Scanning the Countryside: Country Radio—Your Way

Barry Mazor | March 22nd, 2011

If you want to start a heated discussion among a bunch of devoted country music fans or music makers, no matter what stripe, style, or era of country music they call their own, bring up the question of today’s mainstream country radio. You’re certain to hear some railing from somebody about a longstanding set of real enough issues—the tight playlists, the slow introduction of any new tunes, the limited variety that goes with both, and in some locales, the absence of homegrown flavor that comes with the replacement of local personality deejay hosts–and audience relationships with them–with automated programming networked in from the great Out There.

Mainstream country radio has a great deal going for it, and this time of year–when the annual Country Radio Seminar and convention brings the practitioners here to Nashville–us media types get to hear plenty about that. There’s still no more effective way to reach great masses of potential fans of new country singles with music that works for the format, despite all the emerging new media. The sheer numbers involved indicate an amazing level of business success; the 2010 breakdown of radio station formats from the Arbitron radio ratings people shows 2,626 stations (yes, 2,626) playing country, easily the greatest of any musical category, and nearly twice as many as number two, Adult Contemporary. So the many of you who visit this site and regularly take to heart such chart-topping performers as Jason Aldean, Billy Currington, Zac Brown Band, Blake Shelton, Lady Antebellum (and yes, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood), likely feel well served, a lot of the time.

So what about everybody else? There’s another interesting, more obscured number in the Arbitron report: There are also 405 working stations classified separately as “Classic Country,” and that’s a larger number than for Album-Oriented Rock or Urban Adult Contemporary, for instance. The “Classic” stations typically focus on the records of stars who’d dominated country for the twenty years before the nineties Garth explosion—the Haggard, Parton, Jones era on through the Travis Tritt/Ricky Skaggs/Rodney Crowell eighties. There are some willing to go back further than that, if in small doses, or specialized program blocks. Sirius/XM offers essentially that format as “The Roadhouse” channel.

In truth, lovers of country music have a lot of broadcast, narrowcast, and personal stream choices out there, which maybe you’ve not encountered, since they’re less heralded, but will wish you had, so here’s a quick scan of what some “other” country formats you can find–on the air near you, online, or as apps, with a minimum of googling–that might be the one you’re looking for:


“Real Country”

Stations in this spunky format, most often found in rural areas, work against several grains to cross the mainstream/classic country boundary. Typically, they’ll take in the Classic Station territory, but regularly add contemporary breaking singles with instrumentation, twang and song matter along the same lines—so you’d hear Josh Turner, Jamey Johnson, some of the new more traditionalist acts we’ve discussed here such as Chris Young or a Bradley Gaskin, or something off a new Tanya Tucker or Marty Stuart release. Real Country can be found in satellite and online streaming radio as well as on the air in some towns. Around Nashville, we’ve been able to hear plucky little WHIN-AM out of Gallatin, TN working this format for years, interspersed with their local high school football and baseball games. There are similar stations in place in Greybill, WY and Hanover, PA, Raymondsville, TX and Bemidji, MN. Nothing automated there!

“Bluegrass”

You’ll know that bluegrass radio is readily available if you follow the genre, but you may not be aware that there are by this point, according to the IBMA, just under 500 stations, including 50 or so outside of the U.S., that regularly feature bluegrass, with format variations such as bluegrass from all eras, classic/traditional back to ’46, occasionally back to pre-grass old timey, too, modern new releases, bluegrass gospel—the works, with variations. There are longstanding multi-station syndicated favorites like Cindy Baucum’s “Knee Deep in Bluegrass,” stations where bluegrass is the regular centerpiece such as Washington D.C.’s rightly celebrated WAMU, and many more where bluegrass programs are regular parts of the schedule.

Online/Satellite Bonanzas

A combination of data and a personal gut instinct suggests to me that the audience is substantial for access to streams of country of more specific flavors for more specialized audiences. For example, Sirius/XM regularly offers variations on “Outlaw Country,” with celebrity DJs such as Shooter Jennings, Elizabeth Cook, Cowboy Jack Clement, Dallas Wayne and Mojo Nixon putting their personal stamps on what “Outlaw” happens to mean (basically, an emphasis on artists and approaches that can be linked to the ’70s Waylon-Willie-Tompall outlaws, before and since). Sirius also has regular channels for contemporary chart country and previous hits by the same artists, and for Texas/Red Dirt country (“Channel 64”). That now familiar “Red Dirt” term was introduced to radio, incidentally, by KVOO (“the Voice of Oklahoma”) in Tulsa. There are a number of Web-based outfits offering continuing country flavored streams without subscriptions, by the way, such as AccuRadio.

