Is Country Radio in Trouble?

Billboard's radio airplay chart is practically known as the 'gospel' for music city. The problem with the power the chart has is held in the fact that it doesn't take into account many of the middle to small market stations in the country. Why?

Written by Matt Bjorke

Looking at the two or three main country music charts one gets a sense that there are only four or five “stars” that consistently put out chart topping music while there’s about 25-30 other artists that rotate singles in and out of the charts, often taking four to seven months to peak on the charts. These facts seem like insurmountable obstacles to clinb when a new artist releases their single to country radio. And while that is true on some levels, if an artist is willing to work and service small-town radio stations, they can get their name out there. This much is evident by taking one look at Music Row Magazine’s “Country Breakout” chart.

It’s a chart that, on the surface, doesn’t look much different from Billboard’s chart but when you take a closer look, you’ll find Darius Rucker’s debut country single, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” sitting pretty in the Top 10 of the charts with almost 2700 spins while it sits at 21 with only 1700 spins reported to Billboard (which weighs a station’s market size into the chart data). An even more extreme example is Eric Church and his “His Kind of money (My Kind Of Love).” Church is at 12 on the Music Row chart while he’s not even Top 40 on the bigger charts.

Both of these artists happen to be on a big label (Capitol) that, you’d think, would be working as hard to get the song to be at the top of the charts on both big and small markets but what it looks like, to me, is that the smaller market stations may have a couple of things working for them. They have more autonomy in terms of play list size and are independent of large radio chains like Clear Channel and CBS or Cumulus. While still playing music to keep people listening to the advertisements, these smaller stations also do radio the right way, which is to give a wider variety so that people actually want to listen to the stations all day at work or while driving and don’t force the ‘listener’ to change the channel when the top 5 songs are repeated every hour or two.

These stations also allow veteran artists a chance at airplay (as evidenced by Mark Chesnutt’s Top 20 hit “When You Love Her Like Crazy”) or artists on very small labels, like Jeff Griffith and his Top 35 hit “Holed Up in Some Honky Tonk” to have a shot at radio success. The big conglomerate radio stations may not want to hear it but to keep listeners listening to those commercials they should take a playbook out of the small guy’s playbook and open up those play lists. There’s no reason for an artist like Josh Gracin to be working ONE single (“We Were Crazy”) for seven months.

Even if the conglomerates feel that familiarity equates a willingness to listen, all it really does is breed mediocrity and predictability, something country radio used to never be accused of.