Clear Channel gives Bluegrass a try

Clear Channel Radio, often cynically portrayed by critics as embodying all that is wrong with corporate radio consolidation, has flipped a property in WV from Gospel to a Bluegrass/Americana format, effective March 30. The station is WCTR-AM, serving the Huntington, WV and Ashland, KY markets, who are now presenting themselves as 1420 AMericana – Home of Today’s New Grass. This marks the first time that a major radio group has chosen this sort of format for an over-the-air station, and Bobby Leach at Clear Channel is excited about the possibilities it offers the company.

Leach oversees the music choices for all Clear Channel stations in his position as Audio Distribution System Director. It is his office that is responsible for getting music into their central network, which is then available to any Clear Channel station for airplay. The notion of bluegrass and Americana programming for their properties is his baby, and a project he has both eagerly embraced and aggressively pursued since he volunteered to tackle it in October of 2005. Bobby hails from Ashland, and grew up around this music. His grandfather played fiddle in area bands as a young man, and Bobby recalls hearing the music of Flatt & Scruggs as a boy, and the thrill he got whenever he could find the WSM-AM signal at night from Nashville. WCTR played a country format at the time, but with a daytime only license.

It had occurred to Leach that this sort of music was currently flying under the corporate radio radar, while the audience was one that would be very attractive to radio advertisers. All the research he found showed that bluegrass fans were both more educated and affluent than the norm, and fiercely loyal to the music and the people who support it. He had anticipated the need to disabuse Clear Channel executives of hillbilly stereotypes when he pitched his idea, but found them open and receptive to the concept from the start.

That was in large part due to the fact that Leach did his homework, talking with independent bluegrass and Americana labels and artists, and anyone else who could help him develop some insight into the music, and the culture that surrounds it. One source he developed was Dan Hays, Executive Director of the International Bluegrass Music Association, who shared their own demographic data, and helped him reach other industry leaders.

“We”re very excited here at IBMA as I expect our members are about the news at WTCR.

The audience for bluegrass music continues to grow and we”re encouraged that the broadcast world, and particularly Clear Channel, continues to build new opportunities for audiences to enjoy their favorite artists. Every station that chooses to add bluegrass to its programming mix is significant, and when a station opts to make it part of the primary format, it”s a home run.

I”m personally familiar with WTCR”s market and I trust fully they”ll be very proud of the response they receive from an enthusiastic and loyal audience.

We wish them the best!”

Leach spent many months choosing material, and had been testing a stream of the format on the internal Clear Channel LAN for the past thirty days. He found that the reaction was immediately positive, and mentioned passing the link to the test stream along to an unnamed mainstream country radio consultant who was so impressed by the content that they asked permission to share the link with their many clients.

The format at 1420 AMericana – Home of Today’s New Grass is a roughly 60/4o mix of bluegrass and Americana, with both classic recordings and new releases being equally represented. The signal is streamed live from the station web site.

We asked Cindy Baucom, IBMA’s Broadcast Personality of the Year for 2005 and the host of Knee Deep In Bluegrass, a bluegrass show syndicated by the Premier Radio Network (owned by Clear Channel), what she thought of this change.

“I think this move is very good news for Bluegrass…that a company as large and influential in the entertainment world as Clear Channel. is getting behind a full-time Bluegrass and Americana format. This will only help the format grow and reach new fans.”

Since the announcement of the format switch at WTCR, Leach has already heard from another Clear Channel station interested in discussing a similar change, and he anticipates even more if it is popular in WV/KY.

“If Clear Channel sees a dividend from the flip, either financially or with respect to public relations, they may pursue this more aggressively throughout the company.”

One imagines that other major radio groups would come to the same conclusion. Could this be “Nashville’s” worst nightmare?

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.