Americana

While some within the musical movement had envisioned the Americana format as a (rather literally) alternative or independent sort of country chart back when the format was formulated in the ’90s, it’s clearer by this point that the dozens of Americana reporting stations out there played varied mixes on new music with American roots music connections, which might or might not be country roots. For every Hayes Carll, Wanda Jackson, Lori McKenna and Eleven Hundred Springs on the current Americana chart–artists with country connections–there’s a Jeff Beck, Amos Lee, or Tony Furtado, where the core lies elsewhere. You won’t find this former No Depression magazine regular making light of the twang you will find on Americana stations, though.

Personalized Country: Theirs—And Yours

Hiring performers as DJs has been a growing trend, and among these are some country performers who really know their stuff and are also—oh yeah; it’s allowed—fun. The one of a kind WSM-AM/WSM Online here in Music City has opened itself to virtually all of the styles of country above (now there’s a concept). They’ve continued to stress strong on-air personalities such as Bill Cody and Eddie Stubbs, and now feature regular afternoon shows hosted by Dierks Bentley, Jim Lauderdale, Pam Tillis, and Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, among others, from which you get the personalized view of country of these artists—quite specific, knowledgeable views. Programs are often archived so you can catch them after the fact.

A development we can expect to see more of, from what I hear, is the popular artist who simply fosters his own online radio station and/or streaming app. For example, Kenny Chesney recently let loose No Shoes Radio, where the sounds are not necessarily all some kind of country, but they are some kind of favorite of Kenny or, they believe, his fans. You get to program your own stations as Mr. Chesney does, of course, within the Pandora model where you can program in that you want to hear more things from people like Carrie Underwood, or Ernest Tubb, or Townes Van Zandt–or all three, and much else if you desire. It works pretty well, too.

More personalized than that? Well, there’s always your own playlist, on your own device, on shuffle. Or just whistle. You know how to whistle…

  1. Dave D.
    March 22, 2011 at 7:37 am

    Nice article. The only thing I’d take exception to is associating Channel 64 on Sirius with Red Dirt Country. From what little I know about Red Dirt County (and the list of characteristic Red Dirt bands on Wikipedia), I don’t hear any of that on Channel 64. Sirius’ description of the channel is pretty apt: Willie Nelson’s Texas Honky Tonk.

    Between Willie’s Place and Outlaw Country on satellite; WSM for Eddie Stubbs and live broadcasts; and weekly campus broadcasting (e.g. WCBN’s Downhome Show, and WEMU’s Roots Music Project, among many others), there’s a ton of great radio out there to keep me happy.

  2. Steve
    March 22, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Good article. Wish I had more choice when it comes to radio around here. I can get five FM stations that all broadcast the same thing. Swift, Underwood, Aldean, Flatts, etc. On standard radio I have access to one classic country station which is AM. Sound quality sucks in the daytime, and I can’t get it at night. They play a lot of 70′s and 80′s but range from the 50′s through the 2000′s (yes the 2000′s)! Anyways I just long for a FM classic country station so I can get it while i’m at work. I hope more classic FM stations will pop up in the next decade seeing as all those Garth, Tritt, Jackson tunes that were oh so popular back in the day are now nearing 20 years old.

  3. Barry Mazor
    March 22, 2011 at 9:14 am

    David D: I hear ya. I’d encourage you to note outlets with good Red Dirt playlists for those interested. (Some things necessarily had to be compressed here!)

    In fact, I’d encourage anybody regularly listening to other country radio sub/mini format variations to point them out, or stations or shows that fit your special interests especially well.

    Your turn.

    Should have brought that up at the end of the column!

  4. Fizz
    March 22, 2011 at 9:35 am

    Does WAMU still play a lot of bluegrass? I remember a few years ago, there being a big uproar when American University (which owns the station) had planned to get rid of the format for more talk programs. Not sure, but I think the majority of the bluegrass might’ve been moved over to one of their digital subchannels (HD radio, hasn’t that one just about gone the way of the minidisk and Windows Vista?)

  5. Jon
    March 22, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Not sure, but I think the majority of the bluegrass might’ve been moved over to one of their digital subchannels

    Yep.

    HD radio, hasn’t that one just about gone the way of the minidisk and Windows Vista?

    Nope.

  6. Jon
    March 22, 2011 at 9:50 am

    And by the way, in addition to 24-hour bluegrass programming on terrestrial 88.5-2, WAMU simulcasts at http://www.bluegrasscountry.org .

  7. Dave D.
    March 22, 2011 at 10:50 am

    @Barry: I can’t help with good Red Dirt outlets; that music isn’t my cup of tea. Hopefully, some fans of the genre can speak up.

  8. Noeller
    March 22, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    If we could ever make that “Real Country” format work up north here, I’d lock myself in the station and refuse to leave. Might even work for free, if I had to. Man, what a life…

  9. Barry Mazor
    March 22, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    If you Google “Real Country,” Noeller, I’m sure you could find a number of Real Country stations available online–no matter where you live.

