(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]