Conventional Wisdom

Why There's No Oldies Country Radio

Mike Oatman, the chief executive officer of Great Empire Broadcasting, has some funny ideas about how to program a radio station. Most C.E.O.s have reams of demographic data around them, and they spend their time carefully examining which age groups are listening to what and what their spending habits are. They try to get a grip on what the hot new trend is going to be, and a catchy label for what it is they're programming. But Oatman's style is a little more simplistic than that.

"We play anything that's country," says Oatman. Please note: That's anything that's country. Not "Hot New Country," or "Young Country," or even anything so radical as "Alternative Country" or "Outlaw Country." The format is simply "anything that's country."

Oatman's company runs several stations between the Midwest and the Rockies. Some of them are indeed "Hot New Country" stations, playing whatever Nashville has dished up this month. There is, after all, money to be made in such stations. But four AM stations under the Great Empire flag go against the grain, playing music that any supposedly sane country radio program director simply would not allow. These stations are KFDI (1070 in Wichita), KVOO (1170 in Tulsa), KWOW (590 in Omaha), and KTTS (1280 in Springfield, Missouri), and according to some people, what these stations do just isn't right.

"One program director from another part of the country called me and said, `You're doing everything wrong!'" says Oatman, recalling a recent conversation. "I asked him, `What do you mean?' He said, `I was driving through your town and you were playing Webb Pierce during drive time! That's a sure turn-off!' Well, not for my car radio it isn't."

Yes, that's right, Webb Pierce during drive time. Imagine that. Actually, a lot of people do imagine that, and I'm one of them.

It's funny how things come full circle. When I moved to Austin in 1986, I knew I was moving to a musical paradise. That was one of the main reasons I chose to attend UT. But there was a dark side to Austin music -- the radio was pathetic. There were a few bright spots, like KUT, or Jody Denberg's Critic's Choice show on KLBJ, but for the most part, we got just one thing -- oldies. Oldies, oldies, and more oldies. A walk down the hall of my dormitory would bring the sounds of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and the Who. Decent music, sure, but for chrissakes, you would've thought it was '66 rather than '86. The music of my parents' generation dominated the stereos and radios of my generation, and I grew to resent it.

I figured there must be young artists playing innovative stuff because I could hear them every night in Austin's clubs, and yet there seemed to be this conspiracy to keep their music hidden. Actually, it wasn't a conspiracy, it was right out in the open; the baby boomers had attained financial affluence, and their nostalgia was dictating the radio market. At one point, there were two stations that could more or less be described as "classic rock," and two more that gladly identified themselves as "oldies." Meanwhile, the cream of Austin's rock crop couldn't pay to get played. I got to where anything recorded before 1985 made me want to spit.

Today, however, I'd give my left arm for an "oldies" station. You see, somewhere along the way, I developed an interest in country music. I went through my dad's record collection and found Hank Williams, Hank Thompson, Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline, and Ray Price, while at the same time renewing my childhood love affair with the music of Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker. I loved to hear this stuff on the radio, but I quickly discovered that country radio had exactly the opposite problem from rock radio. A wave of new artists in Nashville had sparked the interest of young listeners around the nation, and suddenly a new rule had arisen -- play nothing before 1986. Suddenly, Merle Haggard was reduced to opening for Clint Black, and George Jones was reduced to tears on a nationally televised awards show, begging programmers not to forget about the old guys. Want to hear oldies? Forget it. That's not what brings in the bucks, according to radio marketing conventional wisdom.

Austin's radio market is almost nothing but conventional wisdom. If you're tuning in country music, your only real choices are sister stations KASE (100.7 FM) and KVET (98.1 FM), and KIKY (92.1 FM). All three play standard Nashville fare. Getting a taste of oldies, however, requires considerably more planning: KOOP (91.7 FM) has classics shows on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, as does KVET on Saturday mornings; KVRX (also 91.7FM) has some classic stuff early on Thursdays; and at KUT, a few deejays dabble in the genre. If you live in far south/southwest Austin, you might be lucky enough to pick up KFAN (107.9 FM) out of Fredericksburg, which frequently plays oldies fare, or KKYX (680 AM in San Antonio), which bills itself as "classic country," but also traffics in dreadful Eighties radio fodder.

Thankfully, there are some stations that don't require a bus schedule to figure out when the classic stuff is coming through. Oatman's are some of them. KNEW, 910 AM in San Francisco, is another. Disc jockey Sully Roddy says, "We started in January, and didn't really know what to do with the station because it's an AM. It was the major country station around this area for years and years -- a couple of decades -- and they had been playing the modern mix of Nashville people and not doing that well, so they decided to go classic country. Now we play a lot of stuff from the Sixties and Seventies. We play some current music, but most of our requests are for people like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and older people too, like Wynn Stewart and Faron Young. It's heavenly."

But are the ratings celestial too?

"[The ratings] had been way down there," says Roddy. "They had been chopping up the station into both music and sportscasts because they didn't know what to do with it." Yet after adopting the new -- or rather, old -- format, "They've been creeping steadily upward. They just keep increasing a little bit with every ratings report. [Management] is really happy about it."

Both KNEW's management and Great Empire had good reasons for adopting their respective formats; the stations in question were AM. "We were playing Garth Brooks and Neal McCoy," explains Roddy, "the people you can hear on any country station, but we didn't have the fidelity for it. Why should people listen to us when they can hear it on FM? We really needed something different. Besides, AM is just made for Ray Price."

Oatman won't go quite so far as to limit his station to a specific time period, but his philosophy might recall Z-102's classic-rock slogan, "Best of the Old, Best of the New." "I've stopped short of declaring that we're a `classic' station, because we don't think it has to be old to be country. We'll also play Alison Krauss and George Strait.

