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First Listen: Country Hits Radio

Bauer Country Hits Radio Ty BentliCountry radio is a puzzle at the moment for a lot of U.S. programmers. “New Country” is still the dominant positioner, but there’s a clear lack of excitement among listeners and broadcasters about actual new country songs. There’s an overarching sense of the format as “too pop,” but pushing it back the other way hasn’t been the magic bullet either. Broadcasters argue about whether the lack of consistent female hitmakers is a programming issue or merely a P.R. issue, but you can’t say listeners are enthusiastic about the current mix under any circumstances.

One of the things I liked about Bauer Media’s Country Hits Radio, which launched across the U.K. today on the digital radio tier, is that it seems largely untroubled by so many of those issues. In the first hour I listened to, there was good song-to-song variety, without an overabundance of the “she’s the perfect woman” ballads that have come to be known as “boyfriend country” among programmers. There was good tempo, and a variety of tempos—also an issue for the format.

There were also five female artists in the first hour I heard, and six female lead vocals in the hour I followed. A colleague and I were listening separately. About halfway into the hour I monitored, we sent each other simultaneous e-mails on the same topic. “Four females so far this hour. Don’t they know?” I wrote. It helps that Country music has had a bigger presence over the last year on the U.K. charts, in part due to BBC Radio 2, and most of the homegrown acts are female or duets.

There were also 4-5 currents in the first hour I heard (depending on how you count Scotty McCreery’s recent “This Is It”). That’s comparable, or a little more, than what you’d hear on a similar major-market Country outlet here, but even with a similar palate of the last decade or so to choose from, some of those stations don’t manage the same balance of styles heard here.

Over the decades, Country radio in the U.K. would traditionally overshoot the musical parameters of its American counterpart—more traditional in terms of both older Country and rootsier new music that would come to be known as Americana here. Two years ago, when I reviewed another digital outlet, Chris Country, I noted only a much slighter nod to the older and newer edges.  Country Hits Radio seems even more firmly planted in the format center, although they did play “Old Town Road,” with middayer Lou Nash setting it up as a song expanding the boundaries of the format.

Here’s Country Hits Radio at 1 p.m. on its first day:

  • Carly Pearce, “Closer To You”
  • Old Dominion, “Written In The Sand”
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • Dylan Scott, “Hooked”
  • Gretchen Wilson, “Here for the Party”
  • Jason Aldean, “Lights Come On”
  • Kelsea Ballerini, “Peter Pan”
  • Eric Church, “Drink In My Hand”
  • Brett Eldredge, “Love Someone”
  • Ward Thomas, “Guilty Flowers”
  • Thomas Rhett, “Look What God Gave Her”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean”
  • Scotty McCreery, “This Is It”
  • Brett Young, “Like I Loved You”
  • Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road”
  • Tim McGraw, “Humble and Kind”
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