Figuring out what’s going on with country radio has always been akin to trying to understand the Balkan countries: nothing is ever quite what it seems. These days, country radio is even more of a puzzle. As ever, mainstream country radio is not about the business of country music: it’s about the business of selling ads based on whatever programming best draws premium advertisers. But, in the wake of massive recent acquisitions and mergers, country radio is on the way to becoming something that we may not recognize.
To try to understand why it sometimes seems so damned difficult to hear good country music on the radio, let’s consider one particular area. New York City, as the No. 1 radio market in the United States, should be — a reasonable person would think — home to at least one decent country station. Instead, there are none. Country albums do sell in the metro New York area and country shows do well there. I lived in the middle of Manhattan for 15 years not so long ago, and I can tell you that a whole lot of people in that part of the country really do love their country music.
New York used to have good country radio. At one time, the city had a country radio show to rival the Grand Ole Opry. Radio station WHN’s Barndance in the 1930s featured such prominent country artists as Tex Ritter .
When I was living in New York through the ’70s and ’80s, WHN was a fine, good-listening station (it had returned to country programming in 1973 after years of other formats), with some memorable disc jockeys. Jocks like Lee Arnold and Dan Daniel and Dan Taylor were extremely knowledgeable country air personalities. A young woman with the air name of “Jessie” became New York City’s first female jock on AM radio, at WHN. As Jessie Scott, she’s now heading XM satellite radio’s country programming. She seems to know where the future of country radio lies — at least for her. Former WHN program director Ed Salamon is coming to Nashville to run the trade organization Country Radio Broadcasters, after heading syndicator Westwood One Radio Networks for years. Salamon was replaced at WHN by Dene Hallam, who has gone on to be a groundbreaking program director around the country.
By the late 1970s, WHN consistently finished in the ratings as a Top 15 station, which in that highly competitive market was very good indeed. The New York country audience was deemed so healthy that a second station flipped to country. From 1980 for four years, New York actually had two country stations, as FM station WKHK joined the fray. WKHK, however, didn’t perform well enough for its ownership, which flipped the station in 1984 to a “lite AC” format (meaning: adult contemporary: pablum).
WHN continued to have respectable ratings, but as the stakes in radio grew ever and ever higher, “respectable” was no longer good enough. In 1987, WHN owner Doubleday sold the station to Emmis Broadcasting, which changed the station’s call letters and format to sports talk station WFAN. That same day — July 1 — FM AC outlet WYNY picked up New York’s country identity by flipping to country programming at midnight and beginning its country broadcasting with Dolly Parton ’s “Think About Love.”
Ratings for WYNY ping-ponged but were never consistently high. At any rate, its ownership dropped the country format on Feb. 4, 1996. In December of that year, an area corporation decided to resuscitate country music in New York by combining three suburban radio stations (which shared the same FM frequency) into one country entity as Y-107, later adding one other station. Y-107 was a major presence at Garth Brooks ’ 1997 Central Park concert. But its impact was lessened by the fact that it essentially was four low-powered suburban transmitters that couldn’t geographically cover the whole area. As four little stations, its signals didn’t carry far and it could not become a major Arbitron factor in ratings. Then, money beckoned. Ownerships changed and Y-107 disappeared. On May 7 of this year, the broadcast of Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” signaled the end of Y-107. And again the New York metro area has no country music radio outlet.
There is a lesson here: Radio is not about serving the listener — it’s about turning a profit. By whatever means necessary.
(Nashville Skyline is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo)