May 03, 2012 / by Jenny Wittman

In recent years, the country radio format has moved into the top spot of popularity amongst other terrestrial radio formats due to a variety of factors such as loyal listener growth and superior accessibility of country artists.

According to Cision’s media directory, country radio stations are the most common music format and make up close to 16 percent of all U.S. music stations. Following closely behind is the contemporary Christian/religious format at 13 percent, seven percent for adult contemporary and six percent for Spanish/Latino stations.

Johnny Chiang, operations manager for Houston’s Cox Media Group since 2001, has found the growth due to country music’s surging popularity. “With each passing day, country is becoming more and more mainstream, particularly in high-density metropolitan areas,” he said. “And the music now has a cross-over appeal that it didn’t have ten years ago.”

Program director for Boston’s WKLB-FM, Mike Brophey, has been with the station for over 15 years and has been involved in a country format at other stations since 1984. He has noticed this same growth through concert attendance and promotions.

“Boston has seen huge growth in the last several years. In 2011, we had four sell-out shows at Gillette Stadium between Taylor Swift and Kenny Chesney. That’s 200,000 tickets. To see the format ranked as high as second in Boston on an ongoing basis is especially gratifying,” Brophey said.

Also in Houston, Mark Adams serves as vice president of programming for the CBS Radio group and works with all of the FM brands in the market, including Country KILT-FM, Top 40 KKHH-FM, Hot AC KHMX-FM and Spanish KLOL-FM. He has worked as the day to day program director for KILT-FM for almost two years.

“I have not worked in the format directly for that amount of time, but would suggest we’re in the middle of a country boom that encompasses contemporary popular culture,” he said. “And in particular, the format transcends its stereotypes and is truly the ‘other’ Top 40.”

All three radio programmers explained that one thing that sets country radio apart from other formats is how country stars and artists are so easily accessible and supportive to promote the radio stations. “They are very approachable, and as we attempt to build the format, they are very helpful,” Brophey said.

“I’ve never worked with artists who are as friendly, accommodating, and just plain ‘get it’ as country stars,” Chiang added.

“They are promotionally available, actively seeking opportunities to support market airplay and grow exposure, and are generally very proactive. Country artists work to develop and maintain relationships with their audience and media partners in a manner that is if not unique to the format, is certainly more pronounced,” Adams said. “The superstars of the country format are accessible to their audience in a way that’s truly unmatched. And that helps create and maintain audience loyalty.”

The dedicated audience at a country radio station also undoubtedly contributes to the successful format. While historically the audience has been mostly females, ages 18 to 54, Brophey has seen a male audience on the rise at his Boston station.

“We have noticed that while still primarily a female driven format, the male demos have increased due to artists such as Jason Aldean,” he said.

Additionally, the emotional connection between the music itself and its fans foster a strong relationship through local radio. Chiang knows that this ability to bond through music is important. “The station is truly their friend,” he said.

Generally, country music relates to many listeners because of its societal connotations and roots in American culture. “Music represents real life stories by real life people—all really relatable,” Brophey said. “Additionally, the production is top notch, the format self-promotes itself well and television further promotes the image with shows like American Idol and The Voice.”

As country music breaks into the mainstream, it is likely that radio stations with this format will continue to increase. Adams anticipates the format to grow market share and expand its listenership as he understands country stars like Carrie Underwood are just as well-known as their Top 40 counterparts.

“[Country artists] are an important part of contemporary pop culture. I can’t imagine that trend reversing anytime soon” Adams said.

After working in the country radio format for nearly 30 years, Brophey reflected on its current outlook. “At the present time, the country format is the best it has ever been, and that includes looking back on the format hay day of the early 90s,” he said. “From the standpoints of quality of song, production, artist image and marketing, the country format is absolutely the most interesting and dynamic it has ever been.”

Pitching Tips

Brophey prefers to receive country artist information for WKLB-FM. “Music is our franchise and people are interested in all artist information from their personal lives to upcoming tours to CD releases,” he said.

The same goes for Adams, who is only interested in receiving press materials that will interest his audience. “What do the listeners want and care about? That’s the beginning and end of what I’m concerned about,” he said.

Photo credit: nola.agent via Flickr

Contact Information 

Cox Media Group
1990 Post Oak Blvd
Houston, TX 77056

Johnny Chiang, operations manager

55 William T Morrissey Blvd
Dorchester, MA 02125

Mike Brophy, program director

CBS Radio

24 Greenway Plz
Houston, TX 77046

Mark Adams, vice president of programming


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About Jenny Wittman

Jenny Wittman is senior editor and features writer for Cision Blog and oversees the daily media updates on the site. She is also senior media researcher at Cision and joined the company in March 2008. She likes being outdoors, going to concerts, traveling and exploring art galleries. She adores all animals and has a fascination for the cosmos. Find her on Twitter @jennywittman.