Ain’t Nothing Wrong with the Radio? (Or, When Nash ICON Came to Town)

nash-iconI more or less gave up on radio about fifteen years ago, after I purchased my first iPod. Like most right-minded people, I’d rather listen to the music I know I love than resort to enduring whatever songs have managed to squeeze onto Clear Channel’s narrow playlists in hopes of hearing something good. I’ve always been aggressive in seeking out new music on my own, so I’ve never been dependent upon radio for making new discoveries; when I listen to the radio now, I mostly tune into the local “classic country” station that plays only singles from the 70s through the early 00s.

Recently, however, I discovered that a radio station in my area had switched over to Cumulus Media’s much-ballyhooed new Nash ICON format, which is supposed to emphasize country artists from the 80s and 90s and to provide a platform for the new music by those artists who made that era such a rich period in the genre’s history. There are even rumblings that country radio, much like urban radio, is set to fracture into two formats: a “contemporary” format for today’s most popular acts and the ICON format that caters to a slightly older demographic.

So, curious as to what the Nash ICON format sounds like in practice, I decided to sample its playlist to see if it’s something that might appeal to my tastes more than the area’s two “hot country” stations do. Moreover, I was curious to see how the Nash ICON station compared to the local “classic country” station, given Nash ICON’s stated raison d’etre. Below, I’ve listed the playlists for both stations during two samples: a 30-minute block during evening rush hour and a 45-minute block late on a Saturday morning.

Weekday Rush Hour, 5 – 5:30P
Nash ICON:
Diamond Rio, “Meet in the Middle”
Lee Brice, “Hard to Love”
James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
Kenny Chesney, “American Kids”
Dolly Parton, “9 to 5”
Cole Swindell, “Chillin’ It”
Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder & Lead”
Tim McGraw feat. Faith Hill, “Meanwhile, Back at Mama’s”
Brooks & Dunn, “My Maria”
Sammy Kershaw, “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful”

Classic Country Station:
Don Williams, “It Must Be Love”
Travis Tritt, “Take It Easy”
Eddy Raven, “Operator, Operator”
Dolly Parton, “Here You Come Again”
Alabama, “Tennessee River”
John Anderson, “Straight Tequila Night”
The Judds, “Mama, He’s Crazy”
Merle Haggard, “Branded Man”
Kentucky Headhunters, “Dumas Walker”

Weekend, 11 – 11:45A
Nash ICON:
Lee Brice, “Hard to Love”
Diamond Rio, “Unbelievable”
Florida-Georgia Line, “Dirt”
Lorrie Morgan, “Except for Monday”
Rodney Atkins, “If You’re Going Through Hell”
Miranda Lambert, “Automatic”
Hank Williams, Jr., “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight”
Clint Black, “Like the Rain”
Tim McGraw, “One of Those Nights”
Martina McBride, “This One’s for the Girls”
Radney Foster, “Nobody Wins”
Jason Aldean, “Burnin’ it Down”

Classic Country Station:
Keith Whitley, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain”
Sammi Smith, “Help Me Make it Through the Night”
Doug Stone, “Why Didn’t I Think of That”
Shenandoah, “Two Dozen Roses”
George Jones & Tammy Wynette, “Golden Ring”
Restless Heart, “That Rock Won’t Roll”
Diamond Rio, “Meet in the Middle”
George Strait, “Amarillo by Morning”
Glen Campbell, “Gentle on My Mind”
Mark Chesnutt, “It’s a Little Too Late”
Barbara Mandrell, “Crackers”
Gary Stewart, “Drinkin’ Thing”
Conway Twitty, “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love”
Montgomery Gentry, “My Town”

So, what are the takeaways from this sampling of the playlists? While it was kind of thrilling to hear the Dolly Parton hits playing concurrently on the two stations, neither the Nash ICON nor the classic country station played many singles by women, which is one of the most frequent and well-substantiated criticisms of contemporary country radio. Of the five tracks by women played on the Nash ICON station, two were by Miranda Lambert. Again, one of the problems with contemporary country is that it has limited the number of different women who receive any airplay to Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, Hilary Scott of Lady Antebellum, Kimberly Perry of The Band Perry, and Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town. Although this playlist is just a small sample, it wasn’t necessarily encouraging that only one woman fulfilled the latter half of the station’s “all of the artists who made country great and the best of today” slogan.

Radney Foster Del Rio TX 1959Both stations deserve credit for playing some unexpected material. On Nash ICON, “Like the Rain” wouldn’t jump out as the most obvious of Clint Black’s hits, and Radney Foster’s “Nobody Wins” was a most pleasant surprise.  The classic country station’s choices for Merle Haggard, Barbara Mandrell, and Conway Twitty weren’t just those artists’ most familiar songs, while the Eddy Raven, Kentucky Headhunters, Restless Heart, and Gary Stewart songs speak to a wonderfully diverse take on the genre’s “classic” material.

