Country radio reinvents itself after major-maket fade

Country music isn’t dead in Los Angeles; it just has a weaker signal. And it’s the genre’s response to that frailty that will define its future in the big cities.

When KZLA, the only country music radio station in Los Angeles, went off the air on Aug. 17, a pair of country outlets in San Bernardino County and Ventura County, KFROG and KHAY, scrambled to take up the slack. But they don’t have the wattage to penetrate deep into L.A. and Orange counties.

In October, AM 540 tried to court spurned audiences in Los Angeles by taking on country music, but its Tijuana-based signal also comes with a great deal of interference.

These kind of mixed blessings have drawn appropriately mixed reactions among country music label execs.

“It happened in New York, and we survived,” notes one Nashville label CEO, referring to the exit of WYNY in 2002. “Will we sell fewer records in L.A.? Probably. We’ll just have to sell more in (country music strongholds like) Seattle, Kansas City or Minneapolis.”

Some L.A. concert promoters are not so sanguine.

“KZLA was a powerful voice for live country music, and we no longer have it,” says Alex Hodges, exec veep of HOB Concerts. “The lack of KZLA has hurt us on some shows, like Brooks & Dunn. They were still sellouts, but they took longer than if KZLA was talking up the show or giving away tickets. You need that local radio support you got from KZLA to reach people all over L.A. and help build that excitement.”

Hodges says he and other promoters have dabbled with advertising on sports or talkradio stations in the absence of KZLA, as well as using the Internet and email blasts to reach consumers.

“But the Internet piece is very dry,” says Hodges. “It lacks the emotion of a radio personality talking about the upcoming show.”

Many record industry insiders question how many country music fans will turn to satellite radio, noting the cost and the genre’s working-class roots, but XM execs are betting against the conventional wisdom. XM took over sponsorship of KZLA’s annual Country Bash music festival, which was held Oct. 14 at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. XM has also built out, adding nine country channels.

“(Our) commitment to country music is more important than it’s ever been before,” says Eric Logan, exec veep of programming for XM Radio.

As XM’s enthusiasm would indicate, KZLA’s demise comes at a time when country music is flourishing. While album sales of most genres have declined, country music has experienced one of its best years. During the first six months of 2006, U.S. sales of country albums increased by 18% to 36 million, according to SoundScan.

Yet despite country music’s widespread success, KZLA’s audience was relatively small. When firing on all cylinders, KZLA would cume an average of 650,000 listeners each week, according to Arbitron. However, in the contemporary hits format offered by so many stations in L.A., such as Power 106, the weekly cume touches 1.4 million.

“Country music was always a niche format in L.A., but KZLA’s national influence and impact were undeniable,” former KZLA operations manager RJ Curtis says. “We embraced new artists and helped the midlevel ones like superstars. Plus, nobody promoted concerts as well as we did. Today, there are no stations to promote concerts in the city.”

Curtis notes that in order for Southern California’s two remaining country music stations to flourish, or for another station to return to the market, they will “need to have a strong enough signal that can reach L.A. and deep into Orange County. Nobody has that right now.”

The exit of KZLA ended a 26-year run for the station, which began during the “Urban Cowboy” era and saw its fortunes again rise during the ’90s, when artists like Garth Brooks reinvigorated the genre.

Industry observers note that radio consolidation, which put the majority of radio stations into a handful of owners such as Infinity, Emmis, Cumulus and Clear Channel, has put a renewed emphasis on profits over programming. Before consolidation, because there were so many station owners, the likelihood of a station adopting an underserved format was greater. Today, some markets have several stations playing the same format in competition for the widest swath of listeners.

“The longer L.A. goes without a country music station, the more unlikely the large audience of country fans who feel disenfranchised will return,” Curtis says. “They’ll get in the habit of popping in a CD, or worse, chose another format like adult contemporary, where they can occasionally hear Faith Hill.”

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