From Houston to New York, the Top Country Radio Programmers Today

Country music,Nielsen Audio,Houston,Cole Swindell,WNSH,KRTY,KEEY-FM

Taylor Swift and Johnny Chiang Country music is traditionally the domain of outlaws and rebels, and its radio formats are no exception. Each successful new artist has its champions of the airwaves, and following are the outliers who took the risks at country radio that led to breakthroughs this past year of stars like Maren Morris, Old Dominion and Cole Swindell. These programmers are identified by country label executives surveyed by Billboard as among the most influential in the genre, at a time when country is second only to top 40 as the nation's most popular radio format, according to Nielsen Audio. All of the ranked programmers have responsibility for at least one specific country station. The ranking of these programmers reflects a combination of their impact on country music, as judged by label executives, and the size of the radio market they serve. 1. JOHNNY CHIANG, 48 Director of operations, KKBQ Houston, Cox Media The day in 2004 when Chiang walked in to Houston's KKBQ (The New 93Q), he could not have conformed to the pop-guy-takes-over-country-station cliche more if he tried. He asked music director Christi Brooks what was playing. "You're kidding, right?" she answered. The song was "Friends in Low Places" by Garth Brooks. The Taiwan-born, Los Angeles-raised Chiang was a quick study and has come a long way since in his country music expertise. With breakout slots on his playlist that are much coveted by country record labels, he has championed new talent like Runaway Jane, and he loves country's current mix. "We've got the GQ magazine guys like Brett Eldredge, rockers like Eric Church, great new females like Kelsea Ballerini. It all blends perfectly," he says. On Nov. 2, the Country Music Association will honor Chiang's KKBQ as 2016's major-market station of the year. 2. CHARLIE COOK, 66 Program director, WSM-FM/WKDF Nashville; Vp country, Cumulus Media; operations manager, Cumulus Nashville In the capital of country music, Cook runs the top dog in town. WSM-FM (which shares its call letters with a legendary, separately owned AM station) has beaten its four country-format competitors in Nashville for the year to date, according to Nielsen Audio. "We've refined the format, and it really clicked," says the Michigan-raised father of two. Sister station WKDF (NASH-FM 103.3), meanwhile, has promoted showcases with rising acts like Brett Young, Mickey Guyton, Runaway Jane and Chase Bryant. A 46-year radio veteran, Cook admits, with a mixture of pride and embarrassment, "I don't have one friend who isn't in the radio or music business, not one." 3. GREGG SWEDBERG Program director, KEEY, MINNEAPOLIS; regional senior vp programming; country brand coordinator, iHeartMedia "We have a healthy appetite from listeners to support new acts early on," says Swedberg, a Minneapolis native and father of one, recalling when the annual KEEY (K102) concert series introduced Taylor Swift to the market in 2006. "Every year we identify five or six of the most promising acts and support them all year," says Swedberg, whose station most recently has elevated the likes of Brett Young, Tucker Beathard and Old Dominion, helping it rank No. 2 among women 25 to 34. But music alone doesn't boost listenership. "We've brought ratings up as a whole with our personalities and being involved in the community." 4. J.R. SCHUMANN, 35 Senior director, country programming, SiriusXM Texas-born and raised Schumann is not shy about choosing songs to help SiriusXM's country channels lead the pack: Thomas Rhett's "Vacation," Ryan Follese's "Float Your Boat" and Eli Young Band's "Saltwater Gospel" are among the tracks played early on the satellite broadcaster. "Country radio is in the wrong frame of mind," says Schumann, referring to the unusually long development phase for new releases. "When we jump out on a record, we commit to the song, the artist and the discovery aspect. There has never been a trail blazed by following in line behind everybody else." When he's not breaking new artists, Schumann oversees channels for country's superstars, from No Shoes Radio for Kenny Chesney to The Garth Channel, which launched Sept. 8 with exclusive content from Garth Brooks. 5. NATE DEATON, 54 GM, KRTY/KLIV San Jose, Calif.; Empire Broadcasting "All of the stuff that competes with radio was invented here," says Deaton of Silicon Valley, the region served by KRTY (95.3 KRTY). But the San Jose native believes radio beats any digital platform when it comes to music discovery. Consider "Head Over Boots" from fellow Californian Jon Pardi, which Deaton got behind 11 months before the song hit No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart. Choices like that have helped KRTY rank No. 1 among all listeners 18 to 49. While AM sister station KLIV offers country gold, at KRTY, "promoting new music is what we do," says Deaton. "That's the whole philosophy of the station. Radio needs to introduce you to new music from stars and new artists." 6. JOHN FOXX, 36 Program director, WNSH New York, Cumulus Media Country music fans in New York, the nation's largest media market, endured years without a country station before Cumulus launched WNSH (NASH-FM) in 2013. (Country outlet WYNY dropped the format in 1996.) Although WNSH scored the highest cumulative audience in its history in September (more than 1.2 million), Foxx says, "I don't think anyone knows yet how big country in New...

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