By Jeff McKay
Special Features Correspondent
NEW YORK – Two different radio formats: One plays music by artists such as Johnny Cash, Carrie Underwood and Florida-Georgia Line. The other has voices such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Stephanie Miller. Ironically, both the country music format that does not talk politics and the news/talk format that plays no music each have something in common – they cater largely to the same audience!
When it comes to country music listeners and news/talk radio listeners, especially those who lean conservative, similarities between listeners really depend on their age. Jaye Albright, a consulting partner for Albright & O’Malley & Brenner/RadioIQ, Inc. interestingly calls both “universal donor” formats.
“Country has almost no shared cume except with men and sports/play-by-play radio and with talk under the age of 50. Pretty much our duplication between 18 and 39 is contemporary and rock music formats, and that group of listeners’ needs for talk and information are very specialized to pop culture, music and local water cooler social topics,” says Albright. “Our leading-edge boomer and senior citizen listeners, which are the largest segment of our audience, probably would say their second favorite format is a talk station. They lean conservative from a values perspective, but are not as political as talk P1s and yet they are info-seekers. Often 40-50% of a country station’s audience is 45-plus, and yet we get media buys based on 25-54, 18-49 and sometimes even 18-34. I call 65-plus the bonus audience that most advertisers expect to get for free from country.”
Using Albright’s “universal donor” detail, it would seem, in some markets, this can be a big benefit to ownership groups that have stations airing these formats.
That is a combination that seems to mesh well in Quincy, Illinois, where STARadio owns five stations in the market, including conservative news/talk WTAD-AM (930) and country WCOY-FM (99.5). WTAD is the home to syndicated talkers Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, along with the local “Morning Meeting,” hosted by Bryan Nichols and Sean Secrease. Down the hall, “The Coyote” plays hits from Tim McGraw, Jason Aldean and Keith Urban, with a lineup of local DJs playing those hits.
The “Mix & Match” label would be a perfect one for Bryan Nichols. Weekday mornings, Nichols is one-half of “The Morning Meeting,” a local talk show on WTAD that airs prior to syndicated Rush Limbaugh. Now that the midday DJ on WCOY-FM is on maternity leave, Nichols puts on his cowboy hat and spins “Coyote Country” music after his talk show is over. Nichols also hosts a weekend country music show.
Nichols, who has a background as both a talk show host and country music DJ in the Midwest, says he knows that country music listeners also listen to him on his morning talk show, because they tell him they do.
“I’ve had our country music listeners tell me that they listen to me on ‘The Morning Meeting,’” says Nichols, who also credits WTAD’s focus on agriculture news and info as one reason for the crossover appeal. “We provide local news and information, and we have farm news. When our talk listeners want music, country is their primary choice.”
Nichols adds other formats don’t share the same similarities.
“I also voice track on our top 40 station, and listeners there don’t have the same crossover.”
Nichols points directly to the listeners’ mindset as the reason you can get an appeal to both talk and country music.
“There’s definitely a mindset in place. You think about the Dixie Chicks. Both country music and conservative talk listeners are very patriotic people. Both are also believers in God and country. If you’re a country music fan you will want to get your local news and information and farm news, and that’s where our talk station comes in. When you listen to talk, especially conservative talk, and you want to listen to something else, you go to country for music,” says Nichols.
Research clearly shows the connection between country music and talk radio and how listeners embrace each format.
In 2013, TALKERS magazine’s “Talk Radio Research Project” found that when talk radio listeners wanted to tune to music, 24%, nearly one-in-four, turned their radio dial from news/talk to country music, more than any other music format.
A 2012 Scarborough Research report finds the news/talk & information format has the second-highest percentage of Republican listeners among popular formats, at 44%, trailing only religious formats, which covers 46%. However, when it comes to music formats, 24% of the general population surveyed prefers country, which is also preferred by 28% of those identified as Republicans. In addition, the Scarborough survey finds Republicans, more than those who identify themselves as Democrat, prefer country music by an even wider margin (41% to 32%).
When it comes to programmers, Albright believes they need to seize on cross-promotion and go with the strengths of both formats.
“I am a fan of on air cross-promotion between a co-owned news/talk or talker given the different perceptual profile of the two, unlike country and other music formats. It can be very mutually productive,” says Albright, who along with Michael O’Malley operates the world’s largest country consultancy, Albright & O’Malley. “Also, it’s no longer crucial, as it once was 25 years ago, for a typical country station to own the local news, traffic and weather images even in mornings let alone other day parts, so it’s a win-win for a strong mainstream country station to even go to the talker’s news room for updates when breaking news happens. Opinionated talkers don’t work as well in cross-promotion since 55-60% of country’s target is female and many of them are turned off by the attack style and conflict.”
One well-known talker, syndicated host Sean Hannity, starts out his three-hour radio show with the song “Independence Day,” by country artist Martina McBride. In addition, Hannity’s annual “Freedom Concert” has included country artists such as the legendary Charlie Daniels, Billy Ray Cyrus, LeAnn Rimes, Lee Greenwood, McBride, and Hank Williams, Jr.
Nichols says while this crossover may not be the same in a major market city or metropolitan area, you do see it in smaller markets.
Take the small market of Sheldon, Iowa (about an hour north of Sioux City) where KIWA-AM (1550) is programmed as a news/talker by day and a country music station by night (their FM is classic rock). PD/MD Tom Traughber tells TALKERS, “At least in our situation, I think that the country and news/talk combination works due to the talk programming that we air. We broadcast Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. These programs go over very well, since we are situated in an EXTREMELY conservative area. As you know, country music fans lean, by and large, toward the political right. As a result, we view the combination of conservative news/talk and country music to be a logical combination. Throw in evening and weekend Chicago Cubs games, and it looks to be a winner. At least, that’s what we hear from our listeners!”
Big city observers of the radio scene often forget the enormous influence of agriculture across the rural communities of America. “In Quincy, as opposed to major markets, we still have a full-time farm director. Farmers listen for talk, and of course for farming information, and they also prefer country music. Our country listeners know they can get information from our talk station,” says Bryan Nichols. “As far as ratings are concerned we don’t subscribe to Arbitron. We do subscribe to AG Media Research. We do see a crossover, and while we don’t necessarily program to it, if people want to listen to music they know where they can get local news and information.”
Jeff McKay, a veteran New York-based operations manager, newsman and traffic reporter, is a special features correspondent for TALKERS. He can be emailed at McKayway@aol.com. Meet Jeff McKay at TALKERS New York 2013 on Thursday June 6.