Country Radio Seminar: A Year After Major Wakeup Call, Broadcasters Plot Their Future
A year ago, Country Radio Seminar (CRS) gave broadcasters a wakeup call.
With the 2023 edition of the conference, it should become clearer if the industry is facing a new day head on or if it simply hit the Snooze button.
Panelists in 2022 lamented a four-year decline in listenership, a drop that overlaps with a system in which singles often take over 40 weeks - sometimes as much as 60 weeks - to run their course. By contrast, labels are increasingly gearing their marketing plans to streaming platforms that expose wider arrays of music and target individuals' playlists with greater specificity. On the final day last year, Country's Radio Coach owner/CEO John Shomby gave a TED Talk-style presentation that chided broadcasters for a nagging sameness and called for a committee of radio and music business executives to figure out a reboot.
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As Country Radio Broadcasters revs up CRS again March 13-15, that chat continues to echo in the agenda at the Omni Nashville Hotel. Shomby's CRS Music Committee - which generated 60-70 respondents in its first hour, according to CRB executive director R.J. Curtis - has been segmented into four overlapping subcommittees that will likely make their first reports in an upcoming CRS360 webinar. Meanwhile, the CRS presentations include several topics that address the issues that have brought the format to a crossroads - "Radio & Records: Redefining the Relationship," "Just Effing Do It: The Rewards of Taking Risks" and "Fred Jacobs' Fred Talk: The Future Ain't What It Used To Be."
"CRS should be a reality-check moment," Curtis says. "I don't believe our purpose is to just shake each other's hands and high-five and congratulate each other on another great year because not every year is great. We're facing a lot of different challenges, and I think it's important for us to own them and figure out how to solve them."
Country music has a long history with radio. March 2022 marked 100 years since Fiddlin' John Carson became the first hillbilly act to perform on-air, on WSB Atlanta, and Jan. 4 represented a century since country was introduced on the medium west of the Mississippi River, via The Radio Barn Dance on WBAP Dallas-Fort Worth. Still, the genre never had a full-time station until KDAV Lubbock, Texas, debuted in 1953.
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Radio ultimately became the primary method of exposing the genre's new music. It went largely unchallenged in that position until streaming took hold this century. The new medium operates differently - pressing a Skip button allows a streaming listener to skirt individual titles while still listening to the playlist, whereas skipping a song on the radio requires changing stations. To preserve listenership in this era, programmers generally relied on safe measures that had worked previously, cutting the size of playlists and/or hanging on to proven titles for longer periods of time. Those solutions tend to pay off in the short run, but over the long haul, they can discourage extended listening among the most passionate music fans.
"They're just afraid of making a mistake," says Shomby of programmers' dilemma. "It's like a football team that just hands the ball off to one guy and he runs up the middle, and then you hope that somebody opens up a hole. There's no [taking chances] - there's no throwing any long passes, you're not doing any double reverses or anything like that. You just run left. And that's kind of the way I feel like our industry is at this point."
Actionable Insights Group head of research Billy Ray McKim was among the attendees who signed up for the CRS Music Committee last year after Shomby's presentation.
"Plenty of people talked about it for days and weeks, and I continue to hear people refer back to it," McKim says. "He managed to tie a bow on it."
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McKim is now overseeing the subcommittee studying the life cycle of songs, generally aiming to speed the march of singles through national radio charts and energize the format. The issue is complex.
"There was this idea that we would spend a year and find a finite solution and move on," says McKim. "What's become even more clear through this process is there isn't a simple solution. So I think that this committee will continue to live and evolve."
Changing aspects of the industry will get center stage through much of CRS. Digital streaming, for example, has a full day of convention programming. CRS also offers a panel on "expansive inclusion" and an examination of evolving demographics in "Okay Boomer! A Conversation With Gen Z."
CRS will continue to offer some familiar elements. Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney will be the focus of keynote artist Q&As, the annual research panel presents insights from a 700-song auditorium test, and the closing New Faces of Country Music dinner will feature Jackson Dean, Priscilla Block, Jelly Roll, Nate Smith and Frank Ray.
That latter event will include recognition of a new wrinkle in the convention. The last of CRS' founders, Charlie Monk, died Dec. 19, and this will be the first year he is not at the seminar in some form or fashion. New Faces is expected to honor his influence, which is particularly fitting this year. Monk's ability to process the past and anticipate the future should provide some inspiration for the industry as it moves forward: the "Mayor of Music Row" counted classic singer Frank Sinatra as his favorite artist, but often said his favorite single was whatever was No. 1 that particular week.
"He didn't get stuck in one particular era, and that's very evident by the amount of people much, much younger than him that called him a mentor and a friend," Curtis says. "He sought out younger leaders in our format. He benefited from their knowledge and their way of doing business, and I think it was really impressive."
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Country music's relationship with radio predates even Monk's arrival. Programmers' goal during CRS will be to create some forward movement for a platform that is still regarded as a key means of exposure for even the newest generation of talent.
"I come across a lot of young artists, and they still have that dream to be heard on the radio," says Shomby. "I mean, it doesn't get them as excited to have a song playlisted on Spotify as it does to hear their song on their local radio station. So there's still something there that creates a passion for the format."
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