Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Now That We Know The Dixie Chicks Are “Not Ready to Make Nice”

Is radio? Our listeners? The advance trade chart emails and faxes are starting to measure the answer to that and it's extremely polarized and very regional:

Wade Jesson wrote a very sensitive front page "Country Confidential" for the weekly Billboard Monday Monitor, which also has the new Chicks "flying 54-36" on his chart this week, which he adds could be "based on curiosity. The coming few weeks should see a flurry of listener input that country programmers should monitor closely. Rarely does the format have such an opportunity to listen to its customers, and lots of passionate opinions on both sides of the issue will make headlines in the weeks ahead."

Billboard estimates that "Not Ready" has been heard by 3,703,000 country radio listeners in the last seven days on their monitored stations.

Jesson concludes: "Deciding how much or how little support the Chicks will ultimately get from country radio is a process that may find lots of programmers regretting the permanent damage done by the reactionary dismissal of the format’s top act while it was arguably at its zenith. And, that’s the very consideration most industry observers should find the most troubling."

Lon Helton and Chuck Aly report in today's R&R Hotfax Country Update that it is "the most anticipated — and most controversial— song to arrive at Country radio in some time. Programmers’ unrest stems from listeners’ lingering negative reaction to Natalie Maines’ 3-year old political comments, as documented in a recently released Edison Research study that showed a large percentage of Country P1s still harbor a grudge."

Hopefully these will show up in print in detail in both publications this week, making them must reads, because anyone who answers the phones or gets listener email can tell you that this is not an easy call: "Six R&R Country reporters — WCTO/Allentown, WUSN/Chicago, WGAR/Cleveland, KTYS/Dallas, WKIS/Miami and KEEY/Minneapolis — have each played the single more than 10 times in the past week. While there’s no official add date, the song got seven adds this week and is currently on 11 of our 120 reporters. It debuted at No. 41."

R&R quotes from these who were willing to be guinea pigs:

WGAR PD Meg Stevens: “We just play the song. We’re taking e-mail and phone feedback during morning drive. It’s 85-90% positive and is among the top nine requests on our ‘Hot 9 at 9.’ I think it’s a hit. It will be interesting what local research says when we have enough spins.”

WUSN PD Mike Peterson: “So far it’s about 80% very positive,” he says.“The negatives are mostly anti-Chicks, but not anti-station. We’ve only got a few ‘won’t listen if you play’ calls."

KEEY PD Gregg Swedberg feels that it’s all about the music. “Early reaction has been about equal on both sides,” he says. “But, in general, there hasn’t been much reaction at all. We aren’t going to play politics with the music, we’re just going to play it and ask the audience what they think the way we do with allour music — via callout, auditorium tests and RateThe Music . “We aren’t getting on the air screaming, ‘The Chicks are back! Listen to this! Tell us what you think!’ Why open old wounds? Why start an argument that isn’t really important anyway? We’re not supporting the Chicks for political reasons. We’re just playing a newsong by a multiplatinum country band."

R&R received a different spin from WKIS PD Bob Barnett, who questioned the label’s choice of singles: “Programmers invited to preview the new Chicks music at CRS universally, unequivocally asked Sony not to release ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ as the first single. We hoped to put the bashing behind us. There are so many strong songs on the CD, there was no need to mess around with the statement song.“ Then ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ is released. And this Chick-friendly PD thinks, ‘Why would they do this?’ If the goal was to get the Chicks back on the air, they may have just made a horrible decision. So, all bets are off for me. If they don’t care about their relationship with Chick-friendly stations, I’m not sure I’m ready to keep taking [listener] bullets for them anymore. I put the song on to let the listeners decide. Now it appears it’s a song that not only further damages the perception of the Dixie Chicks, but puts the station in a difficult position. I’m weighing the negative impact of those offended by Natalie’s desire to further rub their noses in the drama. I pulled it out of my test category as of this past Sunday."

Normally, country callout and internet research doesn't vary much from one region of the country to another outside Texas and Canada on some specific sounds, but this one is going to be perhaps the most region-sensitive music decision country programmers have had to make since 1969's "Okie from Muskogee."

The South and Southeast, for example, will probably see BIG negatives. Meanwhile, places like most of New York state, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and other "blue state areas" expect to see total favorite scores much higher than negatives. In most of Canada, the Chicks are bigger than ever, however there are also conservative pockets there too. In the Pacific Northwest, larger cities will probably experience comparatively little problem, but east of the mountains it's generally a different story all the way through Idaho, to Colorado, Utah, etc. While it's most likely OK overall in most of LA, probably not in most of San Diego, Ventura County and areas of the San Joaquin Valley. My guess is that Cleveland and Toledo may be more accepting than Cincinnati and Columbus, for a couple other examples.

Your knowlege of your local values -- not just in your state or region, but in your home town, will be tested by this decision in ways few things have been in the average country programmer's career. We talk a lot about how important VALUES are to adding value to your brand. Now, it's time to put those values into action.

The Dixie Chicks have chosen not to make it easy for us.


Allan Gidyk, PD, CHFX, Halifax said...

My opinion on the song from the Canadian point of view is that the comments made by the Chicks about Bush happened while the Presidents approval rating was very high.

That rating isn't there anymore.

Other than the ultra red states, and maybe Texas itself.....short term memories may give way to a very strong song. I love that they came out firing.

Michael O'Malley, Consulting Partner, A&O said...

The feedback from focus groups and listener panels we've conducted since the first of the year has been similar to the Edison research presented at CRS - the majority are indifferent or OK with playing new Chicks' music as long as it's good with a vocal minority who feel strongly that no Chicks' music should be played.

Gord Eno, PD, JRfm, Vancouver said...

Remember when we (country radio) had our shorts in a knot over refusing to spin "Murder On Music Row"...in comparison it makes that controversy a tempest in a teapot compared to the polarized positions programmers are taking on "Not Ready..."

I can hardly wait to see what our perspective of this song (and the Chicks) will be in five years.