The Bifurcation of Country


(Mike McVay) Country, as a radio format, has been eroding for several years.

One may point to the erosion of the audience on Radio stations, but the distribution of the medium remains greater than any other audio medium. Country is seeing an audience rating slide that’s greater than that of other mass music formats. If the format’s problems are not addressed, those problems will not only continue, they will accelerate with the increased presence of the DSP’s and the growth of Satellite Radio.

The formats ratings have been falling for several years. It’s unfair to look solely at 2020 numbers as all of radio lost AQH and Cume during the pandemic. However, the erosion that the format is seeing, has been going on for some time. Country radio saw its AQH drop 5.9% from 2018 to 2019. That’s in addition to the 5.1% decrease from 2017-2018. Even before the negative impact of the pandemic, almost every country station in the Top-50 markets lost cume. The combined ratings of country stations in markets with more than one is also showing lower year-over-year ratings.

I believe that the extreme differences in the types of music that air on country stations are a large part of the rating problem that we’re facing. The country format plays music that is coded with a variety of types such as Country, Contemporary, AC, Pop, Traditional, Bros, Group and Female. There are too many types of country music on any one country radio station. This may have worked in “olden times” when there were fewer choices where to find your favorite music. Today, there are many places to find the particular flavor of country one desires, and you don’t have to sit through songs you dislike, to get to the ones that you do like.

It’s time for the format to split into various colorations of country. The issue that I’m putting forth here is one that’s been talked about, acknowledged and addressed in the past. The solutions to the issue have never been successful in the past. Country for years has fought against splitting the format. In the past, it was the absolute right thing to avoid doing, as there were not enough types of music to divide the format. Efforts like “Countrypolitan” failed miserably. That’s not what I’m suggesting.

Listeners program their own radio stations by pushing the buttons on their radios, or by asking for different types of music on their smart speakers, and in doing so they avoid the songs that they dislike. They eliminate the songs that don’t “fit.” By bifurcating the format, you have an opportunity to expand time spent listening and regenerate an audience for the format.

It would definitely open the format to more female artists and that by itself would expand the audience. It would be the elimination of the extremes on one side or the other of the format that would be how you define your station. Will you be the country station that leans more country and less pop or the one that leans more pop and less country … with both remaining country stations that play country artists who make-up the center of the format.

Listeners program their own radio stations by pushing the buttons on their radios, or by asking for different types of music on their smart speakers, and in doing that they avoid the songs that they dislike. They eliminate the songs that don’t “fit” with their mood. By bifurcating the format, we can do that for the listener, and regenerate an audience as well as increase the popularity of country music.

This also means that the format would become song based and not artist based. Meaning that the sound and style of a song becomes the deciding factor. All artists have the ability to be on both versions of the country format. Which flavor of country station is solely dependent on the sound of the song?

The bottom-line is that no matter how many people want to say that country works best as a broad format, like Top-40, it doesn’t. It isn’t. Not even the Top-40 format works like it once worked as a broad format. The format needs to bifurcate with one branch of it being truer to the sound of mainstream country, and the other branch being truer to the pop side of country.

If you’re not the leading country station in your market, then why not create a different lane for the format, and attack your competition in a way that they cannot easily respond to stop?

Mike McVay is President of McVay Media and can be reached at  [email protected]


  1. Country is a still a dominant format and a market leader in many markets. The Big A brought it up previously, but I tend to agree about devolving into chaos. Trout & Ries: “The Law of Line Extension”…there’s an irresistible pressure to extend the equity of the brand”. Radio is no longer an “if you build it, they will come” business model.

  2. Hey Mike.. great piece.. really good to see all the response.. it’s not brain surgery.. having researched this format and programmed in it, i / we have watched this erosion for years now.. Men hate the format as it is..

