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REWIRING THE COUNTRY AIRWAVES

CBS Radio's Tim Roberts on Adapting to Changing Times
INTERVIEW BY TODD HENSLEY
 
When it comes to country music hubs, Detroit isn’t the first town that comes to mind. But Motor City native Tim Roberts, who was anointed VP of Country Programming at CBS Radio in February, has worked in the Country format for 38 of his 39 years in radio, and was inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame last year. It’s anybody's guess why Tim would risk undercutting his elevated status by appearing in this low-end
trade rag.

 
From your perspective, what are the biggest changes in the Nashville landscape?
There’s never been more music available. The biggest challenge for radio is literally just trying to digest it all. The net effect of that has been a slower-moving chart, because it’s just taking a longer time for songs to get known and developed. Everyone is dealing with that dilemma, including the labels and radio. It's a good problem to have in the programming world, because you have your pick of all these records. The bad news is it’s hard for a label to get consensus among all the reporting stations to add a record because there are so many of them, and to try to get everybody to agree on one is difficult.

How have these challenges impacted you as a programmer?
The biggest change has been the amount of information now available that can affect your decision-making. You’re looking at Shazam and Spotify, your local record sales, spins and the charts. You have a ton of information to digest as well as your own gut instincts. To me, it’s more exciting, because you get to see a lot of acts that are developing in non-traditional ways. Like Luke Combs had huge traction before he got signed by a major label, and you saw that with Old Dominion as well. Look at Sam Hunt, with all the streaming and consumption of his music before he was on a major label. The audience is pretty good at discovering great records.

Does it help as more things develop before radio?
For sure it does. It’s a safer bet if you already know the fans like it that makes it less of a guessing game and adds credibility for sure. But you have to understand your own brand and whether that song belongs on your radio station. It’s valuable data, and it can tip the balance.
 
Kane Brown comes to mind.
Yup. Obviously, the guy’s selling a lot of records, getting streaming and selling out venues; he’s already successful on a certain level. Radio has been a little bit late the party, but I look at Dylan Scott, who had a lot of streaming consumption going on and now has a Top 10 record. Kane’s taken longer, but I think he’s got the space to develop into a relevant artist. He certainly has the fan base.
 
How do you feel when people speak of the “death of terrestrial radio”?
I’ve lived through 39 years of people saying terrestrial radio was dead. I think radio is alive and well, and if you’re locally relevant, entertaining and serving your community, there’s still a place for you. Certainly, there’s more streaming. As the personal device becomes more prevalent across the younger demographics, it’s going to be increasingly relevant. It’s a growth area, and you have to pay attention to that. That is the chess game of being a programmer: You’re trying to adapt to the changing landscape: how people consume music, how they learn about it. Whether it’s a national strategy or a local strategy, the challenge is trying to always be on target and it’s a moving target. It makes programming super challenging, but it’s also creative and exciting, like radio was when I got into it years ago, and I still think it’s that way.
 
What influences your music decisions?
In our music meeting, we talk about every stat we have available, and it’s all relevant. Everyone’s trying to
build a story, and they have to do it some way. But it can get to a point of, “Wow, my head’s going to explode looking at all this stuff.”
 
Do you have a sense of how much audience you’re sharing with the streaming services?
There's a segment of the audience that is very active in streaming, and those are the ones who were consuming artists like Luke Combs before everyone else figured it out. But that segment is much smaller than the segment that looks to us as the tastemaker. Terrestrial radio has a very important role and still is undoubtedly the number-one source in that area. The mass audience is still all about local radio.
 
 
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