Country Radio: Nowhere In New York

This appeared in the New York Times - February 16, 2003

WHEN the country musician and producer Marty Stuart was in New York late last year to promote "Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash," it should have been easy. With performances by Mr. Stuart and other established country performers like Travis Tritt, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle as well as rockers like Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, "Kindred Spirits" is a heartfelt and wide-ranging homage to a country music giant from musicians who have sold hundreds of millions of albums.

Yet Mr. Stuart found just two radio stations interested in it. One was WNYC-AM, a National Public Radio station with a news and talk format, and the other was WFUV-FM, Fordham University's eclectic folk, rock and roots station. With the exception of WFUV, it is unlikely that any of the recordings on "Kindred Spirits" were played, or will be played, in New York.

As musicians and executives from the world of country music travel to New York this week for the Grammy Awards, at a time when their national profile and sales are way up, it's a sad and deflating paradox that they won't be hearing country music on New York radio. Mr. Stuart's quandary is one that has been facing them, as well as country fans, since last May, when WYNY-FM (107.1) switched from country to a Top 40 Spanish format, leaving New York without a country music station.

And despite widespread agreement that a New York country station could be lucrative, the situation is unlikely to change soon. "It's sad and it's frustrating," Mr. Stuart said. "There's a misapprehension that there are no country fans in New York." He pointed out that New York was the scene of several watershed performances in the history of country music, including Flatt and Scruggs's 1962 Carnegie Hall concert and Waylon Jennings's 1973 appearance at Max's Kansas City. But the lack of a country station makes it more difficult for country musicians to bring their tours to the New York area.

"Now there's no club like the Lone Star in New York and no radio station," Mr. Stuart added. "If you want to play New York, you have to scale down your show and go to the Bottom Line or out to Old Westbury on Long Island. If we had a radio station it could be different. I don't understand why no one wants to step up."

Nationwide, country remains a mainstay of radio: there are 2,195 commercial stations employing a country format, about 20 percent of all commercial stations, according to Interep, an advertising sales and marketing company specializing in radio. Yet broadcasters are hesitant to program country music in New York. Some radio executives say that has nothing to do with demand and everything to do with advertiser prejudice.

IF someone started a country station in New York, they'd probably be in the top 10," said Eric Wellman, assistant director of programming at the classic-rock station WAXQ-FM (104.3). "But they couldn't sell it. The stations get listeners, but advertisers tend to feel they're not the ones they want. The attitude is that you may get 20 million listeners but they're all on welfare and driving rusted pickup trucks."

In reality, studies demonstrate that the economic profile of the average country music fan in the New York area is almost identical to that of listeners to such top-rated adult contemporary stations as WLTW-FM (106.7) and WPLJ-FM (95.5) — one of the most sought-after demographics. Most country music fans in New York live in the suburbs, and they actually appear to be slightly more affluent than adult-contemporary listeners: they have higher rates of home ownership, second cars and managerial jobs. Country audiences do tend to skew slightly toward women, however — not as attractive a target audience as one that is predominantly male or equally divided. "Apparently, country music fans don't drive cars or eat," Mr. Wellman said with a roll of the eyes.

The veteran New York disc jockey Jim Kerr, who has had shows on both WPLJ and WYNY, said: "A full-power country station in New York could, without much trouble, draw an audience equivalent to that of WPLJ, which is perceived to be a successful station." And like many who have worked in New York country radio, Mr. Kerr said he was mystified by the absence of a country outlet considering the past success enjoyed by stations like WHN-AM and WYNY.

During the late 70's, when Ed Salamon was its program director, WHN was the No. 2 station in New York with 1.5 million listeners. "Of course the market can support a country station," said Mr. Salamon, now president of the industry trade group Country Radio Broadcasters. "All those people didn't move out of New York. The people in the greater New York area are not all that different from the rest of America, and the issues for a country broadcaster are very much the same as they are for any other format: you've got to provide a compelling station."

Sean Ross, the Group Editor at Airplay Monitor, the radio publication of Billboard, and a longtime observer of New York radio, agreed. "WHN was a world-class station that happened to be a country station," he said. "There has always been a niche and some money for country in New York if somebody was willing to do it." Indeed, when WHN switched to a sports format in 1987 and became WFAN, WYNY immediately stepped in to fill the country void, broadcasting first as an NBC-owned station at 97.1 and later, when General Electric sold NBC's radio holdings, at 103.5 under the ownership of Westwood One.

During the early 90's, WYNY demonstrated country's continuing appeal to New York listeners, grabbing the sixth-largest adult audience in the city. Mr. Kerr said that the numbers the station was garnering then would today put it right behind the talk station WABC-AM (770), which is currently No. 7 in the New York radio market among listeners 12 and older. But the steady numbers and listener loyalty that were the hallmarks of the country format were proving less and less important in the evolving world of New York radio, and in 1996 a new owner, Evergreen Broadcasting, replaced WYNY with WKTU, an urban hits station (which quickly became No. 1 in the market).

"People in the radio business don't want consistency, they want growth," said an industry veteran who did not want to be identified. "If you're a country station in New York, you're going to top off: you're never going to be No. 1 in the market, and people want to be No. 1. Of course, in pursuit of being No. 1 you usually wind up being No. 25. So why not go after the country market knowing that you can be the No. 7 or 8 station in New York?"

