Widening Country Radio's Parameters (Commentary By John Sebastian)

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Widening Country Radio's Parameters (Commentary By John Sebastian)
By John Sebastian
Publication: Radio Monitor
Date: Friday, February 10 2006

Now that I am programming a Jack station in Chicago, I have two major thoughts rolling around in my head.

First, I am really going to miss country radio, the music and the people involved. Country music and country programmers, artists and the record community are certainly the most passionate, warm, down-to-earth and accessible of any of the people I have known in my now almost 38 years in the radio biz.

Second, my perspective on the format is now crystal clear. Not working in it relieves me of that "forest for the trees" syndrome we all experience.

I have now programmed three country radio stations?KZLA Los Angeles; WLXX (the Bear) Lexington, Ky.; and WSM-FM (the Wolf) Nashville?and in all these circumstances we have been fortunate enough to do extremely well.

I certainly hope to come back to the country format in the future to continue some of the unique things we pioneered. I am encouraged that several stations around the nation are now opening up to some of the things we did so successfully with the "rebel" country stations I have mentioned here.

My perspective?and really my hope?is for all of country radio to strongly consider making our music more accessible to a much wider, more diverse audience.

How do we do that? What are the lessons to be learned from what we did in L.A., Lexington and Nashville? The simple explanation, and my suggestion, is to make our format inclusive, not nearly so exclusive.

I cannot tell you how many listeners e-mailed or phoned me with their stories about becoming country listeners for the first time. Before they heard our station, they just did not consider themselves the kind of people who would enjoy the music. Time after time, they would share how our radio station made them feel comfortable about listening to country. And when they listened for a long period of time, they came to the realization that this music is great.

What makes a country station inclusive?

? Play all the music that can be loosely considered country?according to listeners, not we "radio experts." This would include great classics, hip oldies and country rock as well as the awesome new music we are fortunate to have for our use in today's country radio.

? Structure the radio station like a great AC or rock station. Make the presentation passionate, genuine and real?no hype.

? Put the music on a pedestal. Make the music the star, not the air talent or any single person at the radio station.

? Do not be restricted by the chart system. It is too slow, too political. Often the best-testing songs do not make it to No. 1. And all too often some really poor-testing songs do go to No. 1.

If you follow this flawed system for your radio station, you will be perpetuating mediocrity. Break out and find out what your listeners want and when they want it. The timing of these hits is often not consistent with the charts.

? Do localized research. Whether it is traditional callout, auditorium music tests and/or online music testing, find out what your listeners really want to hear. And test songs that break out of the subjective boundaries we have set for ourselves.

I sincerely believe country radio can be the most mass appeal and successful of all the radio formats. As well as we are doing across America, we can do better by inviting all of the people to get turned on to our great music. ????

John Sebastian recently joined CBS Radio's Jack-formatted WJMK Chicago as PD. Prior to that, the veteran, multiformat programmer was Cumulus Broadcasting's country format director and PD of WSM-FM (the Wolf) Nashville.

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