Scanning the Countryside: Country Radio—Your Way
If you want to start a heated discussion among a bunch of devoted country music fans or music makers, no matter what stripe, style, or era of country music they call their own, bring up the question of today’s mainstream country radio. You’re certain to hear some railing from somebody about a longstanding set of real enough issues—the tight playlists, the slow introduction of any new tunes, the limited variety that goes with both, and in some locales, the absence of homegrown flavor that comes with the replacement of local personality deejay hosts–and audience relationships with them–with automated programming networked in from the great Out There.
Mainstream country radio has a great deal going for it, and this time of year–when the annual Country Radio Seminar and convention brings the practitioners here to Nashville–us media types get to hear plenty about that. There’s still no more effective way to reach great masses of potential fans of new country singles with music that works for the format, despite all the emerging new media. The sheer numbers involved indicate an amazing level of business success; the 2010 breakdown of radio station formats from the Arbitron radio ratings people shows 2,626 stations (yes, 2,626) playing country, easily the greatest of any musical category, and nearly twice as many as number two, Adult Contemporary. So the many of you who visit this site and regularly take to heart such chart-topping performers as Jason Aldean, Billy Currington, Zac Brown Band, Blake Shelton, Lady Antebellum (and yes, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood), likely feel well served, a lot of the time.
So what about everybody else? There’s another interesting, more obscured number in the Arbitron report: There are also 405 working stations classified separately as “Classic Country,” and that’s a larger number than for Album-Oriented Rock or Urban Adult Contemporary, for instance. The “Classic” stations typically focus on the records of stars who’d dominated country for the twenty years before the nineties Garth explosion—the Haggard, Parton, Jones era on through the Travis Tritt/Ricky Skaggs/Rodney Crowell eighties. There are some willing to go back further than that, if in small doses, or specialized program blocks. Sirius/XM offers essentially that format as “The Roadhouse” channel.
In truth, lovers of country music have a lot of broadcast, narrowcast, and personal stream choices out there, which maybe you’ve not encountered, since they’re less heralded, but will wish you had, so here’s a quick scan of what some “other” country formats you can find–on the air near you, online, or as apps, with a minimum of googling–that might be the one you’re looking for:
Stations in this spunky format, most often found in rural areas, work against several grains to cross the mainstream/classic country boundary. Typically, they’ll take in the Classic Station territory, but regularly add contemporary breaking singles with instrumentation, twang and song matter along the same lines—so you’d hear Josh Turner, Jamey Johnson, some of the new more traditionalist acts we’ve discussed here such as Chris Young or a Bradley Gaskin, or something off a new Tanya Tucker or Marty Stuart release. Real Country can be found in satellite and online streaming radio as well as on the air in some towns. Around Nashville, we’ve been able to hear plucky little WHIN-AM out of Gallatin, TN working this format for years, interspersed with their local high school football and baseball games. There are similar stations in place in Greybill, WY and Hanover, PA, Raymondsville, TX and Bemidji, MN. Nothing automated there!
You’ll know that bluegrass radio is readily available if you follow the genre, but you may not be aware that there are by this point, according to the IBMA, just under 500 stations, including 50 or so outside of the U.S., that regularly feature bluegrass, with format variations such as bluegrass from all eras, classic/traditional back to ’46, occasionally back to pre-grass old timey, too, modern new releases, bluegrass gospel—the works, with variations. There are longstanding multi-station syndicated favorites like Cindy Baucum’s “Knee Deep in Bluegrass,” stations where bluegrass is the regular centerpiece such as Washington D.C.’s rightly celebrated WAMU, and many more where bluegrass programs are regular parts of the schedule.
A combination of data and a personal gut instinct suggests to me that the audience is substantial for access to streams of country of more specific flavors for more specialized audiences. For example, Sirius/XM regularly offers variations on “Outlaw Country,” with celebrity DJs such as Shooter Jennings, Elizabeth Cook, Cowboy Jack Clement, Dallas Wayne and Mojo Nixon putting their personal stamps on what “Outlaw” happens to mean (basically, an emphasis on artists and approaches that can be linked to the ’70s Waylon-Willie-Tompall outlaws, before and since). Sirius also has regular channels for contemporary chart country and previous hits by the same artists, and for Texas/Red Dirt country (“Channel 64”). That now familiar “Red Dirt” term was introduced to radio, incidentally, by KVOO (“the Voice of Oklahoma”) in Tulsa. There are a number of Web-based outfits offering continuing country flavored streams without subscriptions, by the way, such as AccuRadio.
While some within the musical movement had envisioned the Americana format as a (rather literally) alternative or independent sort of country chart back when the format was formulated in the ’90s, it’s clearer by this point that the dozens of Americana reporting stations out there played varied mixes on new music with American roots music connections, which might or might not be country roots. For every Hayes Carll, Wanda Jackson, Lori McKenna and Eleven Hundred Springs on the current Americana chart–artists with country connections–there’s a Jeff Beck, Amos Lee, or Tony Furtado, where the core lies elsewhere. You won’t find this former No Depression magazine regular making light of the twang you will find on Americana stations, though.
Personalized Country: Theirs—And Yours
Hiring performers as DJs has been a growing trend, and among these are some country performers who really know their stuff and are also—oh yeah; it’s allowed—fun. The one of a kind WSM-AM/WSM Online here in Music City has opened itself to virtually all of the styles of country above (now there’s a concept). They’ve continued to stress strong on-air personalities such as Bill Cody and Eddie Stubbs, and now feature regular afternoon shows hosted by Dierks Bentley, Jim Lauderdale, Pam Tillis, and Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, among others, from which you get the personalized view of country of these artists—quite specific, knowledgeable views. Programs are often archived so you can catch them after the fact.
A development we can expect to see more of, from what I hear, is the popular artist who simply fosters his own online radio station and/or streaming app. For example, Kenny Chesney recently let loose No Shoes Radio, where the sounds are not necessarily all some kind of country, but they are some kind of favorite of Kenny or, they believe, his fans. You get to program your own stations as Mr. Chesney does, of course, within the Pandora model where you can program in that you want to hear more things from people like Carrie Underwood, or Ernest Tubb, or Townes Van Zandt–or all three, and much else if you desire. It works pretty well, too.
More personalized than that? Well, there’s always your own playlist, on your own device, on shuffle. Or just whistle. You know how to whistle…
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