Can Country Music Make a Comeback on New York Radio?

Artists like Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift (left), and Carrie Underwood have made country music stronger than ever. The Country explosion is part of today’s reality TV. Blake Shelton is a judge on NBC’s The Voice, and the multi-platinum selling Keith Urban just signed on for season 12 of American Idol. Country music is one of the most popular radio formats with more than 2,000 stations playing that music across the “country.” It accounts for approximately 20 percent of all commercial music formats nationwide. Despite its popularity, the genre hasn’t cracked the New York market for years.

Each time an FM station flips format or purchases a New York City dial position, the new opportunity for Country is overlooked.

In our examination of the lack of Country in the nation’s top market, FishbowlNY gets the thoughts of former New York City Country DJs, a veteran radio programmer, and a current program director at a Country station on the outskirts of Manhattan.

First, some background.

New York, which has been in the radio biz for more than 90 years, has had just a smattering of full-time Country stations. WHN made the flip in 1973. Prior to that, only WJRZ in neighboring Hackensack, New Jersey, and Mineola-based WTHE, gave listeners the Nashville twang.

WHN and its respectable ratings suffered when it faced some competition in the early 1980s with the birth of WKHK at 106.7, now the home of WLTW/Lite FM. It was the era of the John Travolta film, Urban Cowboy, where bars with mechanical bulls were popping up everywhere–even this far north of the Grand Ole Opry.

On July 1, 1987, WHN was gone and WFAN took over 1050, and ultimately 660 AM. But Country got a reprieve from the Governor. WYNY used the WHN change to fill a void in the market and inject life into its own sluggish station by giving the rarely used New York format another shot. It remained that way until February 1996.

Pete Salant, who ran the now-defunct WYNY in the 1980s as an Adult Contemporary station, tells FishbowlNY that Country can get people tuning in here, but not enough.

“The problem is not a lack of potential Country listeners in the New York Metro,” Salant tells FishbowlNY. “In New Jersey, Long Island, and Connecticut, inside the Metro geography, there’s probably a 3 share in total persons for a full market signal FM Country station.”

He says that would typically generate eight to 10 million dollars per year in gross revenue for a format.

“The problem is the advertising time buyers, who are young, inexperienced, generally women born and raised in the boroughs,” Salant says. “They don’t personally like most Country music, and they perceive it as being for hicks or cowboys. No amount of education has changed their minds, just ask the former general managers of the post-1988 WYNY when it was Country and owned by Westwood One. They pulled their hair out over this.”

So does that mean that Country is always doomed to fail in New York?

Not necessarily.

A recent report by Nielsen Soundscan contained a shocker: the most Country CDs are sold in the five boroughs.

Bill Rock, who spun Country tunes for several years on WYNY, says regardless of the perceived popularity, it’s an uphill climb.

“There are two basic reasons why station owners have shied away from country,” Rock tells FishbowlNY. “The first is a perceived stigma among time buyers on Madison Ave. The second is station owners think they can do better with another format. They still consider country a niche format which doesn’t make much sense when you consider that Country music is the second most popular music among teens.”

Country is flourishing just outside of the City limits. In the 1990s, Westchester-based Y-107, complete with veteran morning personality Jim Kerr, took its turn with the folksy. New Jersey has its share of Country stations removed from the tri- state listening area. Today, the eastern end of Long Island is getting its Country on as well. WJVC was flipped to Country 96.1 last year when it was acquired by longstanding Long Island broadcasters, JVC Media. Its program director and morning host refers to himself as “Phathead,” and refuses to reveal his real name.

“I believe the Country lifestyle has always been a suburban lifestyle,” Phathead tells FishbowlNY. “The farmland, the open spaces, [and] trucks, all that is in the suburbs.”

The station is licensed to Center Moriches, and targets from Riverhead to the Hamptons. It is 64 miles from Riverhead to Queens, and 77 miles to Manhattan.

He says making the station a Country destination was a no-brainer.

