Media Watch

Barren Country

OK, so here we are in Tucson, Ariz., land of cowboys and other folk naturally inclined to enjoy country-Western music. The No. 1-rated radio station here for pretty much the past 10 years has been KIIM-FM, 99.5, which plays country music. Makes sense, except for one thing: KIIM is Tucson's only country music station.

A couple of years ago, Citadel-owned KIIM had three local competitors. But their ratings stunk worse than the hind end of a bean-fed bronc buster, so one by one, they jumped to other formats. Citadel's "Cat Country," KOAZ 97.5, went with contemporary pop; the company's longtime AM country purveyor, KCUB, got into sports talk; and last December, Clear Channel's "Coyote Country," KOYT 92.9, became the adult-album-alternative "The Mountain."

With only one country station left, that means there's only one kind of country music on the air--a heavy rotation of Brooks & Dunn, Gretchen Wilson, Lonestar, Montgomery Gentry and David Lee Murphy. (Though there is a "twang" block on KXCI--more about that next week.) This annoys reader Mac Veehooves, who writes:

"The brain trust in Nashville and their financial 'Pay for Play' radio partners have cooperated in evolving modern country music to market to a female audience, much as the Detroit auto industry markets trucks and their SUV offspring, both of which are top-heavy with many unnecessary frills, also to females.

"There are far less real 'country' songs on the air nowadays, especially in Tucson, where major record companies attempt to outbid one another in paying KIIM to play their over-produced artists and their sappy generic ballads.

"During the 1980s, radio stations figured out that they can charge for 24 hours of airtime, not just for commercials, as long as they are straight with the IRS--this is why stations are now worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Listeners are unaware that the reason they hear a song played is because the artist's record company pays for the airtime. Once an artist is highly established, like Alan Jackson or Reba, the demand to hear the new record is so high that payments are less, if made at all.

"I miss KCUB 1290, which played true country music, and even though it was broadcast on AM radio, this lent a realistic charm to the music.

"I, for one, would welcome a station that played some true country music from modern artists such as Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Chris LeDoux and Montgomery Gentry, but mixed in some of those who have lived long enough to have something to say about living a country life, such as Robert Earl Keen, Emmy Lou Harris or Guy Clark; add some country rockers such as Jack Ingram; and definitely mix in classics that take you to a story, a place--artists such as Merle, Lefty Frizzell, Faron Young, Cash, Tubb, Hank and Patsy Cline. Some of the songs tell rough stories, yes, but they are not unpalatable.

"Today's listeners have no sense of music history."