Country Radio Seminar Strikes Optimistic Tone Amid Tech and Auto Unknowns
It’s telling that one of the most emotional moments during the Country Radio Seminar came when Darius Rucker and Brad Paisley led a large cast of artists in a cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain” at the close of the Universal Music Group Nashville (UMGN) showcase at the Ryman Auditorium on March 14.
Just the day before, Garth Brooks had addressed the divisiveness in modern America and encouraged country broadcasters to use their place at the microphone to bring people together: “Unify. Find common ground. Amplify our similarities instead of our differences.”
In “Purple Rain,” the assemblage demonstrated what that looked like, bridging genres and backgrounds to deliver a song that obliquely embraces connection as the world comes to an end. The arrangement included fiddle and Dobro, a significant cross-format augmentation of a song with anthemic pop/rock qualities. Rucker and Dalton Dover brought Black voices to the performance, notable in a genre that went decades with Charley Pride as its lone African American star. And covering Prince meant that Paisley — who had performed a dark track about opioid addiction less than a half-hour before — was now playing an extended guitar solo on a tune originated by a man who had died of an opioid overdose.
Just as important was the mass of people onstage: Vince Gill, Tyler Hubbard, Parker McCollum, Kassi Ashton, Sam Hunt and Catie Offerman were among those lined up behind the lead voices. And while most of the nation has regained some level of normalcy after the pandemic, every sign of people feeling safe to get together remains heartening.
A year ago, CRS attendees were chided for slow-moving charts and a lack of individuality. The format hasn’t changed significantly since then, though a committee is working to resolve those issues.
Meanwhile, 2023’s three-day conference, based at the Omni Nashville Hotel, found programmers in seemingly better spirits. Some 57% of country listeners believe the music is better than it was just a few years ago, according to a NuVoodoo study. Even 52% of consumers who have been country fans for over 10 years — the kind of listener most likely to complain that current music pales in comparison with the good old days — say the new music is better. Jacobs Media president Fred Jacobs, in a “Fred Talk” titled “The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be,” also noted that 62% of respondents in a 2023 survey cited their appreciation of the on-air talent as a motivating factor for listening to AM/FM. That exceeds the 55% of respondents who cited the music as a contributing factor to their radio consumption.
Stations would be wise, Jacobs suggested, to develop on-air talent that successfully connects with the audience.
As technology becomes ever more dominant in daily life, it appears that interactions with people have greater value. Syndicated Audacy personality Josh “Bru” Brubaker, a Los Angeles-based 26-year-old whose radio background and TikTok skills have built a following in the millions, said in an “Okay Boomer” panel that simply being real goes a long way.
“Vulnerability and relatability has never been more important to our audiences, especially in Gen Z,” he said. “That’s something that we’ve been doing in radio ever since it’s been around, so play on our strengths. I think we overthink a lot of things. But those core things are what Gen Z is looking for. And we can use that to reinvigorate our audiences.”
That word “reinvigorate” is important, given that time spent listening to radio has dropped since the advent of streaming services. Brubaker recalled meeting a young fan who asked him, “What is radio?”
The medium, once dominant in American entertainment, faces a crowded field that includes audio and video streaming, satellite radio and broadcast and cable TV, plus streaming TV services and online games. The future will only grow more complicated.
Automobiles, where radio once dominated, are undergoing significant change. Jacobs showed images of pillar-to-pillar dashboards that manufacturers are designing with more in-car options than ever. FM radio, he noted, will need to up its visual game — taking advantage of logos and other graphic opportunities — to remain appealing to commuters. But AM radio faces a much bleaker future with the accelerating shift toward electric vehicles. The engines create interference problems, and AM is increasingly being booted from car interiors. Jacobs cited Ford specifically, though news site Axios indicated in a March 13 story that eight automakers — including BMW, Mazda, Tesla and Volkswagen — have dropped AM radio from their electric cars.
“After hanging around with automakers for the past 15 years, I don’t think they give a shit,” said Jacobs. “I think they’re going to make whatever they’re going to make, and AM radio is not a part of the future for them.”
One other change that could create structural issues for broadcasters is the adaptation of subscriptions. Detroit is toying with recurring payments, Jacobs said, that would bill owners monthly for heated seats, map updates or driving assistants. And he believes over-the-air radio could become yet another optional service rather than a standard feature.
Country’s future, as always, was on display at CRS. Mackenzie Carpenter infused ultra-Southern phrasing in the hooky “Don’t Mess With Exes” during the Big Machine showcase. Avery Anna fielded a tuneful kiss-off with “Narcissist” on Warner Music Nashville’s lunchtime stage, and Offerman applied a warm, intimate voice to the confessional “I Killed a Man” at the UMGN show.
Programmers were encouraged repeatedly during CRS panels to take risks and “think outside the box.” Much of the industry, it appears, is of a mind to simply make the box larger. The genre’s widening cultural representation and increasing blend of music styles suggest that country and its real-world stories have the potential to fulfill Brooks’ challenge, to become a unifying voice.
Whether that potential is fully realized is a question that can only be answered in that uncertain future.
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