A rock consultant walks into a country radio conference, grabs a cup of coffee, and takes a seat in the back of the room…
I know…it sounds like an old joke, but that's exactly what happened earlier this week. The Country Radio Broadcasters' Executive Director, R.J. Curtis reached out months ago to see if I'd be interested in speaking at his world famous CRS event. I jumped at the chance. After all, one of my go-to pieces of advice to radio people is to try to attend at least one event every year that's out out of your sweet spot. For me, CRS 2023 in Nashville fit the bill.
I asked R.J. what he was looking for, and he told me wanted a TED Talks type session, 30 minutes in and out, with a forward look. I countered with, “How about a FRED Talks?” He smiled and said, “Book it!” and we were done.
In another twist, my wife Debra – who had never been to Nashville – decided to be my plus one. And that turned out to be a good decision, because for a change, I got to see more of Nashville than I'd ever seen before. I'm not stranger to this town or to CRS. I spoke at the conference a decade or so ago. And back in 1998, Brent Alberts and I flipped 105.9 to Classic Rock – the format iHeart is still running there today.
Short aside and a story I've never told anyone – so keep it between us. Brent did an exceptional job with the sign-on, plus we had John Boy & Billy in the mornings, the right show for that market. With a hot TV marketing campaign for support, WNRQ came on hot, and soon after WKDF, the market's long-time rock leader flipped to what else? Country. All of a sudden, we had some running room.
It only took a couple books for the station to shoot up to a screaming #1 25-54 adults. The problem was the station across the hall was the legendary country monster, WSIX, with the iconic Gerry House in mornings. As we popped Diet Dr. Pepper's to celebrate, you could feel the grumbling from the other side of the building.
In short order, Brent and my presence were requested in the GM's office. After congratulating us, he gave us a lesson in Radio Sales 101. It turns out a share of 25-54 adults on WSIX was worth a whole lot more than that same share on WNRQ. And when we blew past the country king, “we had meddled with the primal forces of nature,” to quote Ned Beatty's famous character in “Network.” (See it, if you haven't.) Clearly, in Nashville, WNRQ's victory wasn't being celebrated at corporate. We were told we'd be receiving fewer resources moving forward. And in so many words, we were told to perhaps do a little less than a stellar job moving forward.
I'd been in a lot of weird meetings in radio over the years, but none like this one. The company got its wish. In just a few books, the venerable WSIX was back on top. And life in the cluster returned to “normal.”
But I digress. So back to CRS 2023, a truly amazing community gathering.
Item #1: Nashville is amazing – Despite cold, blustery weather, we took in the “new” Grand Ole Opry for a fast-moving tour, loaded with Country music history. And why not? Nashville's handle is “Music City,” perfectly describing what the place is all about. Music's coming out of every building, bar, and restaurant – reminding me a lot of Austin. Debra also took in the Country Music Hall of Fame, connected to the Omni Hotel where CRS took place. Unlike that building in Cleveland, this place understands its mission and its honorees. I visited there with the Hubbard people a few years back – it's a great testament to the music, the artists, and the history of this music.
But then there's Ryman Auditorium, the more famous, historic home of the Grand Ole Opry. Just a few blocks from the Omni, this venue was a former church that feels hallowed the second you walk through its doors. More intimate than the new home for the Opry, Ryman just oozes history. We saw Regina Spektor play there, and it was an intimate, wonderful show.
Item #2: The UMG Country Showcase – Perhaps you've heard of this lunchtime CRS event where the label showcases some of its best talent – the newbies and the veterans. The unique part is that UMG's promotion guru, Royce Risser, tees up each of 14 acts. They play one song, take their bows, unplug, and the next performer takes the stage. In between, Risser's weird and wonderful sense of humor shines.
A few quick impressions – from the rock guy. It was great to see Darius Rucker again. When he first crossed over to Country from his Hootie & the Blowfish roots (think about THAT), I saw him play an Entercom company meeting in Denver when Rucker first switched genres. He was outstanding.
