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Ballad of the Silenced Country Stations

Here's today's Listener column:

On the same night that country stars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw opened a set of three sold-out shows at Los Angeles's Staples Center, the city's only country-music radio station dropped the format entirely. Keith Urban's "Tonight I Wanna Cry" faded out and the Black Eyed Peas' "Let's Get It Started" launched KZLA's new sound, a mix of R&B and dance hits.

With last month's format switch in Los Angeles, the nation's two largest markets now have no country on the radio. New York lost its last country station in 2002, a year after San Francisco fell into the same status.

Country's decline on the radio seems paradoxical at first, because the genre is doing better than much of the rest of the music industry these days. While CD sales have drooped in most formats, sales of country albums jumped by 18 percent in the first half of this year, Nielsen SoundScan figures show. After a painful drop in the quality of new country in the late 1990s and early part of this decade, the music is coming back strong, according to critics and radio executives.

In Washington, WMZQ (98.7 FM) is keeping its country format and maintaining its strong showing in the ratings. "We've been holding our own with our audience in this very diverse, ethnic area," says the station's program director, George King. "We're a rural, outside-the-Beltway format, but among non-ethnics, we're in the top two or three stations." ("Non-ethnics" is the industry term for whites.)

Color, it seems, is what drove KZLA, the country station with the nation's second-highest billings, to drop the format. Country attracts an almost all-white audience, and in some big cities, including Los Angeles and New York, whites are in the minority. Increasingly, radio companies believe they can fine-tune other music formats to create the largest possible audience of black, Latino and white listeners.

Whites are barely more than 40 percent of the population in the Los Angeles area, and country listeners are about 98 percent white, Rick Cummings, president of radio at Emmis Communications (which owns KZLA), told the Los Angeles Times. "My job is to attract as large an audience as possible," he said. "KZLA is now playing music that appeals to Hispanic adult women, and that will hopefully attract other suburban women of different ethnicities."

WMZQ's audience is about 95 percent white, King says, just as the Washington area's top-rated stations -- which tend to be hip-hop and black hits stations -- attract overwhelmingly black audiences. But one crucial difference in listening habits might portend a difficult future for country on the radio: Blacks and Latinos tend to listen to radio for much longer each day than do whites.

In addition, white listeners are more likely to switch their music habits over to iPods and other MP3 devices, making them less devoted radio listeners. As long as blacks and Latinos continue to adopt iPods and satellite radio at a slower rate than whites, stations will be tempted to aim their programming at those groups.

Rock has been hardest hit by this calculus, but at least in major coastal cities, country might be vulnerable too.

Country might find a saving grace in another aspect of audience demographics. King says country stations benefit from having a somewhat older audience than pop stations -- WMZQ's average listener is about 46 -- and middle-aged country fans are less likely to have turned their ears entirely over to downloaded tunes.

"We're an adult format," King says, "so we're not as deeply affected by MP3s as the more tech-savvy pop audience. I'm 45 and the perfect example: Do I own an MP3 player? No. Do my kids? Absolutely."

Measured purely by the number of stations playing a given form of music, country remains the dominant format on American radio, with about one-fifth of all stations devoting their airtime to the music. But the great majority of those stations are in small, rural markets, especially in the South.

Country fans in some big urban centers eventually might find themselves with nowhere to go but satellite radio. XM and Sirius devote several channels to various specialized country formats, where listeners can choose between country classics, contemporary hits and themed channels, such as Sirius's Outlaw Country, where the deejays play up their renegade personalities and the afternoon jock signs off each day with "See ya later, fornicators!"

What WMZQ offers to counter the appeal of the thinly sliced niches on satellite radio is local deejays, news and traffic -- and the sense of being part of a community based where listeners live. The station's programming is all local except for the overnight show, which is syndicated fare from Los Angeles.

It's too soon to say which technology will prevail. In Los Angeles, the format switch on KZLA meant that the city's largest country music festival lost its sponsor. Within hours, however, another source of country stepped into the breach: XM announced it would take over sponsorship of the festival.

By Marc Fisher |  September 24, 2006; 8:03 PM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I'm not surprised that the country audience is less tech-savvy than most other audience. The genre's social attitude has always been one of anti-modernism, veering between conservative and reactionary. This goes back to the 1920s when country songwriters falsely romanticized the antebellum South. Country music equates rural life with virtuous tradition and city life with licentious modernism.

