Speaking at the Country Music Radio Seminar, Warner, CEO of Commercial Radio Australia, ruffled the feathers of country music radio hosts and programmers after saying that a country music station wasn't viable in the metro markets.
“Our listeners are telling us that's not what they want to hear. It's not what they want to hear as a full format,” she said.
“Audiences are very fickle… radio listeners are unforgiving and if a program director continually plays a song that listeners don't like [they will leave the station].”
Using the example of Sydney station 2SM, which during a foray as a country frequency in the '90s reached a peak market share of four percent, she also suggested that young artists drop the word 'country' from their radio pitches.
“Perhaps artist labelled 'country' puts artists into a category with an image problem,” she said. “That's my opinion… From a commercial radio [stance] we've never had a successful format with a country station.”
The 'country' tag set off warning signs from “hipster” station programmers, according to Warner, whose pursuit of listeners, ratings – and through that advertising revenue – meant they weren't often able to gamble on tracks that may alienate their audience.
“In pitching an artist to a commercial radio station, be mindful of the station… if you're trying to pitch to a Network like Southern Cross Austereo you need to be clever in you pitch… Don't label a young artist just 'country'. The hipsters won't want it.”
Warner, who was joined on the panel by veteran country musician Lee Kernaghan amongst others, was then forced to field a number of questions from country stakeholders – particularly those involved with community radio – who took her words to mean that 'country was dead'.
At a number of instances, festival promoter and panel moderator Rob Potts was forced to step in and clarify that they weren't arguing that the genre had expired.
“In my opinion country is not a dirty word,” Kernaghan said. “I've sold two million albums playing country music and wearing an Akubra hat.”
Fellow panellist and McAlister Kemp's manager Dennis Dunstan said that discussions were underway to open up touring avenues for country acts in the metro areas in the hope of building an audience and generating a presence in front of key advertisers.
“Get the cream of the crop, get them into Melbourne and Sydney, get them into venues and promote it as a team, as an industry, and get people to come along,” he said. “We've got our challenges but it's something we're definitely trying to do.”
Universal Music executive Darren Aboud, added, “There are shows at the Vanguard, there are shows at The Basement and there are shows at the Oxford Art Factory, if you're talking about Sydney. Just getting enough people to turn up [is the issue]… we can't seem to drag enough people close to enough to Sydney… it remains a challenge for us.”
Warner said that the roll out of digital radio, which is yet to reach regional markets, may provide country genre with an opportunity to provide a full-format station with a smaller listenership and attract niche advertisers.