Brad Paisley was impressive, finding his voice now in lyrics that support causes he's passionate about, including supporting Ukraine in its battle against Russia. Paisley performed the haunting “Medicine Will” where he takes on opioid addiction which has ravaged his West Virginia region. At 50 years-old and with tons of success, Paisley is ready for the blowback and seemingly doesn't care. Apparently, neither does UMG. Watch this space.
And Vince Gill got to go last, but sat side stage in the back on a chair, watching all 13 acts before him, often congratulating the young performers when they took the stage. It was one of those quiet but very cool moments.
The Brothers Osborne were unbelievable. It's hard to truly stand out in a showcase like this. They pulled it off.
And finally, Dalton Dover, a mountain of a man who took the stage at the Ryman – and owned it.
In a rare moment, Risser brought out every performer to play an encore song – (wait for it…..) – “Purple Rain.” Rucker sang a verse or two, and then handed off to Paisley for a long and fantastic ripping guitar lead.
The other oddity was watching the many young Country artists standing around, apparently not familiar with the song.
My wife asked when the world of rock or alternative would one day do an event like this. And my answer was “Never.” And it's too bad. Our formats could use some of this user-friendly Country attitude on display everywhere at CRS.
While perhaps not as over the top as it was years ago, these Country performers often show their gratitude to radio – and it feels good. Now while Risser celebrated his Billboard #1s, he also didn't miss an opportunity to trumpet his performers' streaming numbers, another sign that even in Country, the times they are a changin'.
Item #3: Chat bots & AI – CRS deserves credit for jumping on this phenomenon at this conference. In a SRO session at 8 a.m. on Monday, Joey Tack and Nick Steele moderated a session that got at some core issues and concerns about this technology. Clearly, among the PDs and air talent in the room, there was no shortage of fear and maybe some loathing. Zeena Burns from Futuri was on hand to allay some of the paranoia but also to remind everyone about the inevitability of this technology. And it became clear that if Futuri didn't have a product out there, three other vendors would. (Actually, wasn't Veritone first?).
Our position on this technology has been clear in past blog posts. Too often our industry considers new technology as whether “it's good or bad for radio.” But AI and these products are just the beginning. They're here. We have to not just deal with them, but make sure we understand how to optimize them. Notably, there were no CEOs or COOs in the room to discuss the corner office view. As we know from past experience, that's a key factor, too.
Bottom line: it's the first inning for this technology. Stay tuned.
Item #4 – FRED Talks – I was honored to share my vision of what's next, based on our company's research and CES perspective. My talk was named “The future ain't what it used to be,” a famous phrase first uttered by the great New York philosopher and Hall of Fame Yankees catcher, Lawrence (“Yogi”) Berra.
My introduction showed the CRS crowd just how much yank I really have:
Yes, the chat bot technology can clone any voice with just a clean piece of audio, in this case, Taylor Swift. But of course, this means anyone from James Earl Jones to Joe Biden is fair game.
But is it legal? Of course not. (I'm sure there's a cease and desist sitting in my inbox from Taylor's people.)
I also got to talk about a wide array of issues, including the “screenfication' of cars, the creation of “near-adjacent” content, the power of local in tech global world, QR codes, and even flying cars. I enjoyed talking to a different audience than usual.
And I concluded with a different perspective of what's next:
“The future's so bright I gotta wear shades.”
Because it is.
- The Eyes Have It - March 20, 2023
- The JacoBLOG Junk Drawer: The CRS 2023 Edition - March 17, 2023
- How Radio Can Best Deal With A Global Pandemic: Live And Local, Of Course - March 16, 2023
Bill Keith says
Brad Paisley’s new single, Same Here, is great. And it doesn’t show up on the charts. I guess the Ukraine connection doesn’t play well with Country radio. Brad really took a stand to make it his lead single on a new record label.