  10. Noeller
    March 22, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    @Barry — I can pretty much promise you they don’t exist in Canada, and I don’t think an American station would hire me to jock and program a Drive show for them ;)

  11. Barry Mazor
    March 22, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Well, at least you could listen and announce the records at home …

  12. Noeller
    March 22, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    Lol — I think that’s pretty much what I do when I’m playing with my MediaPlayer on my computer at home. :)

    I need someone to match my current salary to do that for one of those “Real Country” formats. That is OUTSTANDING, but I really doubt it would fly up here. Far too many soccer mom’s…

  13. Sanda
    March 22, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    Another format I’ve heard is “God’s Country”. Different from straight up gospel stations, its lots of mainstream country with Christian themes (think Randy Travis’ “Three Wooden Crosses”), and some with more generally inspirational messages (like a “So Small” by Carrie Underwood)…but none of the drinking or cheating. I couldn’t listen to “God’s Country” 24/7, but it is kinda fun, especially since they have to go back a few decades to fill the format

  14. Paul W Dennis
    March 22, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    I have five FM country stations in range of my home in Winter Springs, FL (a northeast suburb of Orlando), all of which play modern country. One of the stations, WPCV FM 97.5 in Winter Haven/Bartow/Lakeland does play oldies on Saturday night (Solid Gold with Rowdy Yates, a syndicated oldies show covering the 80s and 90s mostly)and Sunday night (a local oldies show that goes back into the 50s and 60s, although some of the older oldies they play are stereo remakes). The rest play the occasional oldie, mostly from 2000 onward

    There hasn’t been a classic country format within range of Orlando in about five years. Before that there were some low-powered AM station in outlying towns that played the format and at least one station WLBE in Leesburg/Eustis that had a one hour show on Sunday afternoon (I had partial responsibility for selecting and providing the music for the show).

    David Dees had a bluegrass show on WUCF-FM for about twenty years, but when he retired, no one replaced him and there hasn’t been a regular bluegrass show (that I know of) in the Orlando area for several years. There isn’t, and hasn’t been an Americana format station in the area.

    I finally gave in and got satellite radio – Roadhouse XM-10 and Willie’s Place XM-13 now get most of my radio music listening. I prefer Roadhouse but both get their share of my listening pleasure

  15. Jon
    March 23, 2011 at 7:47 am

    Shouldn’t that be curling moms?

  16. Fizz
    March 23, 2011 at 8:48 am

    “Shouldn’t that be curling moms?” <—–Hahahahaaaaaa, Jon made a funny!

    There are six country stations in my area, all pretty much identical, and a few more from other markets that you can pick up on good days, but why would you want to? They don't do anything different. Countrtry music began in 1992 and was invented by Garth Brooks, according to them.

    Of course, for "real country," there's WSGS out of Hazard, KY. Huge signal in that area, and a very distinctive mix of music, if you don't mind a (heavy) dose of high-school hoops. They're what used to be called a "full-service" radio station, with a ton of local news and local color.

  17. Noeller
    March 23, 2011 at 11:54 am

    @Jon — I’m shocked at your ability to find humour in something!! Yes, hockey and curling moms indeed!! :)

  18. gordon
    March 23, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Barry…you pulled my link?

  19. gordon
    March 23, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Now I see it…sorry

  20. Barry Mazor
    March 23, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    I wouldn’t even pull your leg.

    Anyhow, Gordon.. I’m a columnist here; not an editor…

  21. Brady Vercher
    March 23, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    Gordon, I removed your comment because you only posted a link. Feel free to comment on the article and perhaps describe what you’re linking to next time. And don’t post to pages that auto-resize visitors’ browsers.

  22. the pistolero
    March 23, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    I can’t help with good Red Dirt outlets; that music isn’t my cup of tea. Hopefully, some fans of the genre can speak up.

    Yep. I can think of three off the top of my head:

    Radio Free Texas: radiofreetexas dot org.

    95.9 The Ranch, out of Fort Worth: 959theranch dot com.

    Texas Mix 105.3, out of The Woodlands: texasmix1053 dot com.

    All three of those stations play Texas/Red Dirt music almost exclusively.

    Other than that, I’m a devotee of Sirius satellite radio. It’s introduced me to a world of great music and I’ve heard a lot of wonderful old songs I haven’t heard in years. Some songs get played more depending on the channels you listen to, but I wouldn’t go back to terrestrial radio for all the oil in Texas.

  23. Carrie
    March 23, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    My husband actually just borrowed his dad’s new Camry, which has a SiriusXM trial package on it — and has said that if he could afford to go satellite now, he would. We drove about 2.5 hours today and flipped between The Highway (16) and Bluegrass the whole way — it was great fun.