But perhaps the most troubling thing about this sample was the Nash ICON station’s perspective on the “best of today.” The conventional wisdom about the Nash ICON format is that it was created as a response to some of the more unfortunate trends at country radio– a way of providing a format that will appeal to the droves of listeners who loved country radio in the 80s and 90s but who have been alienated by the proliferation of “bro country” acts and by the marginalization of women.

To that end, the transitions between 90s hits and middling singles by Lee Brice, Kenny Chesney, and Tim McGraw or, more egregiously, between 90s hits and outright garbage from Cole Swindell, Florida-Georgia Line, and Jason Aldean was jarring. And it only draws into sharp relief the chasm in quality between the hits of the 80s and 90s and the “Chillin’ It”s and “Burnin’ it Down”s of today’s country. Ultimately, drawing attention to that contrast only does a disservice to the Nash ICON format, making it sound more like a contemporary country station that simply plays a greater proportion of recurrent songs rather than like a station with a distinct format with its own demographic.

Still, there’s something appealing about the idea of Nash ICON, and the format is still in its infancy. As Nash ICON refines its niche, it would ideally incorporate an even deeper appreciation for its “classic” material while providing a real outlet for contemporary acts– say, Josh Turner, Charlie Worsham, and Kellie Pickler, plus less mainstream artists like Brandy Clark, Shovels & Rope, and Jason Isbell– whose style is more akin to the brightest stars of the 80s and 90s and, moreover, an outlet for the new material from those veteran stars like Lee Ann Womack, Trisha Yearwood, and Alan Jackson who now struggle to receive airplay at contemporary country radio.

It comes down to branding and to nurturing a particular demographic that, in recent years, has become increasingly vocal about being underserved and underrepresented. The challenge for Nash ICON, then, will be surviving its formative years: Cumulus Media will need to figure out exactly who its audience is and why they’d be inclined to tune into a Nash ICON station. Because, at least based on what I heard during my short investigation, I’m not inclined to ditch the “classic country” station on my pre-sets or my own music collection.


  1. Funny how the Nash Icon is being made out as some radical idea when it’s not much different from what we did at the last station I was music director for. Typically one out of every three songs would be a recent single, one would be from the ’90s/’00s and the third would be ’80s or earlier. It’s not rocket science. It just takes a music director who appreciates the history of the music and is given a little freedom in picking the songs rather than being dictated to by some outside entity.

    Compare that to the last station I was at that mostly follows the Clear Channel/Cumulus playlist. The morning host got a talking to from the GM for playing Charley Pride because, “You’ll may make that older listener happy, but you’ll lose the younger ones.” As if there were a lot of young people listening at 7:30 in the morning and who would change stations just because they here an occasional oldie.

  2. I also have been listening to a Nash Icon station lately to see what they play. I agree with you that they play too much bro or tailgate music but I think the station is decent.

    I don’t mind them playing some current big hits but I wish they would only play the ones that largely avoid the bro trend. If they must play new Aldean, I wish they would play “The Truth” or “Tattoos on this Town” instead of his other horrible music. They should not play Cole Swindell. Ever.

    I also hope that they’ll start supporting traditional leaning new artists like Easton Corbin, Kacey Musgraves, Charlie Worsham and Jon Pardi. That would help these artists build fan bases.

    I also think it would be cool if they would play some album tracks from current albums. We all know most of the best and most traditional cuts aren’t released to radio so it would be cool if Icon would play them. That way, even when Tim McGraw or Little Big Town release a bland single, there can still be a good song from them on the radio.

  3. When are we going to Get Nash Indie where artists like Jason Isbell, Jason Eady, Holly Williams, Jason Boland and the Stragglers and others can get some airplay? Maybe these artists can get airplay of a station like Nash Icon. Maybe?

    Andrew, you’re an MD at a radio station right? How about mixing in some of the great independent talent too!

  4. We have nothing even as good as Nash ICON here and we certainly don’t have a classic country station, which is why I completely left country radio about 7 years ago. I still remember the Saturday when I was listening to a top 40 country countdown and realized that I didn’t like any song on the top 20 and that was all the way back in 2005.

  5. I’ve been MD for three stations and I can tell you the pressure is great to eliminate music that may cause just one person to turn away. The burn scores in music testing are worshiped as permanent black marks, making playlists small and extremely predictable. It was only after I attained status of OM and GM that I could promote change away from sanitized music. You might find your station having to pay for music instead of getting it for free. It’s a small price to pay for self respect.

  6. One of the worst things that ever happened in country radio was what I refer to as ‘The Purge’ which happened around 1990 or 1991. Every country artist who had ever had a hit in the 70s or before were basically banished from country radio. No more Conway & Loretta, Waylon & Willie, George & Tammy, Dolly, Kenny Rogers, Crystal Gayle, Ronnie Milsap, etc… (the one exception was Tanya Tucker who was somehow spared).

