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Is Washington A Country Music Town?

On the map of country music in America, Washington and its suburbs form an island of indifference surrounded by strong country-loving territory.

In rural Virginia, the exurbs of the Washington area and even in the Baltimore metro area, country stations are among the most popular, and in many areas dominate the FM dial. The Washington area proper has but one country station, WMZQ (98.7 FM), which attracts about 3 to 4 percent of the radio audience. That's a far cry from the 21 percent of the audience that turns to the market's top four hip-hop and R&B stations.

Still, as Washington's only country outlet, WMZQ remains plenty profitable -- and now may grow more so as it begins to share on-air talent with its corporate cousin in Baltimore.

DJ Michael J, a popular fixture in the midday time slot on Baltimore's WPOC (93.1 FM), this fall began duties as WMZQ's workday jock, spinning tunes from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Washington even while continuing his Baltimore show from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. During the same midday hours, Michael J is pumping out four different shows, for these cities and for Cleveland and Lexington, Ky., all from the same computer in WMZQ's studios in Rockville.

Has Clear Channel Radio, which owns both stations, finally mastered the science of cloning? Not quite -- rather, the DJ can pull quadruple duty thanks to the digital technology of voice tracking, which allows a jock to record a full shift of announcements in a matter of minutes. The computer then plugs in the music and commercials, and the listener never knows the difference.

Michael J juggles phone calls from listeners in Washington and Baltimore while he's checking e-mails from the audiences in the other two cities. "I can usually tell which city they're from by their voices," says the DJ, a Baltimore native and University of Maryland graduate.

"We're not really combining the two shows," said WMZQ Program Director Meg Stevens. "It's a completely different show for Baltimore because the audiences in the two markets are really different." Washington is the nation's eighth-largest media market; Baltimore ranks 21st and includes a higher proportion of blue-collar workers, the heart of the country audience.

Country remains the format of more stations than any other, drawing about 12 percent of U.S. listeners, though no country station wins the No. 1 ratings spot in any of the nation's top 20 markets. New York City doesn't even have a country station. But country ratings in big Northeast cities appear to be getting a boost since the switchover from ratings systems that relied on listeners filling out paper diaries to a new technology that electronically monitors what survey participants are listening to. "The numbers are bumping up especially in the Northeast, where some people still don't like to admit that they listen to country," Stevens said.

Interestingly, country may be the only format in radio whose audience is getting younger. An Arbitron report on country radio concludes that teens and 18-to-24-year-olds are listening to more country now than they did a decade ago and that country listeners are the least likely to subscribe to satellite radio.

The first report of ratings for satellite radio channels confirms that picture. While channels offering hit music draw large audiences, people who choose to pay for radio also tend to spend a lot of time listening to music that is no longer heard on free broadcast radio, such as easy-listening standards, '50s oldies and classic country.

On local radio, the flavor of country programming varies according to what market research reveals about listener demographics. In Baltimore, the taste for country music is not only much greater than in the D.C. area -- WPOC has a firm hold on second place in that market with about a 9 percent share of the audience -- but also more in touch with the most current country hits, according to research by Clear Channel.

The Washington country audience, by comparison, tends to favor somewhat older music. "We're deeper on Johnny Cash, and we live more in the '90s," Stevens says. "We still do Tim McGraw and Randy Travis. In Baltimore, it's more 2004 and beyond, a lot of Kenny Chesney."

While Baltimore's station offers a second, digital channel featuring a stream of music from new and rising country artists, Washington's HD Radio channel is devoted to classic country -- a lot of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Alabama.

"While D.C. and Baltimore are geographically close, they can be worlds apart," Stevens says. She believes the audience for country in Washington remains strong, even if the station "has been struggling a bit in the ratings." With artists such as Chesney selling out at Nissan Pavilion last summer, it's clear to programmers at WMZQ that the listeners are out there somewhere.

"It's Northern Virginia -- Loudoun County and Prince William, and Southern Maryland," Stevens says. "You've still got farms out there."

By Marc Fisher |  December 8, 2007; 7:44 AM ET
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Our Montgomery County family of four are all country music fans, and we all listen on XM radio (which has 5 country options). WMZQ's problems may stem from the fact, perhaps, that DC has a greater percentage of Sirius and XM listeners than does Charm City, a reflection of demographics. I'm surprised Mr. Fisher didn't think of this in his blog.

