Country Fried Cheesesteak: Bob McKayís Recipe For Country Radio In The City Of Brotherly Love (02/25/08)
By Editor-in-Chief Joe Howard
ďWhat we do is not work,Ē says Bob McKay, expressing a love of radio that has carried him through 41 years in the business. ďIf we say we are getting up and going to work, weíre already starting the day at a deficit. Looking out my window right now I see contractors working on a building in the cold ó thatís work. We donít go to work ó we go to the radio station. That sounds a little Pollyanna, but I honestly believe that. Iíve always believed that.Ē
A longtime Country radio programmer, McKay has watched stations in the format evolve from what he calls ďgut bucket CountryĒ to slick, mainstream outlets that appeal to an audience much broader than what yesterdayís Country listener was used to. Thatís especially true in Philly, where he says programming Country requires some nuance. ďIn Philadelphia, Iím very concerned about country music not being referred to as country and western music, which itís called in the Northeast,Ē he says. ďSo a large part of directing XTU is the image of the station. Everything we do is contemporary; it has a contemporary look and sound, but we donít shy away from the essence of country music, which is steel guitars and twin fiddles.Ē
McKay is also focused on drawing new listeners to the format, and is using everything from text message promotions with high schools to partnering with a local university to make it happen. Heís even reaching out to Hannah Montana-obsessed grade schoolers in an effort to ensure the Country format has fans for years to come. But at the end of the day, he believes itís the music that will turn those who start out sampling the station into longtime listeners. Everything we do is based around the great music out there right now; Itís some of the best new music weíve had in the format in a long time,Ē he says.
Heís also a big believer in the longevity of radio, and isnít worried that this new generation of music consumers is looking elsewhere to hear the next great tune.
ďWith all of its warts and foibles ó and any business has those ó if you keep your head down and keep motivated people who love what they do for the same reasons you do, you have the hallmark of any successful ratio station.Ē
RADIO INK: As a longtime programmer, are there any firm rules that you always follow?
BOB MCKAY: A lot depends on the market youíre in. In Philadelphia, Iím very concerned about country music not being referred to as country and western music, which itís called in the Northeast. So a large part of directing XTU is the image of the station. Everything we do is contemporary; it has a contemporary look and sound, but we donít shy away from the essence of country music, which is steel guitars and twin fiddles. We never donít play music because of the image, but how we portray the station visually and produce it on the air is very cosmopolitan. We work constantly to keep the image cool and hip, and the things we do on the air and on our website reflect that. Itís a modern and hip-sounding radio station that plays country music.
RI: Describe Philadelphiaís Country listener.
BM: We get all of our listening from the suburbs of New Jersey and Philadelphia. We do better than you would think in downtown Philly, and we do well in Philadelphia county, the metro, but we make our living out in the suburbs, as I think most Country stations do. Our listener is a 42-year-old mother driving her kid to school in an SUV ó thatís our audience, and thatís not uncommon for most Country stations. I think theyíre all pretty much focused on that target.
RI: What have you done to draw new listeners to the format and the station?
BM: Great question. In the environs of the University of Pennsylvania thereís a thing called the World Cafť Live. It has been attached to the universityís very cool Alternative station, WXPN, but about two years ago we forged our own alliance with the school and World Cafť Live. On April 26, 2006, Rascal Flatts wanted to roll out their new record in Philly, so we brought them into the World Cafť and broadcast the show live. It was the first time weíd ever done anything there. They planned to come in at 7 that night and do about five songs, but they ended up doing about an hour for this very small, invitation-only audience of about 400 people. You could only get in through the radio station. We broadcast it live, and the results were phenomenal. Then we brought in Phil Vassar, and followed that up with Big and Rich, then Rascal Flatts again, and then Martina McBride. So now we have a successful alliance with this really cool venue, which is all about young people ó college kids.
The other thing weíre doing is texting. Based on the success weíd seen at the World Cafť, we wanted to pursue even younger listeners. We came up with the idea of a texting campaign with all the high schools in the Delaware Valley ó thereís literally hundreds of them. So we got Kellie Pickler to do a free concert on the last day of school before the Christmas holiday. We had 816,000 total texts! The winning school was a Catholic Girls school that had around 420,000. This was all about high school spirit, school against school in the entire Delaware Valley. The response absolutely blew us away. Nobody could believe it. It was a monster event.