    When record / labels realized streaming was the future of revenue they went all in for 12-34s.. I have been on calls as I am sure many of us have that make it clear streaming is all that matters.. it’s obvious that traditional artists don’t stream at levels that create $$$.. there are a few exceptions like Morgan wallen and Luke combs and a handful of others.. there are major artists in the format that fall behind newer acts in streaming. Adults 35+ just don’t use streaming like younger fans.. they listen to RADIO.. even Dan and shay teamed with Bieber to get those huge streaming numbers.. as do others.. radio has to stop letting records program our stations..

    when you were at Cumulus and WSM-FM made the initial switch to nash icon, we saw what can happen.. they have since softened that strategy probably to appease Records.. oh well..

    Btw TSL / TE is still a key metric..

  3. We did this kind of thing in the 90s with Young Country. The problem is that stations refuse to stay in their lane. When one side of country becomes more popular, the other side will start to play it. Then what seemed like a great idea devolves into chaos. But yes there are more than enough artists for two charts just as there were in the 90s.

  4. Countrypolitan failed miserably? While I agree with 99% of this article, This jumped out at me. The format grew exponentially during the countrypolitan era of the 1960s.

  5. Great article Mike. Splitting the format would actually allow stations to return to being artist-centric again – we can’t do it now because there are simply too many artists vying for space. If a station knew it could ignore half the list, they could actually play more from the artists they’d have.

    But I think the only way this happens is if a company owns both country brands in a market. It would require discipline across brands that would be tough with competitive stations. It’s too tempting to reach across and cherry pick the biggest acts from the other side because the middle of the format is soft and somewhat undefined. Who gets Luke Combs? Thomas Rhett? I do think there would be more ratings available if this approach could be taken. There would be bumps in the road, including the label community, who is having a very different level of success in country (They’re doing fine, thank you), and the chart system, which loves to drag it’s contributors to consensus.

    This is a great thought starter, thank you.

  6. I’m old enough to confirm that this discussion has been around a looooong time. Lon Helton asked me to write an R&R article about it somewhere back in the mid 90’s. The music industry has never wanted to hear about this subject and radio has been afraid to address it. So the slow erosion continues. But since I don’t depend on a paycheck or fees from anybody anymore, I can state my views clearly. The music industry “took over” Country radio a long time ago. It has always been in the best interest of the Music Row publishing and recording folks to “youthen” and broaden Country radio’s music choices. For the most part Radio steered the industry in spite of that. But back in the mid to late 90’s the records industry starting “feeding” the radio industry, and the barn door swung wide open. Radio lined up at the free promotions and plugola trough and boy did they get fat but they also got addicted! I do agree with you that the format should find a center, containing the songs that everybody would play, then aim the edges with either a pop or country lean. While I agree about your thoughts on “sound” I am even more concerned that the artist equity we used to value so much is just not there for the 30+ country listener. And to your point about “sound”, Jaye Albright and I expressed concern about this on a panel once. We both felt the format should always have an identifying “sound” so it could be distinguished among all the other music options. The music guys obviously wanted more exposure of any and all acts on any and all formats. Radio turned their head and their ears and pushed on. Radio revenues and audiences are sliding while the music industry thrives with all the shifts toward other means of discovery and delivery. I’m glad I was around when the sound, the artists and the songs mattered. Great to read your thoughts Mike. Craig Scott, Savannah GA

  7. The format’s audience is leaving because it’s not country anymore. People are already listening to the same sound of music on Top 40 and AC stations, so why change?

    However, stations play a classic country format are still billing strong, even through the “pandemic”. Stations like mine are playing a “Greatest country hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s” and still killing it with our audience.

    Want to get your audience back? Nashville needs to get back to the music that made it famous. We’ve already been through this once in the 70s and it took the hat acts of the 80s to get it back.

  8. Mike great article and believe you’re on the right track for a solution.
    Good timing for discussions during #CRS2021 this week.

  9. THANK YOU for stating what many of us have been wishing would be addressed for years. It would be helpful if chart producers such as Mediabase would chip in, perhaps publishing a “Traditional Country” chart and a “Pop Country” chart.


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