Youth of the Nation

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

"I was reading an article the other day about the guy in the Who that died [John Entwistle], which happened in the evening. And because so many rock stations are in voicetrack mode, not only couldn't they come on the air and talk about what happened and interact with their listeners, but they couldn't do any specialty programming at all, because everything was already recorded. That's an example of missing an opportunity to bond with your listeners. But if something like that happens that touches on our audience and our community, we won't miss the opportunity. We'll be ready."

Because highly placed executives from Clear Channel and other major radio conglomerates, for whom voicetracking is now a given, are among CRS-Rocky Mountains' several hundred registrants, this subject is all but certain to come up. But most of the formal discussions on the slate concern bottom-line issues. According to CRB's Bridges, topics will include new business models for radio and records, talent coaching, marketing ideas, moneymaking sales promotions and "country programming for the masses."

Burke, meanwhile, will oversee a session to discuss the implications of what is likely to spur a revolutionary change in the way ratings are measured. At present, Arbitron, the primary radio-audience tracker, determines listenership by having representative participants keep diaries in which they write down the call letters of stations they tune in and the length of time they stick around. But the company has developed what Burke describes as "a device that people carry like a pager. All the stations will have a signal encoded within their frequency, and when somebody turns on their radio, the device picks up the code and starts counting. Then, at the end of the day, the person puts the device into a docking station that recharges it at the same time it sends the data back to Arbitron."

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

This process, which is undergoing testing in Philadelphia and may soon be adapted to monitoring television viewing as well, is expected to provide infinitely more accurate statistics; even if someone lingers at a station for just a second or two before pushing the next button, the device will register it. Moreover, the technology is so fast that an executive could theoretically find out on a Tuesday morning how many people checked out his or her programming the day before. "You can imagine someone saying, 'We've been down this past week; time to change formats,'" Burke says, laughing. "God help us if we get to that point."

Perhaps the most anticipated panel, however, is a two-part affair titled "20 Somethings: Those Kids Say the Darndest Things." On day one, country-radio consultant Jaye Albright, president of McVay Media's country division, and Larry Johnson, president of Paragon Media Strategies' North American radio branch, will conduct a live focus group with a collection of 20- to 24-year-olds, to determine how they feel about country music. The next afternoon, the duo will use the data they collect "to try and answer the questions a lot of us have," says Bridges. "Are we going to get any of these people? Are any of them going to be country listeners, or will there be a huge demographic gap for the next two years? And if they're not listening to country radio now, will they switch?"

In Burke's opinion, they will, but only if country radio puts on a new pair of chaps. "Some stations feel you can't get younger people to listen, and I completely, positively disagree with that," he says. "I think if you make your station accessible to them, and talk their language, and hang out where they hang out, and become a friend to them, you can get them."

Changing a channel: TV-news executives, like Denver Post editors, aren't known for lengthy career spans, so Marv Rockford's two decades-plus at Channel 4 was quite an accomplishment. But it's over now. Around 9:15 a.m. on August 6, station insiders say, suits from the CBS affiliate's parent company, Viacom, rolled into Rockford's office. Approximately three hours later, the troops were told that Rockford was no longer Channel 4's vice president and general manager; Walt DeHaven, who until recently had held a similar position at WBBM in Chicago, was announced as his replacement.

At press time, neither of these parties was saying much. Rockford issued a statement that clocked in at a whopping three sentences, and it seems to have been written quickly: "I'm very proud of the rich history of News 4, and proud of the many talented people I've been privileged to work with over the past 21 years. I wish everyone there the best, including Walt DeHaven. News 4 is a great station, and it will continue to achieve great things." He didn't respond to a request to expand on these comments, and a Channel 4 spokesperson said DeHaven was declining Westword's interview queries until August 14, his official first day in charge -- although he did find time to talk to the Rocky Mountain News.

This reticence encourages speculation about the whys and wherefores of Rockford's ouster, as well as the actions DeHaven will likely take while attempting to turn the ship -- and it needs turning. During May of this year, the most recent major ratings period, the station's 10 p.m. newscast finished second in its time slot, behind powerhouse Channel 9, but it lost a sizable chunk of viewers; likewise, its news programming failed to make substantial gains at other times. Just as troublesome, personnel changes in its marquee newscasts appear to have been motivated mainly by penny-pinching, not a desire to improve the product.

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