Weíve been through college and high school, so now weíre going to grade school with Hannah Montana. We scored a pretty large number of tickets to the Hannah Montana show here in Philadelphia. I gave them away in three packs instead of the old family-four pack or pairs, figuring either mom and dad could take the young kid, or mom or dad could take two kids. One week we would do listen for the Hannah Montana song to win, another week was a different listen to win; we found creative ways, and we never gave them all away at one time. Weíd give away a bunch one week then stop, then bring it back another week. And each time was a different mouse trap, different trigger. That was by and large the biggest concert event that Iíve been involved with in Philadelphia. It was absolutely astounding.
RI: In terms of measurable results for attracting new fans to the format, are these initiatives translating into new listeners?
BM: We can see the bumps. With the Hannah Montana tickets we did a 9, 2 & 5 promotion ó our frequency ó and we can look at the PPM results and see the influx of 9, 2 & 5 on the days we gave them away. Now, we donít know yet if thatís moms listening, or kids. But we can also drill down into this data and see how the P4s and P5s are looking. Right now we have a lot of people who sample the station whoíve never been credited for sampling the station before. So, we can certainly see a result. Absolutely.
RI: What draws people to sample Country?
BM: I think itís the music, and the radio station reflects that. Everything we do is based around the great music out there right now; itís some of the best new music weíve had in the format in a long time. Little Big Town is not an unknown group by any means, but theyíre drawing and appealing to a wholesome, young sample. People really dig these guys. And Taylor Swift is a slam dunk. Sheís is an automatic add now. She appeals to everybody, but the young kids just love her.
RI: Speaking of Taylor Swift, a pop version of her song Teardrops on My Guitar has been released. How do you feel about an emerging Country artist like her already crossing over?
BM: Weíve fought this battle before, but Iíve never had a problem with multi-formats. I think it just puts the light back on us. There is debate on this, but Faith Hill, Leann Rimes ó go down the list ó all of them have crossed over.
RI: How does it affect their credibility with country fans?
BM: I think thatís overstated. I donít think it affects their credibility at all with country fans. Thatís an idea that somebody thought up many years ago and somebody else glommed on to it.
RI: It does seem like Faith Hill and Shania Twain never had quite the same country success once they crossed over.
BM: With Shania you can probably say that, but she hasnít had a record in ó what ó seven years now? Faithís last record probably wasnít as big as it could have been, but Iím not sure thatís because of crossover. There might be other issues at play. Great music gets played. Crossing over to another format makes no difference to me at all. Quite frankly, I think it does me good.
RI: You believe it draws listeners to country?
BM: I do. Look at Kellie Pickler; I doubt that sheíll cross over, but artists like her, Taylor Swift, Sugarland, are so accessible to the young audience. And Sugarland is going to cross-over ó donít think for a minute theyíre not going to cross over. And I donít have a problem with that.
RI: How are these new kinds of artists affecting your hardcore steel guitar listener?
BM: Our hardcore steel guitar listeners have had to change their attitude because they are dealing with superstars like Keith Urban. Is that a country show? Same thing with Carrie Underwood. They make great songs, and I think the hardcore person who finds that music distasteful or offensive is wrong. And the ratings are proving that.
RI: How much classic country do you play?
BM: At 5:30 in the afternoon we have a thing called the XTU Classic Rewind, and we play one song of that genre every day. I think every station in the nation has researched some of the Merle Haggard and George Jones and Johnny Cash music over the years, and it doesnít attract our demo. The people who will really love that are 55+. Now, there are exceptions to that but by and large, most of todayís young people ó the core 25-49 and 25-54 people ó appreciate and respect those artists, but donít expect us to play a menu of that music. Our research is pulling that out, and our ratings speak for that.
RI: Is classic country a viable standalone format?
