Records vs. Radio: Once More, With Feeling

They called the Country Radio Seminar panel “Nashville Incorrect,” but they might just as well have named it “Nashville in Suspension” since it was merely a warming over of the historic spat between country record labels and radio stations. The panel convened Thursday (Feb. 28) at the Nashville Convention Center.

Participating in the well-attended discussion were Mike Dungan, president of Capitol Records/Nashville; Michael Powers, senior vice president of promotion for Mercury Records; Dene Hallam, operations manager of WYAY, Atlanta; Craig Havighurst, reporter for The Tennessean, the major Nashville daily; Mark Wills, Mercury Records artist; Heidi Newfield of the Warner Bros. Record group Trick Pony; Charlie Monk, Monk Family Music; and Rob Dalton, vice president of promotion for Epic Records. Radio personalities Lorianne Crook and Charlie Chase moderated.

As in such panels in the past, the complaint from the record companies during this one was that radio stations aren’t doing enough to nourish and promote the music they program. Radio’s response, equally predictable, was that it has its own agenda, principally making a profit, and that it is doing the best it can given the limitations of time and the quality of music record companies provide it.

The surprising Grammy victories the night before of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album sparked immediate discussion. “Don’t be thrown off focus that Ralph Stanley is male vocalist of the year and Dolly Parton is female vocalist of the year,” Hallam pleaded, arguing that their wins — and the general O Brother fanfare — are aberrations. He likened this upsurge of interest in old time and bluegrass music — which country radio stations have mostly ignored — to the transient popularity of “Dueling Banjos,” the theme of the 1972 movie Deliverance. That song, he said, didn’t do much to boost interest in country music.

Monk said the movie tie-in accounted for the O Brother sales phenomenon, particularly the appeal of its starring actor, George Clooney. “How many people want to hear ‘O Death’ [Stanley’s Grammy-winning vocal] when they wake up in the morning?” Monk asked rhetorically.

Havighurst reminded the panel that Clooney had done other movies with soundtracks, such as The Perfect Storm, and that they hadn’t generated O Brother-level sales. “The movie told the story of that music,” he said. “People related to the story of the music.”

Several panelists pleaded for radio to be more informative and promotional about the music it programs. “Jocks should do more to excite listeners,” Dungan asserted. Monk spoke of hearing a song on the radio he instantly loved and of his frustration at not being told the title of the song or the name of the artist. Ultimately, he discovered it was Blake Shelton’s “Austin.”

“I’m pissed off about everything,” Wills joked. He maintained that radio’s rigid notion of what its listeners want to hear has had the effect of dictating the kind of songs he can record and release. Newfield lamented radio’s “shrinking playlists and lack of diversity for different types of artists.”

Hallam said he was “tired of being the whipping boy” for country music’s current malaise. He contended most people go into radio because they love music, not because they’re hostile or indifferent to it. Responding to Newfield’s charge that it is “unfair for one guy to decide who listens to what,” Hallam asked, “What about all the songwriters you turned down [in selecting songs for Trick Pony to record]?” He pointed out that record companies also decide which artists they will and won’t record. Radio is just another necessary “gatekeeper,” he concluded.

On the matter of the increasing consolidation of radio stations under single ownership, Havighurst likened it to the rapid boom in the health-care industry. In concentrating on growth and profits, he said, the industry forgot it was supposed to provide health care and, thus, ignited a backlash. He said the same is happening now at radio and that radio is forgetting about its duty to the music.

Dungan noted that the cost of launching and maintaining artists in this time of tight playlists and slow movement of singles on the charts is driving up the number of albums a record company must sell to break even. Now, he said, that number has climbed to around 400,000 to 500,000. “Artists who have gold records [500,000],” he warned, “are going to start losing their deals.”

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Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to