By Ken Tucker
NASHVILLE (Billboard) - When Los Angeles country music station KZLA changed format last August, alarms sounded in the country music radio and record communities.
The nation's No. 2 market joined New York, which has lacked a country station since 2002, and San Francisco, which bowed out of the country game in early 2005, as the third among the top five markets with no FM country outlet. (Two Los Angeles-area AM stations recently switched to country.)
Among the reasons for the KZLA switch: It's increasingly difficult to succeed with country radio in a market where Caucasians carry less and less sway. A 2006 Arbitron report estimated that only 5.4% of country radio's nationwide audience is Hispanic and 2.3% is black, while 92.3% of country listeners fall into Arbitron's "other" category (which includes Caucasians and Pacific Islanders). But in recent years, U.S. Census figures show, the Hispanic portion of Los Angeles County's population (which grew to 44.6% in 2000 from 37.8% in 1990) has passed up the county's non-Hispanic white population (which slipped to 31.1% of the total in 2000 from 40.8% in 1990).
At the annual Country Radio Seminar, to be held February 28-March 2 in Nashville, Edison Media Research and industry trade group Country Radio Broadcasters will present results of a collaborative study of the relationship of Hispanics with country radio and music. And meanwhile, with demographics shifting across the United States, country radio will have to adapt if it hopes to maintain its role as radio's top format. (As of December 2006 there were 2,047 country stations in the United States, according to M Street Journal. News/talk was second with 2,007 stations.)
While most country stations continue to focus on their declining core, at least one has been more aggressive when it comes to attracting Hispanic and African-American listeners. Since the former comprise 46% of the 12-plus demographic and the latter another 20%, Miami might appear to be a bad place for a country station. But WKIS (Kiss Country) has aired the format for more than 25 years.
Historically, Arbitron has tended to rank the station No. 1 or No. 2 in the market among non-black/non-Hispanic 25- to 54-year-olds, according to program director Bob Barnett. But the market's ethnic composition, Barnett says, weighs heavily on decisions made at WKIS. "With zero exaggeration, it's a factor that impacts everything we do in programming, promotions, marketing and sales," he says.
A dwindling white audience makes attracting new listeners a necessity. "With the ongoing white exodus from South Florida--a near 20% decline in whites since the 2000 census was implemented--the challenge before us is to replace relocating white listeners with Hispanic/Latin listeners," Barnett says.
It's not easy to do. "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," Barnett explains. That bias makes it difficult to reach Hispanics using the WKIS airwaves, he says. "For example, we can't even do bilingual IDs without significant listener backlash."
The station's marketing efforts are "stealth or street-level, so as not to anger the loyal core users," Barnett says.
He is also reaching out to the Hispanic audience through music. "We're attempting to make the music mix more Hispanic-friendly without disenfranchising the core," he says. "It becomes a very delicate balancing act.
"The Hispanic listeners have little to no history in the format, so older songs aren't as popular with Hispanics," he explains. Likewise, he says, traditional-sounding country is less popular with Hispanic listeners than the pop leanings of Shania Twain and Faith Hill.
The good news, according to Barnett, is that Cuban-Americans and many South American Latins who have relocated to South Florida have a profile similar to country listeners. "They're very family-oriented, hardworking, spiritual and patriotic. The themes in country music aren't foreign to them.
"Now that we're getting into the second and third generations of Latins, it appears that the assimilation into American culture is slowly taking place -- as is their interest level in country music."
And what of Nashville's historically lily-white record labels? Might they add non-white artists to diversify their rosters? "That just isn't the way it works," Warner Bros. Nashville chief Bill Bennett says. "If you find someone with real quality music, you don't care what ethnic background they're from."
Bennett adds, "We have Cowboy Troy and Rick Trevino, but not because they're ethnic. We have them because they make great songs."
Barnett, not surprisingly, sees things differently. "I think the degree of difficulty in marketing a black or Hispanic or Latin artist to country radio may initially be too unfamiliar and too overwhelming for most on Music Row," he says. "The labels are more likely to choose the path of least resistance, but there may be an opportunity for a renegade independent label to take that risk. The potential payoff could be huge, but obviously not without great challenge."
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