Billboard Summit Talks Radio

PPM, the evolution of the country demographic, and the artist royalty legislation were among the topics discussed at the Billboard Country Music Summit’s panel “The Changing Face of Radio: 2010 and Beyond” on Monday (6/7). Moderated by Billboard Sr. Chart Manager, Nashville, Wade Jessen, panelists included Paul Allen (Middle Tennessee State University), Tom English (Nashville VP/Mkt Manager Clear Channel), Steve Hodges (SVP Promotion, Capitol/EMI Nashville), Jeff Garrison (CBS Radio, KILT/Houston), and Bud Walters (Cromwell Radio Group).

Garrison’s market was one of the first to adopt Arbitron’s Portable People Meter (PPM) measurement, which he said reflects reality, rather than the flawed recall of survey subjects. “The biggest surprise,” he noted, “was that there were no surprises at all with PPM.” Sample sizes are currently small for PPM, but large markets like Nashville are preparing for when the time comes to switch.

English and Walters underscored the differences between large and small market radio when English noted how challenging the last 18 months have been. Revenues were down nearly 20%, and only projected to be back up 2% this year. And yet, he claimed, more people listened to terrestrial radio last year than any in history. Walters, on the other hand, noted the ease with which he sells advertising on WCRC, his small market country station in Illinois. “It’s the easiest format to sell because advertisers can relate to it.”

Garrison noted an ethnic shift in Houston (and possibly nationwide) that was affecting his listenership, but hasn’t seen any wide shift in demographics for country music. “It’s a cyclical business,” offered English, “driven by artists.” He added that years earlier, Garth Brooks had brought younger fans to the format much like Taylor Swift has.

The panel’s hot-button issue was clearly the Performance Rights Act. This stalemate does not seem likely to disappear soon, as the radio industry firmly believes the service it provides is mutually beneficial for both parties: radio gets free content to bolster their advertising, and airplay is like free advertising for artists/labels selling records. Walters indicated that the act’s passage could signal a widespread disappearance of music programming in radio. “The business I’m in is community service and selling commercials,” said Walters. “I’m agnostic about what goes between those.” Proponents of the legislation, namely Allen, pointed out that the US is one of a handful of countries worldwide to not have such a tax in place and that the annual costs would be variable for stations netting below $1.25M annually and variable for those above. English took issue with that figure, saying that his four stations in Nashville would be forced to pay over $3M annually for music.

On the bright side, country music remains a healthy format for radio. Capitol’s Hodges surmised that the fans are still tuning in, at least in part because of “artist accessibility to radio and fans” and an overall positive perception of the inudstry.

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