Country Radio Seminar to Focus On Human Air Talent and AI as the Format Stresses Authenticity

As broadcasters begin assembling in Nashville this morning (Feb. 28) for the Country Radio Seminar, expect a lot of talk. About talk.

Radio personalities’ importance has been on the decline for decades. They used to pick the music on their shows. That privilege was taken away. Then many were encouraged to cut down their segues and get to the music. Then syndicated morning and overnight shows moved in to replace local talent.

But once the streaming era hit and started stealing some of radio’s time spent listening, terrestrial programmers began reevaluating their product to discover what differentiates it from streaming. Thus, this year’s CRS focus is talk.

“That’s what’s so important about this year,” says iHeartMedia talent Brooke Taylor, who voicetracks weekday shows in three markets and airs on 100 stations on weekends. “The radio on-air personality is sort of regaining their importance in the stratosphere of a particular station.”

Taylor will appear on a panel designed for show hosts — “Personal Branding: It’s Not Ego, It’s Branding!” — but it’s hardly the only element geared to the talent. Other entries include “On Air Personalities: The OG Influencers,” a research study about audience expectations of their DJs; a podcasting deep dive; and four different panels devoted to the threats and opportunities in artificial intelligence (AI).

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As it turns out, artifice is not particularly popular, according to the research study “On Air Talent and Their Roles on All Platforms,” conducted by media analytics firm Smith Geiger. 

“Americans have very mixed feelings about AI,” says Smith Geiger executive vp of digital media strategies Andrew Finlayson. “This research proves that the audience is very interested in authentic content and authentic voices.”

Not to say that AI will be rejected. Sounds Profitable partner Tom Webster expects that it will be effective at matching advertisers to podcasts that fit their audience and market priorities. And he also sees it as a research tool that can assist content creation.

“If I’m a DJ and I’ve got a break coming up, and I’ve pre-sold or back-sold the same record 1,000 times, why not ask an assistant, ‘Give me something new about this record to say’?” Webster suggests. “That’s the easy kind of thing right there that can actually help the DJ do their job.”

CRS has been helping country radio do its job for more than 50 years, providing network opportunities, exposure to new artists and a steady array of educational panels that grapple with legal issues, industry trends and listener research. In the early 1980s, the format’s leaders aspired to make country more like adult contemporary, offering a predictable experience that would be easy to consume for hours in an office situation. The music, and radio production techniques, became more aggressive in the ’90s, and as technology provided a bulging wave of competitors and new ways to move around the dial, stations have been particularly challenged to maintain listeners’ attention during the 21st century.

Meanwhile, major chains have significantly cut staffs. Many stations cover at least two daily shifts with syndicated shows, and the talent that’s left often works on multiple stations in several different markets, sometimes covering more than one format. Those same personalities are expected to maintain a busy social media presence and potentially establish a podcast, too.

That’s an opportunity, according to Webster. Podcast revenue has risen to an estimated $2.5 billion in advertising and sponsorship billing, he says, while radio income has dropped from around $14 billion to $9 billion. He envisions that the two platforms will be on equal financial footing in perhaps a decade, and he believes radio companies and personalities should get involved if they haven’t already.

“It’s difficult to do a really good podcast,” Webster observes. “We talk a lot about the number of podcasts — there are a lot, and most podcasts are not great. Most podcasts are listened to by friends and family. There’s no barrier to entry to a podcast, and then radio has this stable of people whose very job it is to develop a relationship with an audience. That is the thing that they’re skilled at.”

That ’80s idea of radio as predictable background music has been amended. It’s frequently still “a lean-back soundtrack to what it is that you’re doing,” Webster suggests, though listeners want to be engaged with it.

“One of the people in the survey, verbatim, said it’s ‘a surprise box,’ ” Finlayson notes. “I think people like that serendipity that an on-air personality who really knows and understands the music can bring to the equation. And country music knowledge is one of the things that the audience craves from an on-air talent.”

It’s a challenge. Between working multiple stations, creating social media content and podcasting, many personalities are so stretched that it has become difficult to maintain a personal life, which in turn reduces their sources for new material. Add in the threat of AI, and it’s an uneasy time.

“What I see is a great deal of anxiety and stress levels, and I don’t know how we fix it,” concedes Country Radio Broadcasters executive director R.J. Curtis. “There’s just so much work put on our shoulders, it’s hard to manage that and then have a life.”

Curtis made sure that CRS addresses that, too, with “Your Brain Is a Liar: Recognizing and Understanding the Impact of Your Mental Health,” a presentation delivered by 25-year radio and label executive Jason Prinzo.

That tension is one of the ways that on-air talent likely relates to its audience — there are plenty of stressed, overbooked citizens in every market. And as tech continues to consume their lives, it naturally feeds the need for authenticity, which is likely to be a buzzword as CRS emphasizes radio’s personalities.

“Imagine having a radiothon for St. Jude with an AI talent,” Taylor says. “You’ll get a bunch of facts, but you’ll never get a tear. You’ll never get a real story. You’ll never get that shaky voice talking about somebody in your family or somebody that you know has cancer. The big thing that just will never be replaced is that emotion.” 

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