BM: A lot of AM stations are doing it and probably doing pretty well, but I donít think youíll find many FMs in large markets doing that format. I havenít heard of any. I think it appeals to the wrong demo. Iím sorry to be so blunt, but it just doesnít have any appeal to our target. Itís hard to play Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts, and Taylor Swift, and then put Merle Haggard in there. It just doesnít fit, and the music has to fit and has to appeal. If you succinctly describe what XTU is, XTU is relevant. Iím not saying the old music and the stuff that paved the way here is not relevant, it was and it is in a very small dosage. But itís not relevant as a mainstream format in Philly.
RI: How is programming in Philly different from your long stint in Miami?
BM: Thatís a good question, and Iíll give you a great answer. Here in Philly, I was the last major market in the nation to add Joe Nicholsí Tequila Makes Your Clothes Fall Off. Why wouldnít I play that record? Because I didnít like the title in Philadelphia; it connotes just what I donít want to connote. Iím not playing Craig Morganís International Harvester for the same reasons, and itís number 15 in the country. Now, I might be wrong ó Iím not saying Iím right ó but the titles of those songs donít fit my little filter for the image of the station in Philly. I ended up playing the Joe Nichols record, but it never was in a power rotation. I added it late, and I put it as recurrent. There is debate on this, and nobody has the right answer, but that is the mindset Iíve had since Iíve been here.
In Miami, I could play all those records. I was down there 16 years, and itís a whole different animal than the Northeast. Itís a market where there is a great love of southern rock and roll and itís much more amenable to that type of music. Hereís a good quote for you: Many years ago somebody I highly respect told me that you never get hurt by the music you donít play. Iíve always subscribed to that. I play the hits ó I play them, and I rotate them, and I roll them ó but some of the things I donít need to play, I donít play. That sounds pretty cavalier and I donít mean it to, but Iím very concerned about the image of country music in Philadelphia. I donít want to be perceived as the country and western stereotype that is so prevalent up here. We fight that bigtime, man. Thatís one of the beautiful things about PPM; those people who do sample us are coming out now. Theyíre being sampled whether they like it or not. Thatís whatís happening with our cume, and thatís a big part of what is happening in Houston as well. Our cumeís double.
RI: What keeps them around?
BM: Theyíre gravitating toward this format because everything else is kind of OK or marginal or bad, and this music is good. It really is. And the radio station reflects that every day. We have to be relevant, never take anything for granted, and be very cognizant of where we are. And Iím very much aware of those things.
RI: Aside from texting, what else are you doing on the digital front?
BM: Our database is very powerful, and we constantly massage it. This is not brain surgery, every station does it. We do concert pre-sales ó buy your tickets before they go on sale and get a discount through our website. We do two e-blasts a week to our database. Weíre about to engage in another texting thing, which I canít really mention yet, but itís all about young people again. Weíre about to redesign our website; itís OK, but we need more on-demand stuff and more video blogs. Weíre doing a lot of that. We havenít even touched on our Triple Nickel Studio yet, which we need to talk about.
RI: Whatís the Triple Nickel Studio?
BM: The Triple Nickel Studio is something weíre all proud of. We call it the Triple Nickel because that is our address ó 555 City Line Avenue. We started it in 2004, when we first became aware that we were gonna be the first PPM market. We were speaking about how content will be more important now than ever ó proprietary content ó and we wondered what we could do to take the station to another level. I had the idea of doing something thatís unheard of in this business of ours ó live music. We do it every Wednesday morning at 9. We make it available to new talent as well as established artists. And theyíre not on the air for a full hour doing unfamiliar songs. Our morning team interviews them, and we play our regular power golds, and they end up playing about three songs an hour ólive, real time. If itís Martina McBride, she might play five or six songs. In 2005 it started growing legs, and now weíre booked almost every Wednesday through the year. Nashville has really glommed onto it; they love it. And it does very well on the People Meter.
RI: Do you archive these performances on the station website?
BM: That will come with the new website. We have video blogs up there now, and we do have some audio. The jocks all do blogs pretty consistently; theyíre tuned into everything weíre doing. Itís an absolute total team effort.
