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.
- An Open (News)Letter To Radio - December 6, 2023
- The Case For Handcrafted Radio - December 5, 2023
- Is It Time For The Music Industry To Write Radio A “Dear Genre” Letter? - December 4, 2023