Youth of the Nation

Country-radio pros gather in Colorado to search for ways to seduce a younger generation.

A radio station's success is determined not only by the number of ears listening at any given time, but by the ages of the people attached to them. Programmers pinpoint specific demographics under the theory that particular advertisers will gladly open their wallets in order to reach them; the majority covet consumers between 18 and 34 -- folks with a reputation for buying loads and loads of crap, whether they need it or not.

Back in the late '80s and early '90s, when Garth Brooks was outselling performers of practically every stripe with his hopped-up brand of faux-C&W, a hefty percentage of this group drifted to country radio, a medium previously associated more with forty-and-overs for whom rock and rap were just too scary. But despite the crossover breakthroughs of fresh-faced belters such as Faith Hill and Shania Twain, whose music can make Brooks's seem as authentic as a George Jones ballad by comparison, radio lovers of a more youthful vintage have been drifting away from country in recent years. And Gene Bridges, the chairman for the regional events committee of Country Radio Broadcasters (CRB), wants to stem the flow before it turns into a stampede.

"Country stations, like almost all stations, want all the young people they can get," Bridges says. "Now we just need to figure out how to get them."

Joel Burke is looking for new country listeners.
Brett Amole
Joel Burke is looking for new country listeners.

Developing such a strategy is among the tasks on the agenda at CRS-Rocky Mountains, CRB's ninth annual regional country-radio seminar, slated to take place August 16 and 17 at the Westin Westminster. The gathering, an adjunct to CRB's yearly get-togethers in Nashville, isn't as high-profile as the R&R Triple A Convention (formerly the Gavin A3 Summit), a Boulder-based radio caucus concentrating on the Adult Album Alternative style, in part because its star power is dimmer. The August 14 through 17 R&R conference features concerts at Boulder's Fox Theatre that will give attendees and the general public the opportunity to get up-close and personal with the likes of Sonia Dada, Coldplay, Aimee Mann, Beth Orton and the Wallflowers, fronted by Jakob Dylan. By contrast, CRS-Rocky Mountains is bringing in major-label signees who've yet to make much of a name for themselves (Michael Peterson, Jameson Clark, James Otto, David Nail) for solo performances before radio insiders only.

But as the first seminar of its type to be staged in the Mountain West, the CRB event remains a landmark for Colorado country. In addition, the bash provides an opportunity for KYGO-FM, which is both Denver's top-rated station and a top-three attraction among 18- to 34-year-olds, to show how it's managed to rope younger cowpokes without spooking too many of the older ones.

"I'm fearful that a lot of country stations have been a bit too passive," says Joel Burke, KYGO's program director, who'll serve as one of CRS-Rocky Mountains' panel moderators. "They've been almost exclusively dependent on what Nashville gives them, and you've got to be more proactive than that. You've got to take control of the areas you can take control of, like having a great morning show and trying to market the station the best you can, versus throwing on the latest songs and stepping back and hoping for the best."

For Burke, accomplishing this goal has been his mandate ever since he was hired nearly two years ago by Jefferson-Pilot Communications, a Greensboro, North Carolina, firm that owns KYGO and four other metro-area stations. "My marching orders were really to reinvent the radio station, try to breathe some new life into it and kind of young it up, so to speak," he notes.

In a stab at doing so, Burke, who helmed an adult-contemporary station in Memphis before coming to KYGO, quickly made changes in the outlet's morning-drive offering. Sandy Travis, the senior member of the so-called "Waking Crew," disappeared approximately four months into Burke's tenure, allegedly for making a questionable joke on the air -- although some observers felt his real sin was an overtly countrified demeanor ("Watch Your Mouth," March 8, 2001). These days, Travis's largely twang-free former partners, Jonathan Wilde and Kelly Ford, are paired with Steve McGrew, a standup comic whose nickname, Mudflap, has a more traditional country sound than he does. The three regularly engage in the sort of shenanigans familiar to morning shows in other genres -- like waxing Mudflap's legs live.

KYGO's current playlist skews to the youthful side, too; it's dominated by the likes of Rascal Flatts, Lonestar and SHeDAISY, with most older artists winding up on its sister station, classic-country 16 Kicks, at 1600 AM. But in other ways, Burke has taken an old-fashioned approach to making sure KYGO connects with radio fans, eschewing voicetracking and other cost-cutting techniques in favor of DJs who are actually in the studio during their shows -- even late at night and on weekends.

"We're a rarity," he acknowledges. "But with the results the station has had, it shows that this still works. You can't really add up the benefits of doing it this way on a calculator, and when you're trying to hit the numbers in the short term, pre-recording everything looks great. But if you think about satellite radio and all the other choices out there, the one thing we've got that they don't have is that we're live and local.

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