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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