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ROD PHILLIPS: INTO THE BIG WIDE OPEN

INTERVIEW BY TODD HENSLEY

As SVP Programming and Brand Manager for iHeartCountry, Rod Phillips supervises a team of four brand coordinators and oversees the largest Country broadcast radio group in America, with north of 140 stations across the U.S., making it the largest Country broadcast radio group in America. So what the hell is the high-scoring Kentucky Wildcat doing in the pages of this loser publication? Maybe he mistook glossy for classy.


 
What are the biggest changes in Nashville and country music?
Everything has changed. There’s massive building going on, cranes are everywhere, even here on Music Row. As it pertains to Country radio, there’s a lot of the talk about the different kinds of country- bro, pop, traditional- with PDs trying to figure out how much a traditional country sound still needs to be part of their stations. I think most people would agree that traditional country is additive to the Country radio experience.
 
As the sounds are changing —Sam Hunt, Florida Georgia Line, Maren Morris, etc.—how does George Strait fit into that?
That’s the point. Most stations can still play some—or a lot— of George Strait, and it fits because country listeners still like it. And in most markets, there is an affinity for newer sounds that artists like Maren Morris bring. But Jon PardiWilliam Michael Morgan and Midland are great examples of PDs being open to playing that sound. It’s really an individual-station decision.

 
How do you handle it?
Honestly, we're open to all of it. We’ve seen that Sam Hunt, who could be called a number of things, tests really high with country listeners. Whether it’s a “country song” or not, I know country listeners like it a lot. The variety makes it much more interesting to be a PD,and there’s still a human element to it. A PD can still touch a radio station and influence its sound, determine what percentage each style of music is right for their market or their radio station. A long-running heritage station might play it a bit safer, while a new, up-and-coming radio station trying to break through maybe takes more chances. I see that as I look at playlists around the country.
 
How do you evaluate all the info coming at you about records these days?
It’s on the modern-day PD to understand and evaluate it. Everyone’s coming with their data points—number of streams, downloads, sales per spin. I look at all those things more than I ever have as a programmer to see where tastes are going and make sure we’re on top of everything. Radio is still a massive discovery point, particularly in Country, so that’s a benefit to us. And at iHeartRadio, we have more tools that ever before that leads to more metrics through playlists like New Country Weekly.
 
Like Kane Brown?
Perfect example. There is no “late” to an opportunity. It’s impressive what Kane has done— I’ve seen it: iHeartRadio engagement, streams, YouTube and ticket sales. But the larger opportunity for Kane, and for us, is when it grows on terrestrial radio like his current single, “What Ifs.” The difference-maker for Kane will be more mainstream radio presence, which will build on everything he’s done and blow it up exponentially. Fortunately for us, everyone still tunes into the radio, which will help Kane and radio at the same time.
 
Listener behavior is changing with the growth of mobile and streaming. How do you view it?
We know listening to your favorite music and artists on digital platforms like iHeartRadio is additive to the listening experience. It’s additive to listeners tuning in daily and weekly to their favorite radio stations and shows. That sounds like a pretty strong recipe to me, and an opportunity to actually grow your radio brand by connecting to your audience digitally, including podcasting.
 
How are you educating your listeners about streaming, particularly the iHeart app?
By using our best resource: our talent. Our personalities are absolutely engaged with the product. We encourage it, and we get them involved so they can share their user experience. I had the benefit of Bobby Bones, who knows the app as well as or better than I do. He can talk about the actual personal experience. The app is a huge extension of the brand—continuing to engage with our listeners beyond the speakers in the car is our future. It’s really our now, and it’s only going to grow more rapidly.
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