Posted by: MoCo country | December 8, 2007 9:52 AM

Perhaps many have forgotten that the DC area used to host most every famous name in country: Roy Clark, Buck Owens, Jimmy Dean immediately come to mind. This was, of course, back int he days of AM radio but the market was strong. Another radio station, that didn't play the same tired slick-Nashville top 13 would probably do very well here.

Posted by: TomBob | December 8, 2007 10:23 AM

No, DC is not a country music town due to the education level. People hate to admit it, but look at the statistics on country music fans and education and there's an inverse relationship. That's why the town where Roy Clark was from (Buck Owens is not from here) no longer has massive swaths of blue collar white southern country music fans- cheap graduate degrees at George Mason drove them out.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 8, 2007 4:07 PM

Four stations control 21% of the market. Divide 21 by 4. Their individual percentage isn't much greater than that of WMZQ.

WMZQ is great. I live between Baltimore and Washington and listen to both. WTOP is hit-or-miss. WMZQ can be as well, but they really focus on solid music on the weekends.

The link between education and country (music). I don't know what to say other than I must be part of an anomaly since I have a Ph.D. and only casually listen to other stations. This is not to say that I don't listen to other music, just not often to other stations.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 9, 2007 10:09 AM

I'm surprised a DC station hasn't tried to program Alt-Country or Twang -- whatever they are calling edgier country-derived styles these days. DC demographics and club dates suggest a smaller but desirable audience would go for it.

Posted by: Mike Licht | December 10, 2007 9:34 AM

Country music and intelligence? I guess all those people listening to Amy Winehouse or 50 Cent are busy splitting the atom.

Posted by: DC | December 10, 2007 2:01 PM

"No, DC is not a country music town due to the education level. People hate to admit it, but look at the statistics on country music fans and education and there's an inverse relationship. That's why the town where Roy Clark was from (Buck Owens is not from here) no longer has massive swaths of blue collar white southern country music fans- cheap graduate degrees at George Mason drove them out.

Posted by: | December 8, 2007 04:07 PM"

Your comment implies that a graduate degree makes someone intelligent, when logically the reverse is more likely true. The only trait that a degree ensures is persistence. Not sure if you put that in there just to get a(nother) dig at those whom you disdain, or if you really believe it.

Regardless, your post screams bias against Southerners (not country-music fans as you pretend -- if you do have "statistics," please share). It's the oldest prejudice in American society: Southern accent = you must be stupid. When the truth is really that stupid is often in the eye of the beholder.

Anyone who truly knows the South (and country music) rather than just assuming he/she does, knows how wrong you are.

Posted by: country fan | December 10, 2007 2:14 PM

Brad Paisley said during his stop here in October that Nissan is the second largest stop on his annual tour.

Country fans are out here. I stopped listening to WMZQ when they fired Seth Warner. Yeah, I know WPOC is owned by the same folks. But most of their ads don't reach me since I'm unlikely to ever be shopping in Bawlmer.

Posted by: Four Corners, Md. | December 10, 2007 11:15 PM

Mark, you left out another station that includes classic country in its playlist: WFLS 93.3 in Fredericksburg, VA. In fact, they play one full hour of classic country every Saturday night, beginning at nine o'clock.

Posted by: NativeNorthernVirginian | December 11, 2007 11:50 AM

I think it's a shame that country music isn't bigger here. I'm a young Asian American from Potomac who got into country because songs by Darryl Worley and Toby Keith really spoke to me following the 9-11 attacks. My extended family's always loved it having lived in all-American places like Des Moines, New Orleans, Morgantown, Fort Worth, and Boise. I found myself falling in love with the rest of the music on WMZQ. Listening to country made me more American and the patriotism of the music struck a big chord with me. Some people have pointed out a reason of country not being big in the immediate DC area because of high immigrant and black populatiosn here.

Country music is the music of the real America and a shame that more minorities don't listen to it. Middle Americans values espoused in country music like faith in religion, strong famiilies, hard work, self-sufficiency, independence and moral values are also big in Asian and Hispanic cultures compared to the immorality and anything goes attitudes of the coastal elites. Also country lyrics are always lyrics that most people can identify with. Country music deals with ordinary people with everyday lives.

Country music is also a vicarious adventure for me (like how some suburban kids listen to rap and pretend to be ghetto). I feel trapped here in the urban Northeast and that I've never really experienced the real America out there where most Americans live. I listen to country radio and watch CMT and see some of the world I want to be part of in the future.

Posted by: Eric | December 22, 2007 11:52 PM

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