The Best Batting Average In Country Radio

98.1 The Bull WBUL LexingtonAmong the “Moneyball”-style metrics that have become part of Jeff Green’s annual presentations at Country Radio Seminar, there were a new set of stats in Nashville this year. Those metrics were not about the songs, but the stations that break the hits, or don’t.

Green rated stations on several factors: how fast their combination of airplay and audience could familiarize a song (KYGO Denver was the major market winner); how quickly they moved future No. 1 songs out of “test rotation” and into meaningful rotation, defined here as 7x a week (WSLC [Star Country] Roanoke, Va.); and how selective they were in avoiding songs that ultimately did not make the top 10 (a tie between WQIK Jacksonville, Fla., and WKCN [Kissin’ 99.3] Columbus, Ga.).

Green also ranked those stations most likely to add a No. 1 hit first—the top three were KMNB (Buz’n 102.9) Minneapolis, KSOP-FM (Z104) Salt Lake City, and Sirius XM’s The Highway. Green was quick to emphasize that adding songs early didn’t necessarily equate to uniformly predicting the hits. The Highway, it was noted, is early both on songs eventually ratified by the rest of Country radio, and some that remain its highly spun exclusives.

That led to another metric—what chart reporting stations were both fast on future No. 1s and good at avoiding the songs that missed the top 10? That ranking, it seemed to me, should represent the perfect mix of science and gut that programmers are taught to strive for. These were the stations best at taking calculated shots on new music. What would that sound like?

The top three stations were WBUL (the Bull) Lexington, Ky., WKMK (Thunder 106) Monmouth/Ocean, N.J., and KSSN Little Rock, Ark. The first and third are iHeart Country outlets. Thunder Country, which is effectively a local station in my corner of New Jersey, was an indie-owned renegade when it launched in 2010. WKMK was aggressive with new music, but also willing to hold on to unusual gold titles that fit its “Rockin’ Country” sound. Thunder sounds less unusual these days; it has evolved and tightened, but the rest of the format has also moved in its direction.

Green’s methodology—averaging a station’s rank for selectivity with its rank for being an early add—tended to favor those stations that were in the middle of both lists. WBUL, for instance, was the sixteenth most selective station and No. 29 among “early add” stations. WKMK was only No. 33 for selectivity, but No. 24 for “early add.” In other words, there was no one station that was a tight add, but still went “out-of-the-box” on eventual hits with surgical accuracy.

On Feb. 28, I took a “Fresh Listen” to all three stations in afternoon drive. This was the day that Jake Owen’s “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” was released, meaning that it was playing at the top of each hour on both KSSN and WBUL as an “iHeart Country World Premiere.” When a station adds a record and how it deploys a song through the daypart are two separate things, and there were discernable differences between the three stations

WBUL was off 11.5-9.6 in the fall, but still the top-rated station in the market. Its nearest direct competitor is at a 3.1 share, and another rival exited the format this week. In the 4 p.m. hour I heard, six songs out of 12 are considered chart currents; two of those were former No. 1s making their way back down through the top 10. With the exception of the Owen song, all of the currents I heard were at least top 15 songs this wee.

KSSN was off 6.7-5.9, but ranked No. 5. Its gold-based Country sister KMJX (The Wolf) was up 5.3-5.7. In the hour I heard, five of 14 songs were currents; (two others were recent hits that were probably still considered currents by the station). The spread was wider here. Besides Owen, there was also the No. 30 song from Morgan Evans. That act is an iHeart Country “On the Verge” artist, meaning that two of the five currents were related to iHR label initiatives, (something that ranked within Green’s top 10 answers in a related survey of why PDs add songs).

WKMK was up 3.5-4.2 in the fall, and the leader among published stations in Monmouth/Ocean. Because it was wrapping up a commercial free hour, there were 15 songs played, six of which were currents. The newest title on Thunder 106 was Dan + Shay’s “Tequila.” Perhaps it’s fitting that at No. 42 and a growth of +49 spins over last week, a song called “Tequila” is the title heard on any of the three stations that can most be termed “taking a shot.” Even so, it’s an established act on a major label that has already has significant major-market airplay.

Many of the issues that have dogged the Country chart in recent years—particularly the glacial development times for many songs—are a function of the format community’s refusal to splinter into multiple charts. Stations like KMNB and the Highway are analogous to Mainstream CHRs in timing. More typical stations resemble Mainstream ACs. WKMK would probably be Adult CHR.

And fairness requires it to be stated that Country stations often end up musically conservative for a reason. All three stations I listened to were successful. But the most successful was WBUL—the station that didn’t dip outside the top 15 in the afternoon hour I heard (except for its iHR premiere).

Here are the three stations in the hours monitored:

WBUL (The Bull) Lexington, Ky.
4 p.m., February 28

  • Granger Smith, “Happens Like That” (#15)
  • Jake Owen, “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” (iHeart first day :00 premiere)
  • Gary Allan, “Watching Airplanes” (G)
  • Brett Young, “In Case You Didn’t Know” (R)
  • Tim McGraw, “Southern Voice” (G)
  • Kelsea Ballerini, “Legends” (#10, former #1)
  • Zac Brown Band, “Homegrown” (G)
  • Devin Dawson, “All On Me” (#4)
  • Chris Young f/Vince Gill, “Sober Saturday Night” (R)
  • Luke Bryan, “All My Friends Say” (G)
  • Old Dominion, “Written In the Sand” (#5, former #1)
  • Jason Aldean, “You Make It Easy” (#13 , staged with a “New Country First” jingle and audio from Aldean)

KSSN Kissin 96 95.7 Little RockKSSN Little Rock 
3 p.m., February 28

  • Kenny Chesney, “Beer In Mexico” (G)
  • Morgan Wallen f/Florida Georgia Line, “Up Down” (#23)
  • Jake Owen, “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” (iHeart first day :00 premiere, staged not with the artist ID but with the :00 ID and “Arkansas’ #1 for New Country”)
  • Tim McGraw, “Just To See You Smile” (G)
  • Billy Currington, “It Don’t Hurt Like it Used To” (R)
  • Chris Stapleton, “Broken Halos” (#3)
  • Zac Brown Band, “Whatever It Is” (G)
  • Brett Young, “Like I Loved You” (R)
  • Dylan Scott, “My Girl” (R)
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” (G)
  • Morgan Evans, “Kiss Somebody” (#30)
  • Justin Moore, “Somebody Else Will” (R)
  • Old Dominion, “Written In the Sand” (#5, former #1)
  • Keith Urban, “Somebody Like You” (G)

Thunder 106 106.3 WKMK 106.5 WTHJWKMK (Thunder 106) Monmouth/Ocean, N..J. 
4 p.m., February 28

  • Kane Brown, “Heaven” (#18)
  • Brothers Osborne, “Stay A Little Longer (R)
  • Jason Aldean, “Big Green Tractor” (G)
  • Jordan Davis, “Singles You Up” (#8)
  • LANCO, “Greatest Love Story” (R)
  • Devin Dawson, “All On Me” (#4)
  • Brantley Gilbert, “The Ones That Like Me” (#19)
  • Luke Bryan, “That’s My Kind Of Night” (G)
  • Blake Shelton f/Ashley Monroe, “Lonely Tonight” (G)
  • Chris Stapleton, “Broken Halos” (#3)
  • Michael Ray, “Think A Little Less” (R)
  • Dan + Shay, “Tequila” (#42)
  • Brett Young, “Sleep Without You” (R)
  • Rascal Flatts, “Fast Cars And Freedom” (G)
  • Kenny Chesney, “Til It’s Gone” (G)

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Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

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