"Record companies seem to have a death wish," Oatman continues. "Whenever they have a hot period with straight country, they go for too much by trying to cross over outside of the country audience. We believe the one thing that we have to market is the difference between country and the other stuff. We want people to know we're country. Our research says `variety' means `I don't want to hear the same damn song every 30 minutes.'

"I'm alone when I say this, but I don't think it's dawned on Nashville and radio programmers that there is a movement among the younger listeners who are tired of the soundalikes. We play Ray Benson a lot, we play Cornell Hurd, and this new Kimmie Rhodes thing [West Texas Heaven] is knocking us out. The listeners are refreshingly surprised when they hear stuff like this. We're Billboard reporters, and we make them upset because we play what we want to. They call us and say, `You've only given 10 spins to this song this week and everyone else has given it 28.' Well, that's because we play more music. `Country' means bluegrass, Western swing, Mark O'Connor, Sons of the Pioneers, Sons of the San Joaquin."

When this reporter begged Oatman to bring that vision to Austin, he said, "I'd always wanted to start a station down there, but it would take a million dollars to break into the Austin market."

Would a station with classic country format work here in Austin? I think so. Look at the evidence to favor it: On Austin's central-city country scene, "classic" is more than a style, it's the rule. Grammy winner Junior Brown, Libbi Bosworth, the Derailers, Wayne Hancock, Roy Heinrich, Cornell Hurd, Don Walser, and Dale Watson, among many others, all sound like they shot through time from the past, completely stepping over the past two decades. Clearly, an older-style twang does well here -- at least enough to fill small clubs like the Continental. But is that enough to bring in advertisers and pay the expenses needed to keep a commercial station up and running here?

Well, I'm no radio professional, but Ron Rogers is. Rogers is the general manager of the
KASE/KVET monolith. And he isn't so keen on this idea as I am. "It hasn't worked anywhere so far," Rogers says, despite the testimony of Oatman. "Several people have tried it over the years. `Sunny 95' tried it in Dallas for three years and went news/talk, my friend Mike Owens [Buck Owen's son, who wasn't reached at press time] out in Phoenix has his AM out there that he's been doing now for three or four years... it's not been a success. We're slowly putting more traditional country on KVET, but I don't think anyone's ever had a success doing exclusively that."

But wouldn't Austin's unique scene give this city the best potential for such a format?

"No," says Rogers flatly, "because of the young age of the market. I've been in this business for a long time, 40 years to be exact, and if I had a dollar for everybody who said `you should hear so-and-so,' I'd be a rich fellow. I just think that the success that people have in a live setting doesn't necessarily translate to radio. Fewer than 10% of the people who listen to our station go to clubs." Rogers says that older country tests well for his stations, but not necessarily at the level that indicates people want it all the time.

It would be easy to criticize Rogers as lacking vision, but to do so wouldn't be fair; Rogers is, after all, a businessman, and a very successful one at that -- one who has helped build KASE into a powerhouse. Garth clones may not be what you want to hear, but clearly, somebody does. In fact, a full one-fifth of the Austin market does, ensuring a ratings dominance for KASE/KVET that is absolutely staggering. It's safe bet that Rogers knows a hell of a lot more about radio than you or I do.

"There are people who like [classic country]," Rogers says, "and if we can read the tea leaves correctly and see that there are more of them than we thought, then we would be able to put that in there."

Well, there are quite a few of us here. Certainly there are many in Austin's large musician community (admittedly, not a demographic that's rolling in dough) who want the old stuff. At a recent Austin City Limits taping, Don Walser made his opinion clear in a song titled "Country Gold," wherein he lambasted radio for constantly playing "the same 15 or 20 songs" and "it sounds more like rock & roll." And one Dale Watson song declares that modern radio gives him a "Nashville Rash," while another has him begging a deejay to play "A Real Country Song."

"I'd love to have a classic country station," says James White, who, as the owner of the Broken Spoke, could easily be considered an expert in classic country. "I don't really listen to much of that smooth, slick stuff that they have on the radio these days. I might listen to Sammy & Bob on KVET, but then I listen to my tapes of Buck Owens and George Jones, or tapes of some of the bands that play here at the Spoke. If somebody does start a station like that, I think they should throw in some of the people that play in the clubs around here, because they would fit in -- The Geezinslaws, Jimmie Gilmore, people like that."

Musician Rod Moag is also the host of one of KOOP's most popular programs, the "Country, Swing, and Rockabilly Jamboree." His perspective as a community radio volunteer, rather than a paid professional, certainly doesn't carry the expertise of Rogers or Oatman, but "I'm thinking maybe it could work," he says, mentioning KKYX. "It seems like there is an increasing amount of oldies on many stations. Such a station probably could be a low-budget survivor. I think there's a wider audience than we're able to tap on KOOP. We could probably get a wider audience if we had a better signal. When Dan Foster does features on people on KUT, he gets a lot of reaction.

"I think there are a lot of people in outlying areas who can't get KOOP or have mixed feelings about KOOP [referring to the station's left-wing political bias] who would readily tune in to a commercial classics station."

Moag says that, contrary to the younger demographics that Rogers sees for Austin, there's an older crowd in Austin that was part of the rural-to-urban migration of a few decades ago, and these people could provide the audience for such a station. These people grew up on Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, and Hank Williams. Their story is no different from mine, really, except that I learned about Wills second-hand, through Willie Nelson covers. In fact, Moag relates a conversation that makes them sound exactly like me:

"Those people are now in their Fifites and Sixties. I had this one fellow tell me that, `I didn't listen to this music for a long time, and then I tried to figure out what it was about your show that stirred me. I realized it was my early childhood. When I was five or six years old, I used to visit my grandparents, and this is what I heard. This is my roots music.'"

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