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First Listen: YoCo 96.7 Nashville

Young Country YoCo 96.7 WYCZ Nashville Polow Da DonI realize we might differ on this, but I’m interested in hearing anything, especially a radio station, from the man who produced “London Bridge.” The most polarizing of hit records in 2006, “London Bridge” shot to No. 1 on sales and the event value of being Fergie’s first solo single. Radio moved on to the follow-ups quickly when the album came out, but “London” is now clearly one of the songs that served as the blueprint of Top 40’s “turbo-pop” period of mother/daughter prosperity—addictive repetition; playful edginess. And then its producer, Polow Da Don, gave us “Forever” and proved that he could do confectionary sweetness as well. 

I’m interested in hearing any station that plays with the boundaries of Country music. In Seattle in 1970-71, there was a Country station whose formula for broader appeal was finding pop covers by Country artists, Country covers by pop artists, and anything by any artist who had guested on TV’s “The Johnny Cash Show.” This year, there was “Shallow” by Lady Gaga on WKLB Boston, even before WXKS (Kiss 108) embraced it. In between, there have been enough hybrid stations for three articles, but it’s worth mentioning that WKAZ (Tailgate 107.3) Charleston, W. Va.—the station whose “country and other party songs” format seemed unlikely to be intact after five years–just segued to “Old Town Road” from Van Halen, “Everybody Wants Some.”

So it was pretty much assured that I would take a First Listen to “Young Country” YoCo 96.7, Polow’s foray into radio ownership. (The 96.7 frequency is a West Nashville translator fed by Dickson, Tenn.-area AM WYCZ.) The announcement story appeared a week ago in Billboard, promising Kane Brown, Migos, Chris Young, Bubba Sparxxx, and Taylor Swift. Now, they’re on and streaming and you can add Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran & Justin Bieber, and Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” to that list. 

“Old Town Road” has made “what is Country . . . and who needs this quaint idea of genre anyway?” into a consumer press story. But that debate is always taking place somewhere. Over the years, the answer has reliably been “anything willingly played by at least some stations that self-identify as Country, whether the genre bending comes from inside Nashville or beyond.” Country PDs don’t have a core artist to contend with between Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus. “Vacation” by Thomas Rhett caused them much more cognitive dissonance.

Song after song, YoCo is an exercise in the parameters of the format, and that includes the Country acts. I feel pretty safe in calling “Break Up With Your Girlfriend” pop, not Country. But some Country PDs feel that way about Thomas Rhett, “Look What God Gave Her” and there’s pop airplay to prove it. Is Maren Morris, “The Bones” more Country than “The Middle” because she’s the lead artist, not the feature?

If YoCo 96.7 were calling itself something other than “Young Country,” I’d probably explain its mix to radio friends as “the DJ set that includes Country and anything else you can two-step to.” Or “the station for the 19-year-old who likes everything, including Country.” But if there’s a Country station that plays “Shallow,” and one that plays Van Halen, why can’t there be one that plays “Sicko Mode”? (That song followed Offset’s “Zeze,” making for an effective Travis Scott double-play.) From Hip-Hop to Country to pop, most of today’s hit music owes something to the sound of Atlanta that Polow and numerous others helped foster. 

Programmers have been trying to pull off the Country/Classic Rock hybrid for 30 years, but you could also create a pretty awesome station by merging Country with Southern Soul. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, acts such as Barbara Mandrell and Millie Jackson made careers of pulling songs across genre lines. Then Jackson played a live show on WHN New York, the Country station best known for its use of crossovers in the ‘70s and ‘80s. (Former WHN PD Ed Salamon says he would play “Old Town Road” today, if you’re wondering. And between Jackson and Mandrell, one of them would cover “Break Up With Your Girlfriend.”)

At this moment, YoCo is mostly jockless, with just one ID (a combination legal and sponsorship ID for Litecoin cryptocurrency). The music seems to be on a loop for now; what I heard yesterday afternoon was what I heard early this morning as well. The Billboard article promises more to come, and the potential is certainly in hearing what a creator of hit records does with an entire station. Here’s YoCo on June 10 at 4:15 p.m.:

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