Grammy wins won't change feud with radio, observers say
By JONATHAN MARX
On Monday, the Dixie Chicks were splashed across every media outlet for their five wins at the 49th annual Grammy Awards ó well, almost every media outlet.
Almost four years after Natalie Maines' infamous comment about President Bush, the Dixie Chicks still don't stand a chance on country radio.
According to industry observers, nothing has changed between country radio and the Chicks, and there's no reason to expect that it will, even with the trio's winning a Grammy for Best Country Album and another for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal ó not to mention overall album, record and song prizes.
"Country radio is not going to be responsive to the Dixie Chicks' Grammy wins because the Grammy voters are music industry professionals, who aren't reflective of the country radio audience," says Ed Salamon, executive director of Country Radio Broadcasters, the trade organization that hosts the annual Country Radio Seminar.
"Country radio makes a great effort to determine what music the listeners want to hear and give it to them. If their attitudes toward the Dixie Chicks should change, country radio would be right on that change, but I don't see that happening as a natural consequence of awards being voted by the music industry."
Lon Helton, publisher of the industry trade publication Country Aircheck, agrees. "The Grammys are totally out of touch with the country marketplace," he says. "If you look at the nominations, they don't reflect what's going on in the country consumer marketplace."
More to the point, suggests Chris Walters, program director of Lone Star 102.3-FM in Wichita Falls, Texas, country radio has no reason to embrace the Dixie Chicks because the group has flat-out rejected country radio ó something that was reinforced by Maines' scornful laugh when she accepted the country album award.
"The Chicks have chosen to continue to make this (rift with country radio) an issue," Walters says. "When they say things like 'We're not a country band anymore,' nothing alienates a country audience more. The marketplace has decided they don't like the Dixie Chicks very much Ö and when the Chicks decided to knock listeners over the head with 'Not Ready to Make Nice,' they just reopened old wounds."
Listeners are divided
That's a shame, says John Hart, president of Bullseye Marketing/Research, because country radio otherwise has every reason to embrace the Dixie Chicks.
"They're an awesome group, there's no doubt about that. I don't think any of this has to do with their music, and that's the sad part because they add so much to the format. Unfortunately, Natalie lets her mouth get the best of her."
On several occasions, Hart's firm has polled country listeners to find out whether they'd be receptive to hearing the Dixie Chicks on the radio, and the response is almost always the same: "Fifty percent say they do, 50 percent say they don't, and that's been the case ever since The Comment. It's never changed, except by maybe 2 to 3 percentage points, and it's not going to change."
The problem, Hart says, is country radio can't afford to risk losing any of its audience.
"Listeners don't tune out because of what you don't play ó they tune out because of what you do play, and that's the key issue here. Country ratings are based on how long people listen to a station. The actual number of listeners is smaller than the (Contemporary Hit Radio) pop format, but they listen longer, so it's critical not to tune people out.
"Any time you have 50 percent of your audience saying I'm going to leave you, it becomes a fear-based issue. Personally, I say, let's get on with this. Put 'em on the radio and see what happens."