“Country music works everywhere,” Phathead says. “Country music is as pop culture right now as it gets.”

He points to the success of Taylor Swift’s latest hit, We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, which set a record for most downloads on iTunes in one week.

“That should be enough of a signal that Country works everywhere,” Phathead admits. “However, I will say that what we found is most of the real diehard, major country fans live in the suburbs.”

Despite not having a radio presence in the Greater New York City area, country music stars perform to sellout crowds in the tri-state.

Swift has taken her tours to screaming fans at Madison Square Garden, most recently last November.

Grammy-winning group Lady Antebellum (and former Hootie and Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker) played two nights in May at Radio City Music Hall, deep in the heart of Midtown.

The latest tour of Country superstars Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw meandered through MetLife Stadium in August.

“You take a look at those 60,000 people there for Kenny Chesney,” Phathead says. “They are all from the suburbs. They are all from the outskirts. That’s why, I believe, you’re not seeing a station in the heart of the New York City area.”

Still, listeners can hear those crossover hits in New York, primarily on CBS Radio’s Fresh 102.7/WWFS. Others find more creative ways to stay connected to their beloved music.

“Country Music fans are incredibly loyal to their music. They know where their favorite artists are,” Former WHN jock Dan Taylor says.  “I have friends who traveled from New York to Los Angeles to see a Toby Keith concert. Many acts opt for TV advertising. I don’t think any of the major stars are starving!”

But the question remains: How do you program a country radio station for success in New York City?

Taylor, the WCBS-FM morning man, and WHN’s final voice, weighs in on maintaining the sounds of Country in NYC.

“I certainly don’t have possession of the ‘programming crystal ball’, and there’s so many theories, but eventually it always comes down to ratings and/or revenue,” Taylor tells FishbowlNY.

But as FM real estate becomes available, such as the recent return to Alternative Rock on Merlin Media’s WRXP, programmers regularly pass on the nation’s most popular format.

“It’s tricky in New York, but Ed Salamon and fellow WHN PD’s after him were able to ‘thread the needle’ with the format here. Music director Pam Green also had an ear for what was the right fit for the market,” Taylor contends. “Bottom line, you need to really know the music, the format, and use the research creatively for this market. It may be too big a gamble for some radio groups today.”

Even if the station does perform well, managers remain uneasy and quick to pull the plug.

“WYNY was still the most listened to country station in America 16 years ago; imagine what it would have become today?” Rock says. “There was a lack of commitment to the country music format among New York radio station owners for the long run.”

Rock, a deep baritone, who is one of NBC’s main prime time announcers, was a main cog in the Country success at WYNY, hosting the Saturday Night Country Club for eight years.

“I had one of the highest rated shows in New York on Saturday nights,” Rock contends. “I was on two percent of the broadcast week, yet I had twenty percent of the station’s entire weekly CUME (audience).”

For now, listeners within top market are forced to get their Country fix from other modes. Most stations are streaming online, including Country 96.1. In this social media driven world we live in now, fans keep updated on Facebook and Twitter, while catching their favorite artists on YouTube.

“That is one of the main reasons why country music has gotten more mainstream and gotten to the people and has become more accepted in pop culture,” Phathead says. “It has made that move because of the technology and the things we have today.”

Those who are willing to pluck down a premium payment can also listen to Country’s finest at Sirius XM Satellite Radio. When Sirius launched, Rock was one of the initial personalities hired for the Prime Country channel. (Today, he hosts a weekly Saturday night show on the Elvis channel.)

Taylor recognizes satellite’s place in today’s radio, but believes listeners are losing out.

“WHN had a soul. We’d appear at local events, do live broadcasts at various local venues, keep people updated in a bad storm,” Taylor admits. “Something voice-tracked Satellite radio would find hard to match.”

In the end, WJVC program director Phathead says Country has never been more mainstream or more pop, perhaps starting this latest wave with Carrie Underwood’s American Idol winning run in 2005.

“So it’s definitely a possibility.”

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