What artists are leading the current country resurgence? During that "painful drop in quality," most Nashville product was twangy pop marketed through the good looks of the performers. The music had little of the honesty of artists like Jimmie Rodgers or Johnny Cash. (Now I'm sounding like a traditionalist.) As pretentious as this may sound, the best country speaks to the soul, like the best blues or jazz.

Posted by: Tonio | September 25, 2006 8:31 AM

"My job is to attract as large an audience as possible," says a radio executive, and isn't that the core of the problem? Why isn't it good enough to run a modestly profitable operation targeting a specific audience? Is it the shareholder system, the regulatory apparatus, some combination of the two, or what? Substitute "newspaper" or "television" for "radio" and the situation is the same. What is it that prevents radio, for instance, from emulating the model of print magazines, where there's a publication for every conceivable interest? What are the factors that prevent, say, "Down Beat" magazine from switching from jazz to hip-hop that don't apply in the radio world?

Posted by: John Bay | September 26, 2006 12:06 PM

Let's be honest, most of the music out today is crap, and I'm not some whiny old geezer from the 60's. I still listen to a wide array of radio but to be very honest, prefer Country at times because there's only so much "shock jock", boy-band or "Ooo knock-me up baby" music I can stomach first thing in the morning.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 26, 2006 5:14 PM

John Bay asked, "What are the factors that prevent, say, "Down Beat" magazine from switching from jazz to hip-hop that don't apply in the radio world?" The answer is, anyone with a passion and a little dough can start a magazine. There are limited numbers of radio frequencies in each market. A full-market, clear signal like WMZQ would sell on the open market for $80 to $100 MILLION dollars. No one could afford to do some boutique format. "Most-ears" is where it's at.

Posted by: Francis Rose | September 26, 2006 7:52 PM

I am one of the few minorities who say country (the contemporary stuff more so than the old stuff) is my favorite musical genre. For one thing, I've always preferred softer musical fare and can't really take the anger, hate, implied ethnic politics, and criminality so prevalent in hip hop, rap, and heavy metal. Country is a refreshing alternative of patriotism, family values, and nostalgia.

Most of my Chinese American family are country fans too. My parents, uncles, and aunts never followed the traditional immigrant route straight to coastal areas and have lived in authenitcally American places like Des Moines, Fort Worth, Boise, and Morgantown, West Virginia. There is supposedly an underground Asian American musical subculture but I've never had any interest in it.

The loss of country stations in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and I would assume Miami (though I'm not sure about South Florida)is a disturbing trend. It shows that unlike my parents' generation, immigrants today are not assimiliating and Americanizing, and rather trap themselves in ethnic subcultures (look at all the Spanish music, Indian music popularity). I know people here at the University of Maryland who can name dozens of groups from India but never heard of Kenny Chesney or Keith Urban (despite their marriage to Renee Zellwegger and Nicole Kidman..actually the Indian-American kid doesn't know Renee Zellwegger either).

Its gotten so bad that last weekend at the Toby Keith concert at Nissan Pavilion, I saw only 3 other non-white people in the entire audience. This shows that immigrants today are choosing to trap themselves into their own subcultures instead of embracing mainstream America. Country music is the music of the real America and its a shame that so many new Americans are missing out on it. If immigrants identify with their own ethnic group more than with the nation as a whole, this is a certainly dangerous thing and creates additional divisiveness in a society. We all hope the Sunnis and Shiites would consider themselves Iraqis first and foremost, and that Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats consider themselves Bosnians first. But in this country, we seem to be okay with different groups going further and further apart. Musical tastes is heavily reflective of this. I have no problem with Spanish music being on the radio, but when a foreign style is displacing American music like in LA, there's something seriously wrong with the picture.

At the same time, white and Asian kids are listening to hip hop in increasing numbers, a style that promotes racial separatism, crime, sexism, racism, drug abuse, and gang membership.

Finally, when people in other countries think about American music, what comes to mind first is rap and hip hop and not country. My uncle in Taiwan shakes his head at "American artists" or promoting immoral behavior and vice. That's because they only hear Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Eminem, and Kanye West rap about pimping hoes, busting caps, shooting up in the park, and f__ing with hookers. Has he ever heard Carrie Underwood sing about a girl who loves her parents, sister, grandma and can't wait to see them again?

Posted by: Eric | October 11, 2006 5:04 PM

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