BrainTrust Query: How do you stay ‘country’ in the new US of A?

Discussion
Feb 06, 2007

By David Morse, President & CEO, New American Dimensions, LLC

I think Bob Newhart said it best: “I don’t like country music, but I don’t mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means ‘put down’.”

Let’s face it. In certain parts of the US of A, country music and the people who like it get a bad rap. And with America’s shifting demographics, things may not be getting better.

According to a recent Washington Post article, Los Angeles joined the ranks of New York and San Francisco when the city’s last FM country music station, KZLA, changed formats. That means that three of the top five markets are without an FM country station. Among the reasons for this switch, says the article: “It’s increasingly difficult to succeed with country radio in a market where Caucasians carry less and less sway.”

According to 2006 Arbitron data, only 5.4 percent of country radio’s national audience is Hispanic and only 2.3 percent is African American — not impressive scores in a nation that is now about 15 percent Hispanic and 13 percent Black.

One radio station in Miami, WKIS (aka Kiss Country), is not going to sit back and sing the blues, despite being in a market whose 12-plus demographic is 46 percent Hispanic. Faced with a White exodus from Southern Florida (the non-Hispanic White population has declined by 20 percent since the 2000 census), the station is actively courting Hispanic listeners.

But it isn’t easy. According to program director Bob Barnett, “There appears to be a very vocal bias (and/or) prejudice that exists in South Florida among Whites who feel that the Hispanics have ‘pushed’ their culture and language on everyone else. We can’t even do bilingual (station) ID’s without significant listener backlash.”

It’s this prejudice that makes targeting Hispanic tricky, but Barnett has learned the game. Since so few Hispanics have a long history with country, he tones down the traditional sounding country in favor of more contemporary sounds by artist like Shania Twain and Faith Hill. He also plays songs by African American star Cowboy Troy and Hispanic Rick Trevino. “But not because they’re ethnic,” he says. “We have them because they make great songs.”

Still, according to Barnett, making the music mix “more Hispanic friendly without disenfranchising the core…becomes a very delicate balancing act.”

Discussion Questions: What advice would you give to classically “American” products or brands that are looking to remain relevant as American demographics shift? How do you remain relevant without alienating your core consumers?

What country music has going for it – what a lot of traditional American brands have going for them – is an ethic that Hispanics can relate to. Barnett gets it. “They’re very family oriented, hardworking, spiritual and patriotic. The themes in country music aren’t foreign to them,” he says.

Perhaps the most stellar examples of an American icon doing things right is NASCAR.

For several years, the brand has been actively wooing multicultural fans. In Los Angeles, it has been a sponsor of Fiesta Broadway, offering fans the opportunity to meet Hispanic drivers and get an up-close view of a NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Stock car.

Last year, the classic Southern 500 became what some called the “Southern California 500,” when the traditional Labor Day weekend race was moved from Darlington, South Carolina to Los Angeles. That same month, with much fanfare, NASCAR signed Colombian Formula One driver Juan Pablo Montoya, a move that according to USA Today was designed to not only attract Hispanic fans but Spanish speaking TV networks like Univision and Telemundo as well. About nine percent of NASCAR’s fans are reported to be Hispanic.

For American brands that have had little recognition or appeal with Hispanic consumers, the acculturation of Hispanics is probably what works the most in their favor. To quote Kiss Country’s Bob Barnett, “Now that we’re getting into the second and third generation of Latinos, it appears that the assimilation into American culture is slowly taking place – as is their interest level in country music.”

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10 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: How do you stay ‘country’ in the new US of A?"


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Kenneth A. Grady
Guest
Kenneth A. Grady
15 years 3 months ago

It has been a luxury to market in the US where companies have faced a large and relatively homogeneous customer base for many years. Companies that have operated in global markets for consumer goods have learned some of the techniques to address a broader customer base. Perhaps the most obvious is knowing your customer and delivering what the customer wants, not what you want to sell. In the modern marketplace, it is understanding that operating in an ever more segmented market requires becoming profitable on a small base, or deciding to build your product to the least common denominator to get the highest volume.

Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 3 months ago

I believe…that “country” stations that play Lefty Frizzell and Toby Keith back-to-back are doomed to failure…I believe…that Outlaw Country appeals to the Outlaw in all of us, although it may be an acquired taste…I believe there is a niche market even in L.A. for country, if stations did some research and made a serious effort. And for those who believe Willie and Waylon are ever going to ride off permanently into the sunset, well, “Here’s your sign.”

