Country's Hot, but Big Cities Offer Cold Shoulder

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By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 2006

On the same night that country stars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw opened a set of three sold-out shows at Los Angeles's Staples Center, the city's only country-music radio station dropped the format entirely. Keith Urban's "Tonight I Wanna Cry" faded out and the Black Eyed Peas' "Let's Get It Started" launched KZLA's new sound, a mix of R&B and dance hits.

With last month's format switch in Los Angeles, the nation's two largest markets now have no country on the radio. New York lost its last country station in 2002, a year after San Francisco fell into the same status.

Country's decline on the radio seems paradoxical at first, because the genre is doing better than much of the rest of the music industry these days. While CD sales have drooped in most formats, sales of country albums jumped by 18 percent in the first half of this year, Nielsen SoundScan figures show. After a painful drop in the quality of new country in the late 1990s and early part of this decade, the music is coming back strong, according to critics and radio executives.

In Washington, WMZQ (98.7 FM) is keeping its country format and maintaining its strong showing in the ratings. "We've been holding our own with our audience in this very diverse, ethnic area," says the station's program director, George King. "We're a rural, outside-the-Beltway format, but among non-ethnics, we're in the top two or three stations." ("Non-ethnics" is the industry term for whites.)

Color, it seems, is what drove KZLA, the country station with the nation's second-highest billings, to drop the format. Country attracts an almost all-white audience, and in some big cities, including Los Angeles and New York, whites are in the minority. Increasingly, radio companies believe they can fine-tune other music formats to create the largest possible audience of black, Latino and white listeners.

Whites are barely more than 40 percent of the population in the Los Angeles area, and country listeners are about 98 percent white, Rick Cummings, president of radio at Emmis Communications (which owns KZLA), told the Los Angeles Times. "My job is to attract as large an audience as possible," he said. "KZLA is now playing music that appeals to Hispanic adult women, and that will hopefully attract other suburban women of different ethnicities."

WMZQ's audience is about 95 percent white, King says, just as the Washington area's top-rated stations -- which tend to be hip-hop and black hits stations -- attract overwhelmingly black audiences. But one crucial difference in listening habits might portend a difficult future for country on the radio: Blacks and Latinos tend to listen to radio for much longer each day than do whites.

In addition, white listeners are more likely to switch their music habits over to iPods and other MP3 devices, making them less devoted radio listeners. As long as blacks and Latinos continue to adopt iPods and satellite radio at a slower rate than whites, stations will be tempted to aim their programming at those groups.

Rock has been hardest hit by this calculus, but at least in major coastal cities, country might be vulnerable too.

Country might find a saving grace in another aspect of audience demographics. King says country stations benefit from having a somewhat older audience than pop stations -- WMZQ's average listener is about 46 -- and middle-aged country fans are less likely to have turned their ears entirely over to downloaded tunes.

"We're an adult format," King says, "so we're not as deeply affected by MP3s as the more tech-savvy pop audience. I'm 45 and the perfect example: Do I own an MP3 player? No. Do my kids? Absolutely."

Measured purely by the number of stations playing a given form of music, country remains the dominant format on American radio, with about one-fifth of all stations devoting their airtime to the music. But the great majority of those stations are in small, rural markets, especially in the South.

Country fans in some big urban centers eventually might find themselves with nowhere to go but satellite radio. XM and Sirius devote several channels to various specialized country formats, where listeners can choose between country classics, contemporary hits and themed channels, such as Sirius's Outlaw Country, where the deejays play up their renegade personalities and the afternoon jock signs off each day with "See ya later, fornicators!"

What WMZQ offers to counter the appeal of the thinly sliced niches on satellite radio is local deejays, news and traffic -- and the sense of being part of a community based where listeners live. The station's programming is all local except for the overnight show, which is syndicated fare from Los Angeles.

It's too soon to say which technology will prevail. In Los Angeles, the format switch on KZLA meant that the city's largest country music festival lost its sponsor. Within hours, however, another source of country stepped into the breach: XM announced it would take over sponsorship of the festival.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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