Country Returns to City Radio: After 17 Years, a Home in New York
The station, Nash FM, will promote local concerts by bands like Lady Antebellum.
By BEN SISARIO,,,NYT
Published: January 22, 2013
Country music is all over television, on dramas like “Nashville” and talent competitions like “American Idol.” Country stars are among the most consistent moneymakers in the concert industry. The genre’s growing sales are among the few bright lights of the music industry.
Nash FM will fill a conspicuous gap for New York’s many fans of performers like Taylor Swift.
But until this week, the country format was nowhere to be found on the New York radio dial.
On Monday, Cumulus Media introduced Nash FM, which ended country music’s 17-year drought on New York radio. The station provides the first glimpse of what Cumulus says will be an all-purpose vehicle to market what it calls the “country lifestyle” on dozens of its radio stations across the country as well as online, on television and in a new magazine.
The new station, WRXP, at 94.7 FM, fills a conspicuous gap in the nation’s largest media market. It is also an indication of how strong the country genre has become, not only in music but also in the broader popular culture, led by telegenic young acts like Taylor Swift and the group Lady Antebellum.
“The time is right to put together a multiplatform entertainment brand,” Lew Dickey, chief executive of Cumulus, said in an interview on Tuesday. “Country is at an all-time high.”
While country has been heard on some suburban stations over the years, the city has been without a country station since 1996, when WYNY changed to a pop format and became WKTU. The music industry has been pressing the big broadcasters for years to start a station to help promote country acts, whose tours sometimes bypass the city for theaters in New Jersey and elsewhere.
“We’ve been begging the major broadcasters to jump in with us,” said Scott Borchetta, president of the label Big Machine, whose acts include Ms. Swift, Tim McGraw and the Band Perry. “The market has changed so dramatically over the last 15 or 16 years since we’ve had a country station in New York City proper. I think our music is now in the best possible alignment with what can work.”
Variations on the “Nash” name will be used throughout Cumulus’s 83 country stations as well as its other country-themed media efforts, the company said. For example, Mr. Dickey said that Cumulus would start Nash Magazine, published by Modern Luxury, which will begin publication in the second half of the year. Down the line, he added, he wants to expand into video. “This will be the flagship of a national country brand,” Mr. Dickey said.
Cumulus operates a total of 525 stations, and is the nation’s second-largest broadcaster, behind Clear Channel Communications.
Broadcasters sometimes go to great lengths to keep format changes secret, and the case of Nash FM was no different. Cumulus assigned WRXP, the call letters of a former rock station, to the frequency, and over the weekend played a jumble of different formats to stir up interest while also cloaking its intentions to go country. (Next week the station will become WNSH.)
A success in New York could help propel Nash FM to prominence and draw new kinds of advertising. The market has nearly 16 million listeners age 12 and above, according to the ratings service Arbitron, and the city offers plenty of opportunities for promotional events, like concerts, that can be syndicated throughout Cumulus’s network.
New York may be the ultimate symbol of American urbanism, but it is a large market for country music. Last year, Nielsen said that more country albums were sold in the New York metropolitan area than anywhere in the United States — although as a proportion of all music sales in the region, New York ranks far below less populous areas in the South and Midwest.
With the fragmentation of media, country has been available to New York fans in plenty of other ways. Sirius XM Radio, for example, has six country stations, and last year it put on a concert for its listeners by Mr. McGraw at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan.
But music executives say that having a terrestrial station in the area will be a major help in selling concert tickets and promoting new music. The first song played on the new station on Monday was “How Country Feels” by Randy Houser, who performs on Thursday at the Mercury Lounge in Manhattan.
“It makes a statement that country music is strong and that country music is important,” said Greg Oswald of William Morris Endeavor in Nashville. “If you are willing to do it in New York City, then it’s saying everything that needs to be said.”
Even with country’s broad popularity, building a steady audience in New York for a genre of music that has been absent from the airwaves for so long might take time.
“If you look at the other major markets that have a successful country station — Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit — those stations planted a stake in the ground and stayed with it, and now those stations are practically iconic,” said Mr. Borchetta, of Big Machine. “The country radio audience doesn’t spike. It grows in a beautiful, slow arc.”
Another challenge for Cumulus will be defining exactly what the country lifestyle means in New York.
“It’s an exurban lifestyle,” Mr. Dickey said. “It’s the five boroughs, the whole tristate area.”
He added, “We’re not just talking to people on the Upper West Side.”