RI: Since your market was the first to introduce the PPM as currency, have you made any adjustments to the stationís sound based on what youíre learning from electronic ratings?
BM: When we went live a year ago March, nobody did. Everybody in the market was pretty uniform. But as we went along, I added one song an hour. We didnít reduce the number of commercials, but I added a song in the big sweep from the top to the bottom of the hour. Because we donít care about the top or bottom of the hour anymore. In music radio you never used to put your spots at the top or bottom of the hour. But weíve learned that it doesnít matter. Thatís why I added that song. Iím not worried that itís gonna run me three minutes over in the stopset.
The other thing is just keeping everything brief ó keeping up the magic on the station and the excitement level, but in a lot shorter time. So, instead of running a 65-second promo for our anniversary show, itís now 35 seconds. Same thing with the imaging; if we were running imagers that were 15 seconds long, now theyíre 8 seconds. Because weíve seen data, and people tune that stuff out. The average person in Philadelphia listens to like nine stations a day. What does that tell you? If itís irritating, if itís a commercial, they just tune out. Thatís the challenge: finding out what is relevant, what is actionable. We havenít reduced the number of spots we run; we just try to control everything we can around the spots. Much slicker, more streamlined. And thatís where the challenge comes in for the talent, to do these things a lot quicker. Their back sells are a lot shorter ó relevant, on the money.
RI: Do you have any programming ideas for HD Radio side channels:
BM: I think itís the perfect vehicle for NASCAR. We carry just the races on our main channel, but if we put NASCAR programming on the side channel and promoted that, it would be a hands-down smash. Every bit of it ó the races, collateral programming, everything to do with NASCAR. I think the NASCAR people would get it. Now that the radios are priced where everyone can afford them, once they heard the pristine sound of a NASCAR race on a digital radio station, theyíd love it, and theyíd spread the word. Thatís where it happens for HD ó through a ground-up, grass-roots effort. Put everything there is to do about NASCAR on that HD channel. Itís something that everyone whoís running NASCAR and has an HD side channel should look into. To me itís a no brainer, and weíre going to do it. We just havenít yet decided how.
RI: How did Eliot Spitzerís payola investigation affect your relationship with the labels?
BK: Iím glad the payola thing happened; it was long overdue, and itís been to everybodyís benefit. I think the labels are much more cognizant of how they deal with people, and everybody is held to a higher standard. And they should be. Iím not sitting here as a boy scout or a paragon of virtue, but I really believe that if you play music for the right reasons and keep your hands in your pocket, everybody wins. The labels probably donít want to hear me say that because it cost them millions, but it cost everybody. The Spitzer investigation took care of a lot of things that had been permeating this business for a long time, and he cleaned it up. Itís had to happen.
RI: How has country music and country radio changed over the course of your career?
BM: Back in the day, Country radio largely was unstructured, sleepy. It just laid there. We used to call them gut bucket Country stations: ďItís 19 degrees outside, we just had a great fried egg sandwich, and hereís some more Jimmy Dickens.Ē So people like myself, Charlie Cook, Lon Helton, and Coyote Calhoun brought structure to Country radio, and it just evolved from there. More contemporary people got involved in it. More jocks and programmers with contemporary backgrounds were hired. We didnít sell out country, we just brought it uptown. We made it more mainstream, accessible, and a helluva a lot easier to listen to.
RI: So whatís missing on the Country radio dial today?
BM: More people taking chances with music. Not that Iím taking that many ó weíre pretty safe ó but what weíre doing with the Triple Nickel Studio and World Cafť Live is unheard of. There just arenít many programmers, even though itís nighttime, that would give their station to a Rascal Flatts live for an hour. Some would, but by and large theyíd rather play their regular format music. Iím not saying theyíre wrong, but weíre proving that weíre not wrong either. We see the numbers, and theyíre incredible. Iím talking about calculated chances. Donít get all helter skelter and try to create this cool, eclectic radio station. Thatís been tried, and itís failed every time. You have to be familiar and comfortable. You canít violate peopleís expectations. But I think you can pull people along. You could say we are reinventing radio, to a degree. Weíre moving people along to the next era.
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