In 1987, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Kris Kristofferson brought the third Farm Aid concert to Lincoln, Nebraska, to raise money and awareness about the loss of family farms that was plaguing agriculture in the 80s. The event featured a host of country and rock music stars and generated publicity through television, newspapers and especially rural radio stations.
Rural radio stations are a vital part of most rural communities in the U.S. in large part because of the relatively low cost of starting a station and producing programming. Country music has been a staple of rural radio and has related the stories of farmers and rural residents over the decades.
Radio, more than any other medium, is local – or at least should be. Urban folks sometimes drive across stretches of rural America and are astonished when they turn the radio dial and hear a rural station devoting hours to a “swap meet” – local folks calling in with items or services they’re offering for sale. At other times, they’ll hear seemingly endless recitations of prices for grain or livestock at both local and distant markets. A few country-western songs will come on, to be followed by birth and death announcements. The urban travelers may be left wondering, “How can anyone listen to this meaningless drivel?”
But for the rural folks who live within reach of that radio tower, that drivel is the stuff of real life.
Radio is ubiquitous. Approximately 94 percent of all Americans listen to radio each week. Local radio stations, like local weekly newspapers, can be the heart of a rural community.
But consolidation of the radio industry is threatening these local voices. In 1996, Congress eliminated the national cap on the number of radio and television stations that one company could own.
- That year, 1996, one company, Clear Channel Communications of San Antonio, Texas, owned 40 radio stations.
- By 2000, they owned 1,200 and accounted for over 27 percent of the radio listeners.
- The second largest group, CBS/Infinity Radio, had 134 stations and accounted for almost 14 percent of listeners.
- In 2004, half of the listening public were listening to stations owned by the top four radio conglomerates.
These consolidated companies tell their stations what kind of programming they will carry and program music from national play lists almost exclusively. In a consolidated radio group, the local voice of radio is silenced.
For a time after the loosening of regulations, the conglomerates bought up rural radio stations along with the urban ones. But radio listenership has declined by 22 percent since its peak in 1989. So the consolidated companies started selling off their rural stations and buying more urban ones since 2000.
Country music has become the most popular format for radio stations, particularly – as you might expect – out in the country.
In 2008, 1,683 stations played country music and they attracted almost 13 percent of the average listening audience. The next highest audience was for News/Talk/Information programming with almost 11 percent of the listeners and 1,553 stations.
The rest of the audience was divided into segments with very esoteric labels. For instance, probably only a professional radio programmer could tell you the difference between “Adult Contemporary” music and “Urban Adult Contemporary” music and “Urban Contemporary” music and “Hot Adult Contemporary” music. But there are over 50 of these formats, each with progressively smaller audience shares.
Within country music since 1970, there have been several distinct genres that have sometimes fought for fans and sometimes co-existed. For instance –
- “Outlaw” country music and “Pop” country music were both on the rise during the 70s. Willie Nelson was the outlaw and Dolly Parton was one of the primary practitioners of pop, and it’s interesting that both achieved stardom in the movies as well as on stage.
- Southern Rock was an intermingling of blues and country that crossed over between the country and rock charts from the 70s to the 90s.
- In the mid-80s, “New Country” was actually a movement back to traditional instruments like the steel guitar and fiddles. Its biggest star was Garth Brooks who’s second album “No Fences” (1990) became the top-selling country album of all time. The movement included Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakum, Shania Twain, Patty Loveless, Faith Hill, and Reba McEntire. Reba broke some barriers when she took over management, publishing and recording studio duties, as well.
- “Alternative Country” was a diverse movement in the 1990s that included Lyle Lovett, Gram Parsons, Steve Earle, and Ryan Adams.
- Fans during the 21st century are enjoying a period with no dominant movement. Some country artists like Alison Krause and the group Union Station led a move back to roots. Others like Sugarland, Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood brought in a lot of different influences.
What cuts across the styles in country music is a devotion to storytelling. There are now fewer hard drinkers, fewer cheatin’ hearts, fewer dogs. Instead, the songs provide compelling insights into the life of rural American families.