    As a result, New Country exploded, album sales went through the roof, and superstars were created. Was it good for the industry? Yes and no. I guess if all you do is look at the bottom line, then it was a success. But while it did give us Garth, Alan, Tim, Brooks & Dunn, and many others, it was a huge slap in the face to those great artists that came before them – and to their fans. Most of us who loved them turned off the radio or found an oldies station.

    However, as much as I hated that something like that ever happening, I would welcome a new purge right now if we could get rid of bro-country. Or at least take a big bite out of it so some real country music could be played on country radio.

  7. @Motown Mike

    I don’t have that job anymore, but once per hour I did throw in what I referred to as “stuff I like”. It ranged from Texas and red dirt stuff to new music from older guys like Vince Gill and Marty Stuart, independents like Drew Kennedy and Teea Goans and current singles I knew wouldn’t make the top 40 like “Follow Your Arrow” and Alan Jackson’s “You Go Your Way”.

    It can make a huge difference for a station just to give control of the playlist to someone passionate and knowledgeable about the music with a little freedom to play what they want to play beyond the top 40.

  8. Quote by Andrew:

    I don’t have that job anymore, but once per hour I did throw in what I referred to as “stuff I like”. It ranged from Texas and red dirt stuff to new music from older guys like Vince Gill and Marty Stuart, independents like Drew Kennedy and Teea Goans and current singles I knew wouldn’t make the top 40 like “Follow Your Arrow” and Alan Jackson’s “You Go Your Way”.

    It can make a huge difference for a station just to give control of the playlist to someone passionate and knowledgeable about the music with a little freedom to play what they want to play beyond the top 40.

    That would be the ideal thing; it would indeed make a huge difference. It’s a shame that radio has become so corporatized that all the bean counters want is a “sure thing.” But as the late great film director Stanley Kubrick once said: “Nothing is as dangerous as a ‘sure thing’.”

  9. Erik,
    Radio is naturally limited by its licensing hamstrings, but it still acts like a supply-and-demand industry. The reason indie country isn’t working is the audience isn’t crying out for it. Florida-Georgia Line lyrics treat women like they are brain-dead, yet those same women pack their concerts. This can’t last forever.

  10. Buddynoel,

    That is the exact reason, I am not crazy about shedding FGL for their portrayals of women, when a lot of ladies dance along to their songs. I don’t feel the need to fight a fight when my should be allies are supporting the enemy.

  11. I went to Nash Icon’s Winter Nash Bash at the Ryman on Dec. 1. It was hosted by Blair Garner, Terri Clark and Chuck Wicks and featured Maddie & Tae, Parmalee, Joe Diffie, Easton Corbin and Clint Black performing in that order. Here are my observations.

    The hosts all seemed to be adored by the audience who clearly were familiar with their morning show.

    Maddie seemed to do most of the singing, with Tae mostly singing harmony during the choruses. Tae also only played guitar on two of the six songs (if I remember correctly) while Maddie always had either a guitar or mandolin. I am almost positive Tae’s guitar wasn’t plugged in since her strumming was never audible and didn’t follow the rhythm of the songs. They had a guitar player behind them who created most of the audible instrumentation. Maddie appeared to be leader of the two.

    The crowd reacted well to Maddie & Tae, who were super bubbly and smiley during the entire acoustic set.

    Parmalee came next and played an acoustic set as well. They were seated the whole time. The crowd enjoyed them but didn’t seem to recognize them or their two hits. They came of as a little more bro than I was expecting, which was an odd contrast to their acoustic, seated, low-energy set.

    Joe Diffie played an acoustic set with one other guitar player. He told great jokes and talked a lot. He didn’t play too many songs. The crowd went nuts for him, he was the most popular act.

    Easton Corbin played for about 50 min, as opposed to the prior three who played for 30 min or less. He had a nice set and some decent banter with his full band, including steel and fiddle players. The crowd didn’t seem familiar with him and didn’t know the words to his hits when he tried to start sing-alongs. He didn’t play “I Can’t Love You Back.”

    Clint Black is still a great entertainer. He started out just him and a guitar and had a few others join later. He has a great since of humor and was a very impressive guitar and harmonica player.

    The crowd mostly consisted of people over 50 with a few 30- and 40- somethings. I was surprised at how many seats weren’t filled on the ground floor. The auditorium was maybe 80-85% full at it’s peak though a number of people left early (Clint didn’t start until 9:40).

    Overall, I think this is a good example of what Nash Icon will try to do. Concerts with ’90s stars plus a couple new breaking artists with a more traditional bent. This formula seemed to work for the crowd at the Ryman.

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