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.