Fred Jacobs says
Paisley touched on that – and apparently doesn’t give a hoot whether it gets played or not. This will be interesting to watch.
John Shomby says
Thank you SO much for being a key part of CRS 2023. As VP of the CRB Board, I, along with 20-some other country music industry execs are somewhat involved in the assembly of this each year, although our agenda committee are the true heroes, for sure. I love that you got to experience one of the best ones I can say I’ve seen in quite a while and YOU had something to do with that. I also love that you got to experience Nashville itself. Living here for the past 7 years, my wife and I still do not take this great city for granted (we’ve toured the Hall of Fame 5 times and RCS Studio 2B twice! and we live here!!). Please come back again…….and again…….and again. We’d love to have you!!!!!
Fred Jacobs says
John, it was an uplifting experience for me. And I saw more old friends and current clients that I thought. Thanks to you and the board for getting me on the agenda. I would love to come back.
Eric Jon Magnuson says
Even though I’ve never been there, Nashville has always struck me as a very good place for broadcast media. For radio, it has two clear channels (WSM and WLAC)–even though that doesn’t matter as much now–plus one of the early successful Talk stations on FM (WWTN) and one of the longest-lasting commercial Triple A stations (WRLT). For TV, it has two successful cases of local newscasts at 6:30 p.m. CT–dating back to the ’70s (WSM-TV/WSMV) and ’80s (WTVF). Plus, the studios of WTVF (dating back to its days as WLAC-TV) were used for national productions–not just Hee Haw, but also the ’70s version of Candid Camera. (That station apparently also was a pioneer in the use of ENG.)
If you really want to go down the rabbit hole of early local TV news, the Vanderbilt Television News Archive (which began in 1968) used to record network newscasts off-air from the three Nashville affiliates (the other being WSIX-TV/WNGE/WKRN); sometimes, especially involving cases of cut-ins, local newscasts ended up being included and, therefore, preserved. And, I think that some of the stations were specifically represented in the film Nashville.
Dave Mason says
Nashville. What an amazing city. We spent 2 wonderful years there, at 105.9 even. WLAC-FM was a monster in its day…but of course consolidation changed all of that. So did “Oldies 96.3” and “EZ93”. It was as close to Hollywood as you could get. Had lunch in a restaurant when Steve Winwood came in with his wife and new baby. Worked with one of R and B’s best-Bill “Hoss” Allen. “Hoss”, John R., Herman Grizzard and Gene Nobles were using WLAC’s massive signal to reach the Eastern US with Little RIchard, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino when other stations were playing Pat Boone covers. By the mid 80s, Hoss was still selling prayer cloths and hair products on his overnight Gospel show. Amazing city, Fred. I’d love to go back again and see how it’changed.
Dave Mason says
Fred your story about the “ratings meeting” -even back then does show the short-sightedness of many in the business. Not to take a thing away from Gerry House and WSIX, but that’s success is probably what took WKDF’s direction to…country. Reminds me of a visit we had in San Diego from the head of our company (same one as WLAC/WNRQ) -who started out a full building parking lot meeting congratulating us all on doing a great job. It was also a time when those RIFs were beginning. Someone asked him about it and his answer was “you’re doing a good job-but not good enough”. Talk about a balloon buster. He’s no longer with the company.
I’d guess if that company was in a battle for #1, #2 and #3 (or so) in the market, they should have smiled. Today it’s hard to see the AM talk station (50k) with much more than a 1 share. I’m sure we can figure out why. Much of the talent from the 80s (House, Carl P. Mayfield and others) are long gone, but the radio market still has room for a number of successful radio stations. If only some forward thinking people get into a position of making it all work. . .
Fred Jacobs says
Appreciate it, Dave. Over the years, I’ve worked with some truly gifted managers. And then some who had some growing and learning to do.
Fred Buc says
Sorry I missed you on this trip, Fred. Hoping to see you on your next visit to Nashville.
Fred Jacobs says
Back at you!
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