    WQDR in Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill does the Pinecone Bluegrass Show every Sunday from 6pm to 9pm. When I temporarily lived in the area, I LIVED for that show, even if at first it was because it was the only way I could hear anything from Dierks Bentley’s Up on the Ridge on the radio. I really came to love the music, and really wish there were something like that I could pick up in Charlotte. All I have is mainstream country here, which I maybe listen to regularly a couple months out of the year.

    Thanks for the article! It was a good read, and opened my eyes to some new avenues.

  24. Robb
    March 24, 2011 at 11:20 am

    I’m a big fan of KHYI 95.3 out of Plano, TX. They categorize themselves as “Hard Country.” Matt Hillyer of 1100 Springs hosts a Wednesday night show on the station. They have a nice mix of classic country and modern outlaw (for lack of a better term)and nothing insipid.

  25. Timeo
    March 24, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    > And by the way, in addition to 24-hour
    > bluegrass programming on terrestrial 88.5-2
    > WAMU simulcasts at http://www.bluegrasscountry.org

    FWIW, if you live in the Northern DC suburbs, Bluegrass Country can also be heard on a low-powered FMer at 105.5.

    For me, the acquisition of (a) a bedside Squeezebox (WiFi) radio; and (b) the Android-phone app “Tune In Radio” (I plug in my smart phone to the Aux cable on my car radio) has re-opened a world of great music radio. KNBT out of New Braunfels has the best Americana mix, IMHO. “Texas Music Mix 105.3″ (must be an HD-2 station from somewhere) is also good. Not only is WSM’s Eddie Stubbs (a WAMU alum, BTW) a great listen every night, but the station’s Saturday morning “guest dj” programs are great. Austin’s KGSR used to offer a nice mix of Americana and AAA. Sadly, though, it lately has been skewing to soft rock, with John Mayer frequently showing up.

    Also I enjoy several Internet-only stations, such as FAT Radio out of northern California, Heartland Public Radio’s Traditional Classic Country Music, Wild West Radio and Roots Radio.

    And of course Pandora (though, it seems, no matter how much time I spend “programming” my station, Lady Antebellum will still pop up sometimes.)

    I worry about the long-term viability of Internet-based radio. Local stations are forced to dump their local ads for like bottom-of-the-barrel national ads (e.g., buy gold! treat spider veins! get out of debt!) that can’t pay much. And, many Internet-only stations generally don’t even run spots. There have been various threats to jack up broadcast right fees in the past few years, for both music and commercials. Many good stations have already gone. My fear is the more audience Internet-based radio generates, the more likely it is that the greed and avarice of traditional broadcasters and record companies will drive them out of business.

  26. Fred Williams
    March 25, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    I want to present another view. About 65-years ago I was exposed to many varieties of music from radio DJs. That included hillbilly/mountain/pre-bluegrass, cajun, polka, folk, western swing, and cowboy/western music. Pop music at that time included broadway show tunes, as well as big band music. Occasionally, dixieland jazz and ragtime music also were played. My parents had classical music recordings and my uncle brought in “very primitive” folk music from around the world. I heard many, many, varieties of music. For reasons my mother never understood, I settled on hillbilly music as my favorite-not completely excluding the others.

    Today, most of our youth do not get to hear the varieties of our music. They can only select their favorites based upon what they have heard. So often their choices are a result of promotion of select “artists” who are the result of intense marketing for the quick buck.

    As a result, I offer a 1-hour radio show on our small local-AM-station to try to expose those who would listen to a variety of authentic country music. I play old acoustic country, bluegrass, newgrass, cajun and americana music. The lines are blurred in my opinion, and I’m hoping my listeners will give up their perception of the hard lines between many of these genres.

    I urge you to consider doing the same thing in your community. Our Commercial Country Music is crap. Many of our youth think it’s good music because they haven’t heard anything else.

    You can hear what I do at demingradio dot com, Fred’s Country Music Time Machine.

  27. Fizz
    March 27, 2011 at 1:53 am

    Awesome, Fred, I’ll check it out.

  28. TX music jim
    April 8, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    KHYI the range out of Plano, Texas khyi.com plays a good mix of classic country, Red Dirt and Americana.
    KNBT out of New Branfel (SP) Texas plays a good mix of Red dirt and Americana
    The Ranch out of FR. worth plays Red Dirt and Classic Country.
    all of the above stream on the web. My preference is KHYI the range as they have the widest variety.

  29. jaysoul
    July 5, 2011 at 1:54 am

    I like to listen to Boot Scootin Country , CISN-FM and CJMS Country 1040 AM for country music…the list will go on and on..

  30. Adam Price Country Music
    May 31, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    I listen to many of the country stations online, as I’m in Australia, I enjoy the mix of music they all play and as an artist it’s very personal and lucky we all like different styles or there would only be one type of artist out there LOL

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