I came across an article on Rolling Stone a few months ago that still burns in the back of my mind. The title, “Why Country Radio Still Matters,” sparked my interest and kept my eyes focused on the entire page. I interned at CMT last spring, specifically in the radio department, so obviously this topic was right up my alley.
I am infatuated with country music. Something about the storytelling and the overall melodies grabs my attention more than any other genre. I can see the bond between this style of music and how it connects with its listeners via the radio.
By listening to overnight calls in the studio, you can quickly find out how adamant listeners are about letting you know what they like and what they hate. The majority of the time, you’ll have three or four in a row requesting the same song. I know this is why a multitude of people hate “top 40” radio, and I get it. But the DJs are just trying to give the people what they want.
The frustration of radio and not being able to hear what you want when you want it has led millennials to other options, such as streaming services. Spotify, Pandora, and Tidal all have arisen within the past few years and are spewing with success.
There is one flaw I find with these online services, and it’s one that keeps radio on top of its game: Discovering new music.
If I want to find a hot new country song on Spotify, I’m going to either have to dig, search my favorite artist, or wait for it to come across a premade playlist.
When new artists begin their career, one of the very first things they do in the business is go on radio tours. They’ll travel across the country and hit as many as they can. They’re trying to gain attention, build their fan base, and pray that the station likes their tune. If your song isn’t on the radio, you’re basically not making money. It’s the number one key to success; you’ve got to climb the charts.
It’s not ludicrous either. Mike Curb of Curb Records told Rolling Stone Country, “If those three chains don’t play your music, you won’t have a hit.” The three chains he referred to are the big dogs of the radio world: Cumulus Media, CBS Radio, and iHeartMedia.
Taylor Swift even opened up to Esquire last October describing the bond an artist harvests between radio and their career. “It's a symbiotic relationship, and if you don't take care of it, then they won't take care of you,” she said.
While I do have a premium subscription to Spotify, I find that FM or XM radio is typically my go-to. For starters, in the car it’s a lot more accessible—and you don’t have to waste your data! But also, especially with XM radio, I hear songs and news that others won’t come across for weeks or months.
According to a 2014 study with Edison Research, the numbers back up my feelings. Around 75 percent of listeners discover new music on terrestrial radio, followed by 20 percent on XM, with Spotify in third with 18 percent. Terrestrial radio triumphs because one, it’s free, and two, it’s the most accessible everywhere.
Maybe it’s my soft spot for radio, but I really don’t want to see the old school format go. Like they say in journalism, print is dying. In music, I don’t think radio is—at least with country music. Sure, we can continue the technology train, but in my opinion, radio will always be the game changer in which an artist rises or never becomes a household name.