A third post for my first day back.
While my wife and I were on vacation in Northern California eleven days ago, Los Angeles lost its one commercial country music station. On August 17, KZLA suddenly switched from a country to a "rhythmic pop" format. (No more Gretchen Wilson, but yet another outlet for the Black-Eyed Peas.)
The Los Angeles Times had an editorial on this yesterday. The reasoning behind the switch is summarized here:
The format change, as in other big cities that no longer have country stations, stems in large part from changing demographics. A top executive at Emmis Communications, which owns KZLA, told The Times that 60% of the local audience is Latino, Asian or African American, while "country fans are about 98% Caucasian." The top slots in Arbitron's local radio rankings have been dominated in recent years by stations offering Spanish programming, hip-hop, R&B and pop hits, while KZLA's ratings have been mired just outside the Top 20.
Now, I am not devastated by the loss of KZLA. I love country music, mind you, but commercial radio rarely played the artists I like. I have little time for Toby Keith, Keith Urban, or Faith Hill; I'm much more inclined to listen to old Merle Haggard, or new Tift Merritt. More importantly, I have access to a computer with a broadband connection -- and I own an Ipod. Rather than endure the extraordinarily narrow range of choices (and the endless commercials) on broadcast radio, I can listen to the songs I want when I want them -- at work, at home, in the car. Of course, I have to pay for them, but it's worth it.
Black, Latino, and Asian teens -- who seem to be the primary audience for this rhythmic pop format that took over the country station -- have less disposable income. They are less likely to have satellite radio subscriptions, less likely to have access to internet radio. "Free" commercial radio is a far more important source of entertainment in their lives. Perhaps this is why we have five or six stations in Los Angeles now that play that maddeningly awful Gnarls Barkley "Crazy" song, and none that will play the latest from Tim McGraw.
On the other hand, perhaps there are other factors at play. Country music is often associated with working or lower-middle class whites. Since the 1970s, the white working class in Los Angeles has been headed east -- to the so-called Inland Empire of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. They have lots of country stations out there, as well as a very popular site for NASCAR racing. Perhaps KZLA simply couldn't cope with a shrinking audience of white listeners. The impact of satellite radio and the Ipod, combined with "white flight" to the eastern suburbs of the Inland Empire, made the market too small.
And there is still another question at hand. Why are so many young people of all races attracted to rap and rhythmic pop,and so few kids of color drawn to country? You'll see many more young whites at a Peas concert than you will see young African-Americans or Latinos at a Brooks and Dunn show. Country has failed miserably at attracting young people of color, particularly in urban areas. Conversely, hip-hop has done famously well at drawing in many young whites, even in suburban and rural areas. Is there still a legacy of racism around country music, forty years after the great Charlie Pride smashed the color line in Nashville? Or do the sounds and melodies of country music (whatever the sub-genre) have little to attract young urbanites? To flirt with a racist stereotype, is it because country is perceived as undanceable by many young people of color -- an audience for whom music that is danceable is the sine qua non?
One of my favorite recent "pop" country songs is "Redneck Woman", a major hit for Gretchen Wilson a year or two ago. It's a humorous, boisterous, celebration of a particular kind of life: rural, unpretentious, candid, bawdy, hard-working. I listened to it the same way I listened to the marvelous Don Williams track from a quarter century ago, Good Old Boys Like Me. (Famously quoted in "Primary Colors", it features an homage to Thomas Wolfe and Tennessee Williams, indicating that "good ole boys" can have intellectual aspirations as well.) Both songs celebrate a kind of life that is familiar to me, albeit from a slight distance.
But I wonder, do these songs come across as having racist, unwelcoming undertones? Are there still folks out there who confuse "redneck" and "good old boy" with "racist" and "intolerant"? Is that why my students (85% non-white) don't listen to Gretchen Wilson, while white kids in West Texas enthusiastically download Snoop Dogg?
I've got a CD playing on my office computer now -- the heavenly voices of Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris in bluegrass duets fill my office. I can't imagine many of my students would be much interested.