.

''With 'easy listening,' nobody gets passionate, nobody argues about the lyrics or the production. You know what — that music's dead now.''

He's right. Ten years ago, there were 106 ''easy listening stations.'' Today, according to Inside Radio, there are about 20.

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