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Country radio - a pendulum?

Mike Sudhalter  |  June 22, 2007

Two guys are sitting together at a bar, discussing the state of country radio.

The first one laments the loss of any steel guitar, fiddles or "real country music". The second one goes on and on, about annoying twang and how he longs for the late 1990's when Faith Hill and Shania Twain dominated the country airwaves.

These two gentleman represent the opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to country radio.

I appreciate most types of country music, from traditional to contemporary. I draw the line when it's so blatantly obvious that the song has nothing do with country music, lyrically or melodically. Hill, Twain and LeAnn Rimes have all crossed the bridge from Contemporary Country-ville to Pure Pop-land.

But my theory on country radio is that it's a pendulum. When it becomes too country, it swings towards pop. And vice versa.

One thing that haunted me in my early country music-listening days. I pretty much thought radio was the end-all, be-all. I couldn't appreciate country music outside of that Top 40 stuff, because I felt "programmed" to like the radio stuff. That changed as I matured and realized there was some great music I was out there missing.

But as an adult, I understand the purpose of radio and it's place in our genre. It needs to generate revenue, and the way to do that is by having songs that everybody will like, songs people like to hum or sing along with. They're not necessarily the tunes with the most compelling lyrics or the most difficult subjects. But it needs to be something that everybody in the given demographic, listeners of ages 25-54, can appreciate.

Fans often e-mail me and wonder why veteran artists like George Jones and Loretta Lynn don't receive a lot of airplay. Many of these listeners don't understand the system and often feel that the radio stations have something against the music of these legends. Not true at all. Legends don't often fit into what the listener demographics want. And there's more teenagers calling the radio stations to request Rascal Flatts then there are 70-somethings calling for Jones or Merle Haggard.

Thanks to things like XM Radio, people can listen to what they want with a wider variety of choices, instead of "you'll take what we serve you approach". Still, I'd rather pay for albums than pay for radio. I don't know if I'll ever be able to justify to myself, paying for radio.

In the late 1990's, I truly felt that country music as I knew it would disappear from radio. There was so much pop influence and it seemed to be getting worse.

Early in the new Millennium, things seemed to turn around. I don't know what kind of state we're in right now. It seems like there's a pretty good divide. On one hand, you have pop-like artists Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts, but George Strait, Brad Paisley and other traditionalists are still selling lots of records. In the middle ground, you have folks like Toby Keith, Trace Adkins and Montgomery Gentry.

The definition of country seems to always depend on one's perspective. I've always based it on the mid-90's contemporary with a hint of traditional flair. Maybe that's why I can turn on the radio and have no problem listening to most of the songs.

If you grew up with Haggard and Johnny Cash, then of course the new stuff is going to seem foreign to you. Same as someone who just picked up country, trying to listen to the legendary stuff. It grew on me, but it definitely took a long time to do so.

I think radio's purpose is to provide variety of the genre, and I think it's done that. When it gets too country, potential listeners shy away. Too pop, you lose your core audience. I wish it would veer more towards traditional because I believe in the 80/20 rule that 80 percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your customers. But what the audience wants is constantly changing, and radio is always trying to meet that demand.

Remember, true country fans, radio is just one part of the country music listening experience. Don't get too upset with it, just appreciate it for what it is.

:: Posted at 12:45 AM by Mike Sudhalter ::
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