Country music radio grows despite rise in digital downloads

NASHVILLE — Downloads are up (147% above 2004 figures, according to Nielsen SoundScan reports), but country music radio isn’t worried.

“Listeners are gonna buy what they like, and we’re gonna play what they like,” says WSM-FM program director Buddy Van Arsdale. “I think radio (spurs) further interest for them to download it.”

Over at WSM-AM (home of the Grand Ole Opry), K.J. Allen works as programming manager at the Gaylord Entertainment station. “We just need to provide our listeners with unique content that you cannot download digitally, plus local news and that sort of programming,” he says.

A recent Arbitron report states broadcast radio’s audience has actually registered its highest level since 1999, while satellite radio, the subscription-based XM and Sirius, has attracted about 9 million listeners combined.

That growth occurred even as digital music downloads reached 352 million in 2005, up from 142.6 million downloads the year before, according to Nielsen SoundScan (which monitors online services such as iTunes).

But radio responds well to competition. The industry faced similar concerns when CDs were first introduced, Allen recalls. “You know, before CDs, you couldn’t really take a 33-rpm record in your car, so we’ve had to pay attention to the CD for the last 15 years.”

The real threat to traditional radio comes in the growing number of podcasts — although that technology could conceivably expand country music’s reach.

One of the pioneer podcasters is Nashville-based humorist and music man Wichita Rutherford, who has three shows on Sirius Satellite Radio.

“Podcasting and subscription radio have enabled artists, newsmakers, entertainers and ‘the common man’ to be heard all over the globe,” he notes. “I get email from people in Thailand, Egypt, the Netherlands and all over Europe — from every continent.

“Some don’t even speak English very well. They tell me how they’ve discovered bluegrass and country music by listening to the interviews I do on my podcast.”

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