Country Music Radio Airplay Rules Changing Tune With The Times

Streaming and TikTok has made country radio, still the format’s dominant path of music discovery, take to major changes in order to keep audience tuned in.

As times change, country radio has been often been behind country music’s sonic style shifts. These days, however, they’ve had to set aside their collective egos and embrace new metrics and break from old genre rules.

There was a time in country music — recently as five years ago — where features and collaborations (though popular amongst fans and artists) weren’t often heard in country music and, if these collaborations were promoted at all, it was timed to coincide with new album releases from all the artists combined (think  “If You See Him/If You See Her” from Reba McEntire and Brooks And Dunn) or released as duets with one of the artists between album cycles. With the rise of social media platforms like TikTok, YouTube and the a-la-carte streaming sea change, country radio has had to change with the times. All of this has lead the genre to following the path laid by Pop and Hip Hop, where features were prevalent and, in the case of the biggest stars, more than one song from the featured artists became hits at virtually the same time. This latter happening is especially true with Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen. At the time of publishing, Wallen’s bigger “current” hit on the country radio charts, the streaming smash “Last Night,” wasn’t the original radios single follow-up to the huge smash “You Proof.” Instead, “One Thing At A Time” was the country radio choice. While it’s in the format’s Top 10, the No. 1 for three weeks now, is “Last Night” with no end in sight for Wallen’s massive hit. Wallen currently has two other tracks from his One Thing At A Time album on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.

Another star with big radio success, Luke Combs, also has a viral smash hit in his cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” This song, while not Top 10 yet, is bound for there as it’s already nipping at the heels of official radio single “Love You Anyway.” That song outpaced “Five Leaf Clover” to become the follow-up hit from Combs’ Gettin’ Old album and also charted on the radio Top 40 before the label asked the stations to ignore “Clover” (for now). Combs is actually featured on Riley Green’s new single “Different ‘Round Here,” which speaks to the belief that too much is never enough for radio these days — especially with the biggest stars. Recently, Lainey Wilson was in the Top 5 with both her own single “Heart Like A Truck” and her ACM Awards winning duet with HARDY, “wait in the truck.”

Historically, Music Row has been very against the idea of “over-saturation” and country radio, while it would play stars over and over again, it didn’t want to play too many songs by one or two artists within a certain time frame (all of this arbitrary to specific programmers). Now, thanks to the democratization brought on by streaming and the data showing what listeners ACTUALLY want to listen to (that is actively instead of passive ‘radio on in the car’ or ‘radio on in the background of an office or retail establishment), country radio is paying attention. This has allowed for artists to be all over the charts while also leading to artists who would normally probably never had hits as artists — IE people who don’t “look” like country music stars (for example, Zach Bryan, Luke Combs, Jelly Roll, Priscilla Block, Kane Brown, etc.) — getting a shot at both Music Row and country radio programming. As the talent is coming forth, social media and streaming have made ‘real people’ stars all through new ways and country radio has had to keep with the times or doom itself (like the AM talk radio format) to be a relic of the past and fortunately, they have largely kept up and benefitted from embracing such artists.

Even given the fact about metrics forcing radio play listing change, radio still does offer artists a chance at hits against metrics (recently, Shane Proffitt had a radio hit with dreadful streaming numbers) and that’s fine too. It’s better to have a blend of metrics and old school country radio “star making” than sticking your head in the sand like a dodo bird thinking you’re the only way to make songs hits and the singers who sing them stars.