As Apple Music has made a comfortable space for themselves in radio over the last few years, a group of personalities and interviewers have risen in prominence. In the country space, singer-songwriter Kelleigh Bannen has become one of the platform’s leading voices.
Bannen is very familiar with the genre and with Music City. She has been an artist for over a decade, once holding a major label recording contract, and then independently releasing music for many years.
She’s a well-known creative in town, writing songs for and with other artists, as well as an alumna of the Next Women of Country Class of 2014, which also included Kacey Musgraves, Kelsea Ballerini, Lauren Alaina and Sheryl Crow.
One day in 2019, she received a DM from former Apple team member Julie Pilat asking to chat.
“I thought she wanted me to connect her to other people. That was the way that I understood what she was asking because I didn’t know what Apple was planning,” Bannen shares with MusicRow. “Her and another producer were on that call. I texted my husband Jeff right afterward and I was like, ‘I think I just had a job interview.'”
Soon after, Bannen was in the Apple orbit, demoing what would become Apple Music Country’s premiere show, Today’s Country Radio.
Though she had experience interviewing via her podcast This Nashville Life, where she hosted conversations with everyone from executives such as Cris Lacy to hit songwriter/producers like Shane McAnally, Bannen was in for an entirely different experience.
“The day we launched Today’s Country, we did something like 12 interviews both days of that launch. We were banking content. Honestly, that was one of my first real experiences with artist interviews and trying to figure out how to turn it around quick.”
The experience quickly turned into a full-time gig for Bannen.
“The day after we launched Today’s Country, they said, ‘Hey, how would you feel about doing this every day? We have some other things up our sleeves.’ That was the first clue I had that all of this would be coming in 2020.”
Though Bannen was excited about the opportunity, she struggled with how it made her perceive her own artistry.
“In November [of 2019], I knew that it was a possibility for me to take this role. My husband and I spent most of November and December just hashing out it out and asking ourselves, what does this mean? Am I giving up my artist dream? I was so hung up on that. I was so worried that I couldn’t do both.
“To be honest, I’m not doing both outwardly right now,” Bannen shares. “It’s such a full-time job. I’m writing every couple weeks, we’re squirreling songs away and trying to find time to make music. But what is funny is that I love what I get to do day in and day out now.
“2020 was such an odd year,” she adds. “I would not have been doing my artist stuff in the way that I thought I was going to get to anyway. That eased a lot of the transition for me, personally, of what I thought I’d be grieving [in my artist career.] This was one dream turning into a new dream.”
Bannen’s perspective as an artist, though, has lended itself to be a cutting-edge strength as a conversationalist with her guests. Because she truly understands the Nashville artist journey, she’s able to relate to them more deeply—and do her job with care.
She tells the story of when she was releasing a new single and she heard different radio personalities introduce the song differently. One DJ introduced it unenthusiastically, making her feel like the audience wouldn’t give it a chance. A different DJ gave it an intriguing introduction that made you want to listen. The experience taught her a lesson on the power of the words leading up to a song.
“Our real estate is so valuable. Why would I not try and set it up in a way that gives you a chance to fall in love with it? I want to give you one more little reason to care about it. Especially when we’re dealing with new artists or with minorities that we’re trying to acquaint the country audience with.”
Now, years into her Apple Music tenure, Bannen has learned a lot along the way about interviewing.
“I’m trying to learn to trust myself and control less. I think I know what the most interesting storylines are, but the most interesting thing about an interview might be something that we don’t have any idea about, so I try to leave enough room for that,” she says. “I do try and treat my conversations with a lot of reverence, even when it’s just a rowdy country project.”
She’s also learned when to hold back.
“My guiding principle is if what I’m saying isn’t as interesting as the song, I don’t need to talk. The song is everything,” Bannen shares. “Of course there are all kinds of reasons that we’re going to back announce what song it was, so people who aren’t looking at their phone or are visually impaired know what the song is, but other than that, [I only talk] if I can add to it, if I can give you context, or if I can give you a chance of falling in love with a song that you otherwise might not.”
Bannen and the Apple team’s hard work has paid off, as Today’s Country with Kelleigh Bannen was nominated for a CMA Broadcast Award in the Weekly National category at the CMA Awards last year. A feat that shocked Bannen.
“I had been a part of [the submission] process in June, but everyone in our world was like, ‘There’s no way we’re going to be nominated this early, but we’re just going to start submitting and hopefully in five years from now or something, maybe we’ll get our first nomination,'” she recalls. “On the day the nominations came out, Charlie Morgan forwarded the list at 7:01 a.m. I was on the phone with my team at like 7:02. We were so shocked.
“I don’t need to speak on behalf of Apple, but what I know about the wiring of this thing that we’re trying to build here is that it is for the love of radio. We are a DSP and we believe so heavily in the power of that intimate, one-to-one connection on the radio that we have prioritized it in this way. We have a studio here in Nashville that has a writer’s room, a content capture and two live studio spaces that are both built to go live,” Bannen says. “All that to say, it was so incredibly validating [to be nominated] because we want to be accepted as part of the radio culture. The delivery method is all that is different. We think we are making radio, ideally, that is of the same wiring, heartbeat and inspiration of traditional country radio.”
Though the team didn’t win the CMA award, Bannen is content where she’s at.
“What is fulfilling day in and day out is connecting with artists about their story and getting to treat their music in a reverent way. I don’t have to fake anything when I go in there because I have spent so much time with their music. Even if it’s not my taste, I’ve really tried to live with it. On my worst days when I’m so insecure about my preparedness or if I’m good at this or not, I can always rely on talking to another creative about what they love to do. It always paves the way, it’s always interesting and it’s always fulfilling.”
Listen to Bannen on Today’s Country Radio here.
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