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R J Curtis, program director at KZLA-FM in Los Angeles, isn't waiting around for the next Nashville phenomenon to attract new listeners to his country music radio station. Instead, he's relying on the station's owner, Emmis Communications, to spend money on advertising, promotions, contests, concerts and early-morning variety shows to encourage locals to turn their dials to 93.9.

Curtis credits Emmis's increased marketing efforts for his station's No. 1 ranking, based on the latest weekly Arbitron ratings. Each week, about 800,000 people tune in to his station to listen to Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and the Dixie Chicks. That's roughly a 33 percent increase from the 600,000 listeners they had five years ago. In early 2000, just before Emmis bought the station, a survey conducted by the previous owners, Bonneville International Corp., found that of the people in the market who liked country music, fewer than 50 percent even knew KZLA existed. As Curtis says: “That's an alarming number.�

Still, Curtis feels there's only so much that marketing and advertising can do to draw more listeners. A new Nashville star would be a better way to boost listenership. Shania Twain may have performed at this year's Super Bowl half-time show, and the Dixie Chicks may have posed in the buff for the cover of Entertainment Weekly after their controversial comments about George W., but the truth is country artists aren't as popular in mainstream culture as they were in the early and mid-'90s.

“Quite honestly, we're in a down cycle,� says Curtis. “That's unfortunate, but that's what it is. For 10 years we were the mainstream, now it's hip-hop. What's next? I don't know, but I hope it's country, it expresses great values and has great messages for people.�

And country music radio does have deep roots. The oldest country radio station in the nation, WSM-AM in Nashville, which broadcasts the Grand Ole Opry, was founded in 1925. Country is still the most popular format in the U.S. As of October 2002, there were 10,571 radio stations and more than 2,100 were devoted to country music. The next favorite format was news and talk radio with 1,800 stations, followed by oldies with 814 and adult contemporary with 716, according to stats compiled by Interep Research an advertising, sales and marketing company specializing in radio. Mary Ann Slepavic, research director of the Chicago-based firm, says she doesn't expect much variance in this year's report. “Country is by far the No. 1 radio format,� she says.

Country music stations reach almost 42 million adult listeners, 18 years or older, according to Interep's October 2002 report. That's more than the nearly 39 million who tune in to contemporary hits stations and the 35 million who listen to news and talk stations. “Country is strong,� says Slepavic. “It's very much a draw in record sales and concerts. It's evident even to the untrained eye when you're watching TV and listening to radio. Shania Twain is edging more toward pop these days, but she started out in country.�

The country stations' market share hasn't altered much in the past five years. According to Arbitron, in the spring of 1998, that share was 8.1 percent, compared with 8.9 percent in the fall of 1998. During those same time periods, classic country stations' market share rose to 0.4 percent, up from 0.2 percent, while new country stations' market share dropped to 0.1 percent from 0.5 percent. “There's been a slight, but steady decline,� says Thom Mocarsky, Arbitron's vice president of communications in New York.

For some country music broadcasters, that's a sour note. They would like to attract listeners in the 15- to 24-year-old category. According to a 2002 survey by American Viewpoint and Cooper and Secrest Associates, Inc. for the Country Radio Broadcasters in Nashville, a disproportionate number of country music listeners are female and over the age of 65. Of core listeners, defined as those who listen to country radio “always� or “most of the time,� their study found that 56 percent are 50 years or older. According to Arbitron, as of spring 2003, 69 percent of country music radio listeners were age 35 or older, up slightly from 67 percent in the fall of 1998. Women over the age of 18 represent 52 percent of country stations' listeners, as of spring 2003, a figure that has basically remained unchanged since fall 1998.

That's not comforting to Larry Rosin, president of Edison Media Research in Somerville, N.J., which completed a report for the Country Radio Broadcasters on how country stations could attract 15- to 29-year-olds. “It's fair to say they've been in a trough for a while,� he says. “There's not a lot of excitement [in country music]. The Dixie Chicks are the newest, biggest and act and they're maybe six years old. Nashville has seen so many ups and downs and they're waiting for the next explosion.� The original Dixie Chicks first performed on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion radio program in 1991.

When Edison surveyed 15- to 29-year-olds in early 2003, researchers found that when asked if they liked country music “a lot,� it was their fifth choice, behind alternative rock, hip-hop, top 40 and classic rock. If listeners who say they like listening to country music “a lot� and those who say they like it “a little� are combined, then the format falls to eighth place, behind jazz. Of the people who listen to country radio, 32 percent are between the ages of 18 and 34, according to a fall 2002 survey by Mediamark Research, Inc., down from 37.22 percent, in fall 1992. “You have to keep young people coming in,� Rosin says. “You have to think of the long-term prospects.�

Ed Salamon, Country Radio Broadcasters' executive director, agrees. “My mission is to point out opportunities for country music stations to grow,� he says. “A lot of country radio stations are not targeting the 15- to 24-year-olds. They tend to be happy with 25- to 44-year-olds.�

Alan Sledge, regional vice president of programming for Clear Channel Radio in Tempe, Ariz., which owns 190 country stations, isn't dissatisfied with his stations' older, and predominantly female, demographics. Sledge says women between the ages of 35 and 49 make many of the buying decisions in their households. He points out that the No. 1 radio station in Phoenix is Clear Channel's country station, KNIX-FM. As a result, it attracts local as well as national advertisers, such as Mercedes-Benz and Wal-Mart. “They're the soccer mom vote,� says Sledge. “Country is well focused on those who are making the consumer choices. It's great for our advertisers.�

Interep's 2002 report found that of country music radio listeners, 47 percent are married, 77 percent own their own home and 49 percent have an annual household income of at least $50,000.

KZLA's Curtis says more women may listen to country, because it's tamer and less testosterone driven. “The stereotypical country music type song used to involve drinking, cheating, prison, trains and trucks,� he says. In the 1960s and '70s, country music was dominated by what he refers to as “manly men�: Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Conway Twitty. Think of Johnny Cash's 1956 hit, “Folsom Prison Blues,� featuring the famous couplet, “I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die.� “They were strong, rebel guy artists,� Curtis says. “These were not models, they were not great-looking guys, but the music was really solid.�

Americans flirted with country music after the 1980s movie Urban Cowboy starring John Travolta and Debra Winger. But it finally entered popular culture in the late '80s and early '90s with Garth Brooks. “He was at the right place at the right time,� says Sledge. “Top 40 formats were losing audience and market share. It wasn't the music that people wanted to hear and so they were searching for a new sound. Lo and behold they found country. Garth is credited with opening up people's minds to country.�

By the late '90s, Brooks's popularity had waned and so did Americans' interest in country. Country music radio might have hit a nadir in the late '90s, but some Nashville record producers think that a new artist, the 41-year-old Buddy Jewell, may spark renewed interest in the genre and attract more male listeners as well as younger ones. His debut album has been nominated for the Country Music Association's Horizon Award, which is to be presented in early November.

“The music business is about hits,� Rosin says. “Yes, it's about the artists, but it's also about the songs. Country music has the ability to touch people and Garth had that quality…. It's just a matter of having people with the magic.�

Nashville insiders are hoping that Jewell, with the highest charting debut by a new country artist in over a decade, will be the magician to lead country music back to the mainstream.

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