Ben Ball
Guest
15 years 3 months ago
Mr. Barnett gets something way too many of us don’t–“country” is not ethnic, nor is it geographic in the way of “southern” or “western”–country is a culture. It is a rural, agronomically oriented culture that holds family values and other things like love and respect for the land dear. It is patriotic–but not jingoistic–that would be called “redneck.” I’ve had the eye-opening good fortune to live and work in some interesting parts of the world. Some quite urban and some not so much. There is one inviolable truth I have learned. The greatest and most predictable differentiator between people is rural vs. urban heritage. Note that I said heritage–not dwellers. That’s because there are too many people like me. Ironically enough, the best way to illustrate my point is to describe my morning drive to work. I left my suburban Chicago townhome in a sedan made in South Korea. As I sipped my coffee, my bride and colleague–a native Chicagoan–plugged in her iPod and said “I found this for you on iTunes last night.” The… Read more »
Mark Burr
Guest
15 years 3 months ago
Barbara Mandrell used to sing “I was country, when country wasn’t cool.” Today, “country” is cool, but it’s not so much “country” any more. What country music stations to date haven’t recognized is that today’s so-called “country” music is more like today’s “pop” music. Its listeners love the music but don’t like the format. The music has long passed the format…the format simply hasn’t caught up. Cheryl Crow, Kid Rock, Jon Bon Jovi, Kelly Clarkson and others would never want the label of “country” but they have all crossed over to capture the only real market in music that has that level of cross-over appeal. Conversely, Faith Hill, Rascal Flats and many others have done the same in reverse. The same is true for the many new fans of Johnny Cash as a result of his last release and then his death that caused a new look by the “whole” music community. It’s not the music at all. It’s the format. Current formats for delivery of country music may work in certain demographics, but not… Read more »
Ryan Mathews
Guest
15 years 3 months ago

To echo Ben’s point (acknowledging that we are all responding to the country music issue and not to the actual question) re: the “Caucasian” issue–how do you explain the success of country tunes by Ray Charles, Aaron Neville, Freddy Fender and most recently Cowboy Troy? I live in Detroit where amazingly enough the Hoe Down draws over a million and the Blues Festival was canceled for lack of interest. So much for ethnicity and music.

Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
Guest
15 years 3 months ago
Dan Nelson hit the issue right on–it’s about segmentation of the audience. Since radio is a mass market, they are going to continue to have a difficult time holding the line to attract a mixed audience for any one station. Demassification of the consumer market is hitting everyone hard, especially those who have been targeting a mass market. There will continue to be smaller segments with more diverse interests so that attracting more than one target will be a real challenge. There is no real “Hispanic” market in the US; there are several different “Hispanic” markets. One approach will not attract all Hispanics. We all need to be thinking of how to attract smaller, diverse segments. There are pockets of people who love country music in every state and in every city. Is that segment large enough to run a radio station profitably? Maybe not. What will happen to the people who love country music? They will go online, download the music they like, and play their MP3 players or iPods in their cars and… Read more »
Robert Leppan
Guest
Robert Leppan
15 years 3 months ago
I’d like to compliment David Morse for an insightful perspective on how changing demographics and culture can affect brands & institutions as American as apple pie. And, as per his observation, country music is grappling with this new reality. There are other examples of American “institutions” who are reaching out effectively to ethnic populations, notably pro sports like major league baseball and NASCAR so it’s not impossible but it can be a delicate balancing act to avoid backlash from the core franchise. On the music front, it isn’t that Latinos don’t care for “country” …they do, very much. In fact they have their own parallel “country” genre en espanol, variously called ranchero, banda or norteno and played on hundreds of music stations across the U.S. of A. Insofar as how to court ethnic listeners to country, David’s example of the WKIS integrating a slightly more ethnic mix to their programming is a good one. Anyone recall Freddie Fender from the good old days of country? As Latinos become more acculturated, I feel it’s a natural… Read more »
Bill Bittner
Guest
Bill Bittner
15 years 3 months ago
There is a huge demographic factor at work here that goes far beyond cultural heritage and ethnic background. To the uninitiated (and I am certainly one of those), country music is associated with a “down and out story.” (They shot my dog, my horse died, and my girlfriend left me.) No one wants to be associated with “a loser.” Urban areas are for winners. Urban areas radiate youth, the singles scene, and risk taking. What the cultural or ethnic background are is much less important than the message that is being sent. To get more specific to the question – What can American brands do? – first I have to ask whether there is really a problem. I think all the people who are concerned about the entertainment business and the effects of Hollywood should stop to think for a moment what the film and TV industry do for promoting American brands. People don’t want to emigrate here or buy American brands because they are losers. It is the fantasy world of Hollywood (the streets… Read more »
Dan Nelson
Guest
Dan Nelson
15 years 3 months ago

The issue isn’t about Country music, but more about consumer segmentation. Country music has the same challenges as any other brand, and that’s to drive appeal to an increasingly differentiated marketplace. So now you have classic country, modern country, Hispanic country, etc., and the stations must recognize they can’t reach this diverse base in a one size fits all approach.

Understand your market reach and study the listeners interests and needs then build a show format and music menu around your findings. You will build a loyal listener base, and sell more targeted advertising which drives a station’s revenues and success. There are plenty of good examples that can be studied as well as stations now out of business that didn’t understand the importance of a targeted approach….

Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 3 months ago

New York City has had trouble sustaining a country music radio station for 30 years even though more than 60 AM and FM stations serve the market. Radio is a mass medium. More and more people are using “internet radio” and iPods, anyway.

Sometimes ethnically-based items make a “breakout”: they get adopted by the wider culture. Bagels, pizza, and tacos are excellent examples. And they weren’t popularized by movie and TV stars, either. They did it on their own.

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