Cowboy crooners know that more country music is sold in Los Angeles than anywhere else, a distinction on display Thursday night when singers Faith Hill and Tim McGraw opened the first of three sold-out shows at the Staples Center.
But Los Angeles listeners would have trouble finding Hill, McGraw or any other twangy troubadours on the radio dial: On Thursday, the city lost its last country music broadcaster when KZLA-FM (93.9), self-billed as “America’s most listened-to country station,” changed its format for the first time in 25 years -- to a pop format focusing on beat-heavy R&B; and dance tunes.
The Burbank-based station’s shift is part of a national trend. Although country fans have long been well-served in Texas, Indiana and other landlocked states, over the past decade stations have completely disappeared in New York, San Francisco and half a dozen other coastal markets.
The shift demonstrates how America’s changing ethnicity is remaking media, especially in big cities. Because of their size and loyalty, minority audiences are becoming more coveted by radio companies than white listeners -- at least in ethnically diverse metropolitan areas. Once-essential genres such as country, rock and classical music are increasingly being replaced by formats such as pop, hip-hop and talk radio.
Executives say stations are willing to make almost any adjustment to attract listeners at a time when radio audiences are declining industrywide. Just as cable television’s niche programming has eroded the large broadcast networks’ audiences over the decades, new technologies such as iPods and satellite radio are now drawing listeners looking for specialized playlists or genres disappearing from the dial.
Country and rock stations have been disproportionately battered by these new technologies, according to music analysts.
“Hispanic radio operators say their audiences are slower to adopt iPods and satellite radio,” said Laraine Mancini, a Merrill Lynch & Co. analyst who estimates that KZLA’s format change could increase the station’s revenue by as much as 50%. “Hispanic and urban stations hold their audiences better, probably because their listeners don’t switch to new technologies quite so quickly as white audiences.”
For stations, choosing a playlist today is akin to mounting a political campaign in which disparate racial constituencies are stitched together in hopes of achieving a mass following. Programmers hope formats that reach across racial boundaries will trump genres appealing solely to factions of one group.
“The Los Angeles radio market is basically 40% Hispanic, 11% Asian and 8% black, and country fans are about 98% Caucasian,” said Rick Cummings, a top executive at KZLA’s parent company, Emmis Communications Corp. “My job is to attract as large an audience as possible. KZLA is now playing music that appeals to Hispanic adult women, and that will hopefully attract other suburban women of different ethnicities.”
Those more beguiling tunes include songs by the Black Eyed Peas, Nelly Furtado and many other pop stars who are ubiquitous elsewhere on the radio dial.
Ironically, KZLA’s change 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 17.7% to 36 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Best sellers from bands such as Rascal Flatts and the Dixie Chicks have driven those increases.
Moreover, country music listening nationwide has remained steady for almost a decade, according to the radio-ratings agency Arbitron Inc.
However, the listening audiences of Spanish-language and urban formats such as rap and hip-hop have exploded during that same period, as cities such as Los Angeles have become more ethnically diverse. While Los Angeles’ white radio audience has shrunk slightly since 1998, the number of Hispanic listeners has increased by almost 500,000, according to Arbitron.
The percentage of time spent nationwide listening to Spanish-language music has almost doubled since 1998, today accounting for 11.1% of all radio consumption. The number of hours spent listening to urban genres has also markedly increased.
“In all the major cities, even Top 40 and adult contemporary stations have started playing more rhythmic songs to attract minorities,” said Lon Helton, host of the nationally syndicated “Country Countdown USA.” “Country isn’t able to do that because the songs aren’t adaptable.”
Country music has worked hard to keep up with America’s changing demographics. Labels have spent millions promoting African American singer Cowboy Troy and Latino country guitarist Rick Trevino, but beyond those two, success has been limited.
“We spent close to $1 million going down the ethnic road, but almost all the artists we found were just poseurs,” said Joe Galante, chairman of Sony BMG in Nashville. “Most urban artists grew up listening to urban music, and so that’s what they play. We’ve all been looking for minority country musicians, but audiences haven’t supported them.”
In many ways, a country music-less Los Angeles is particularly jolting because of California’s deep country roots. The birth of the honky-tonk “Bakersfield sound” in the 1960s gave rise to such stars as Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and added the “western” to country and western. California’s ranching history and country-boots-on-city-streets vibe have contributed a twang to acts as disparate as the salsa-rock group Los Lobos and the Eagles. KZLA had been among the nation’s most popular country stations since it started broadcasting the genre in 1980.
KZLA’s switch drew widespread anger. Fans called the station and complained on message boards after the station announced the shift Thursday morning, right after rush hour. After its final country tune, by Keith Urban, came a pop anthem by the Black Eyed Peas.
“I almost threw up, I was so upset,” said longtime KZLA listener and Mission Viejo resident Ruth Rogers, 53. “I think it’s racist. This is becoming a nation of minorities. I’m not going to turn on my radio anymore. Country music promotes patriotism and family values, and they’ve replaced it with something that just promotes money and hate.”
Country music executives were also dismayed.
“This is a huge disappointment,” said Gary Borman, a manager representing country superstar Faith Hill, among other artists. “KZLA did a fantastic job building a country music community here, and our artists were proud to contribute to that. If radio executives can focus on urban and Latino listeners, why can’t they focus on white America? This seems like the arbitrary hand of corporate America at work.”
Country music label heads agreed.
“Los Angeles is our No. 1 sales market in America,” said Bill Bennett, head of Warner Bros. Records Nashville. “If I were Sirius or XM Satellite Radio, I would see this as a major opportunity. We’ll survive. New York hasn’t had a country station in years, and Faith Hill and Tim McGraw still sold out Madison Square Garden. But it’s a real blow.”
But KZLA’s operators remain confident in their choice.
“Radio is a pure numbers game,” said Cummings, the Emmis executive. “A little over a year ago we changed an Indianapolis station to country, and it zoomed up the rankings. But Los Angeles is a minority market, and that’s what we have to program for.”
Even Cummings, however, worries what the change portends.
“I’m concerned that the homogenization across the L.A. dial is going to make it harder to attract young listeners. But if I just put on highly specialized channels, this company would die. There isn’t much room for experimentation in modern radio.”