Calling Out

1/27/1995

A long, long line if formed where there stood only one person (well, two if you count old George) not very many years ago. You know, the ones who claim to have been “Country when Country wasn’t cool.” A strong argument could be made that Country was always cool, but Country music, or more accurately, the number of people who embrace Country music, is growing at an astounding pace. Why?

For this column, two reasons are particularly important. First, Country music, like all music, has gotten better. The production is much smoother and a greater number of people are finding Country music more pleasing than they initially expected.

Another possibility more important reason is that Top 40 radio, with its own problems of fractionalization, caused many listeners to search for a better blend of music. Some of these listeners have gone to Adult Contemporary stations, some have gone to Rap, a lot have gone to Alternative, but the largest percentage of former Top 40 listeners have “Gone Country.”

The phenomenal success of Garth Brooks led to many crossing lines that once were thought uncrossable. Would it surprise you to learn that in a recent survey of those people who love Garth Brooks, one of their other favorite groups was Uriah Heep? That may be the biggest leap of faith, but it’s no jump to say that more people share Country with other types of music than ever before.

It wasn’t too long ago that a Country music listener was a Country music listener. Period. Now, you’ll find sharing and sampling with other formats.

This changed Country radio. Country programmers are no longer competing against their Country competition. Country programmers are competing against all formats for listeners…and in more and more cases, winning…and winning big.

Because of the potential for a larger audience and the broader spectrum of competition, Country radio has become more cautious in music programming. The old days of a promotion person walking into a station with the new George Jones release that hits the air immediately are gone.

Marketing and promotion in Country music have become much more sophisticated. So has programming. And the most sophisticated (and most controversial) portion of programming is call-out research.

Call-our research. These words strike more fear in the hearts of promotion people than, “Maybe next week.” The only other words that have as much impact would be, “You are fired.” For record companies, the next horror movie will be, Friday The 13th, Part 10: Freddie Does Call-Out Research.

Call-out research for Country radio has become an important tool. It’s the only true way to separate the hype from reality. However, call-out research must be a tool…not the be-all and end-all. Call-out research, when done accurately, will give an impression of the people in the data base. That’s all. An impression. And records that tend to test well are the records that are most familiar.

Relying only on call-our research can make you radio station sound older and more predictable. It should be used to make sure your Power records and your Oldies are correct, but call-out research is almost completely unreliable in predicting the success of new music, which is so vital to the Country music format. If it worked, record companies would spend millions on focus groups and never have a stiff.

Because call-out research is so important to Country radio, Network 40 has employed an independent company to provide our readers with a national call-out research chart. We are the only magazine doing this. For a reason. If it is important to our reporters, it is important to us. This call-out research chart will serve as a comparison for those who already have their own research in place. And it can be used as a barometer by those who are, for financial reasons, unable to conduct call-out research on their own.

However, even as Network 40 goes to extraordinary lengths and expense to provide this important call-out information, it is even more important that programmers realize that this research is only one tool to be utilized in making a great radio station. As a Top 40 PD for over 20 years at some of the biggest radio stations in the country, I witnessed what happens when call-out research is given too much weight. The demise of the Mainstream Top 40 format can be blamed, in large part, by those who use call-out research exclusively to program their radio stations. The health and future of any format lies in the ability of that format to expose and break new acts. Failing to do so narrows the list of “acceptable” songs and artists. As the list narrows, even the songs that once tested well begin to burn out and the audience becomes bored and searches for more fertile pastures.

The strength of Country radio lies it its ability to expose new acts, sounds and songs, just as Top 40 once did. If Country programmers focus to much on what not to play rather than what they believe they should play, the Country format runs the risk of repeating the historical demise of Mainstream Top 40.

Call-out research should be used to reinforce your natural programming instincts. The program director who says he can’t depend upon his own musical judgment should perhaps look for a job in sales. You are a programmer because you have the talent…the special, innate ability to choose what is right musically and program successfully to the tastes of your audience. Don’t let an over-reliance on research dilute that talent. Use it to strengthen your ability.

Call-out research didn’t make Garth Brooks the biggest act in the world today. It certainly didn’t predict the success of the biggest selling single of all time, “Achy, Breaky Heart.” It is best used as only one of your many tools. Nothing more…nothing less.

As my Momma said, “Too much of even a good thing is worse than not enough.”

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