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.
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.
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
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.
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.