That may very well have been the thinking behind the next incarnation of WYNY. The format and call letters were picked up by New York-based Big City Radio and moved to 107.1, where the station became known as Country Y-107. But before the station had broadcast on a single strong New York City signal. The new WYNY was actually an amalgam of four small suburban transmitters in Stroudsburg, Pa., Long Branch, N.J., Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., and eastern Long Island, all broadcasting on 107.1. The result was an uneven and hard-to-hold signal that was particularly elusive in New York City; WYNY dropped from the 3.5 percent share of the New York market it had enjoyed at its peak in the 90's to 1.2 percent in early 2001.

But even with the weak signal, Mr. Kerr pointed out, the station was the No. 1 suburban broadcaster in the market — an accomplishment he thinks could have been built on. Instead, Big City converted WYNY last May to Rumba 107.1, a Latin hits station. In its first Arbitron ratings book, the station failed to register, scoring a zero. Last month, Big City declared bankruptcy and sold the stations to a New Jersey broadcaster for $43 million. Their future format is unclear.

That's scant comfort for the fans, musicians and executives who want to see a country music station in New York. In the absence of airplay, country music sales have not made the same gains in New York that they have in much of the rest of the country. According to Nielsen SoundScan, total sales of country albums in the United States rose to 76.9 million last year from 68.5 million in 2001, but country sales in New York were virtually unchanged.

"The only options we have for promoting country artists in New York are the morning news shows, programs like `Regis and Kelly,' and local newspapers," said Joe Galante, chairman of the RCA Labels Group, Nashville. "It's a problem when your artist can't get exposure to the largest metropolitan market in the U.S."

Yet while acknowledging broadcasters' concerns that country can't provide the big, immediate payoff that executives crave, he and other country music executives have so far resisted broadcasters' suggestions that record companies should help underwrite a New York country station. "There have been conversations with a number of chains," Mr. Galante acknowledged. "But that's not our job."

Within the New York radio community, speculation has focused on WNEW-FM (102.7) stepping in to fill the void. Once a rock powerhouse, WNEW has lagged badly as a talk station in recent years and was forced last summer to suspend its top-rated show, Opie and Anthony, after the shock-jock duo encouraged a couple to have sex in St. Patrick's Cathedral as part of an on-air contest. "It's the first thing I'd do with WNEW," said Billboard's Mr. Ross. "There's absolutely a hole here and a station should be flipped to fill it." Although WNEW's parent company, Infinity Broadcasting, has given up on the station's FM talk format (and operates a successful Chicago country station, WUSN), it appears unlikely that WNEW will become a country station. A company spokesman, Dana McClintock, declined to comment on what the new format, expected to begin in March or April, would be, but noted that the station is currently playing pop music. Radio executives suspect the new format will continue in that direction.

Nor is Fordham's WFUV-FM (90.7) interested in altering its current programming mix to attract WYNY's former listeners. "We've debated whether we should fill the void," said WFUV's program director, Chuck Singleton. "But we weren't playing what Y-107 was before they went off the air, and this hasn't changed us. Y-107 attracted a very different audience."

WFUV plays country artists like Mr. Stuart, Ms. Harris and Mr. Earle, who have one foot in Nashville and the other planted firmly in the music that gave root to contemporary country sounds. But its music format is known in the radio business as Triple A (for Adult Album Alternative), and much of its music is what's called Americana. Unlike the country format, which emphasizes current hits with strong pop appeal, Americana plays historic and contemporary music based on American folk, blues and country traditions. Although largely confined to public and college radio stations, the music's growing popularity was demonstrated by the phenomenal success of the soundtrack album "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?" The divide between country and Americana remains pronounced, with few fans of a pop-oriented country performer like Shania Twain interested in hearing the bluegrass music of the Stanley Brothers, and vice versa.

Marty Stuart, for one, wonders if New York isn't the market to bridge the divide. "They like a bit of authenticity in New York," he said. "The more popish things don't play as well here as they do in other parts of the country. In Nashville they're still sticking to their guns that `O Brother' was a fluke. Well, six million records is not a fluke. That's the culture crying with its hand out. And I also wonder why, if country now poses as a pop music, it doesn't have an oldies format. Every other pop music does. What was it Roger Miller said about writing songs? `I never wrote what was on the charts — I looked for the holes and tried to fill 'em in.' The Big Apple is wide-open for a hillbilly station."

The place where country radio may ultimately flower into a myriad of formats is satellite broadcasting. One satellite broadcaster, Sirius, is currently experimenting with five different country formats including the kind of "classic" country programming Mr. Stuart advocates. Yet satellite radio's reach is still extremely limited, and it's impossible to say what the programming mix will actually be like when and if satellite broadcasting becomes an everyday option for New York listeners. Mr. Kerr is among the former WYNY disk jockeys who now has a country show on Sirius, and he's hopeful that the new technology will achieve the kind of penetration that will let it reach New York's country fans — largely because he has tossed in the towel on New York country radio.

"It's unfortunate that I have to say this because I really do care about that audience," Mr. Kerr said. "But I just do not see a commercial country station in New York in the foreseeable future."

By Fred Goodman

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