From Monday to Wednesday this week, the annual 49th annual Country Radio Seminar is being held at the Omni Hotel in downtown Nashville. The Country Radio Broadcasters stage the event, with the agenda committee curating the menu of panel discussions, speakers, mentoring breakfasts and other educational opportunities. The event is heavily supported by record companies and accompanied by numerous concerts, hosting what CRB executive director Bill Mayne expects will be around 2,500 attendees.
CRS launched in 1969 as the Country Disc Jockey Convention when radio was still sort of the Wild West. According to sources that attended the affair back then, it was pretty much a chance for radio programmers and personalities to visit Nashville, hang with record label folk and drink, a lot.
It sounds like a far cry from the buttoned-up CRS of today, although by all accounts, there’s still plenty of fun to be had, in addition to a bounty of learning opportunities and music.
With CRS in full swing, Billboard chatted with CRB board member Tim Roberts, who is also vp music programming at Entercom Detroit and holds day-to-day programming responsibilities for the market’s WYCD station.
How many years have you been coming to CRS?
I first came as an attendee in 1984 when I was a young program director at WPCM Greensboro-Burlington, North Carolina. I’ve been coming back ever since in one capacity or another.
What was that first experience like?
Honestly, and I am not exaggerating, it changed my life. We were all so addicted to radio and it was just this unbelievable experience with major-market programmers and so many great artists all in the same place. What struck me immediately was that the artists, many of them our biggest stars, would just be walking the halls, attending the panels. Also the fact that successful major-market programmers were so open to sharing ideas.
Mainly, though, it was like a light bulb went off and I remember that I couldn’t wait to get back to the station to implement some of the great ideas that I was able to soak up. Also, keep in mind that country music was not that hot in 1984; it exploded a few years later. I honestly think that CRS played a significant role in that.
It sounds like you’re still having fun.
Not a lie, I am. I still get excited about coming. It re-energizes you.
How many years have you been involved with CRS in a decision-making role, including both your turns on the agenda committee and the board?
Oh man, who knows? [Laughs] I was agenda chair in the mid-’90s, then went to the board and have been there ever since… So, well over 20 years. And I have no intention of stopping. It’s such a worthwhile experience. Also, it’s important to give back and mentor people just starting out like I was years ago.
A lot of conventions have come and gone since CRS started in 1969 as the Country Disc Jockey Convention. As radio has become so consolidated and corporatized, and technology changes by the minute, how do you think this event has not only survived, but evolved and thrived?
First, I think that it’s such a valuable event that people really want to get here, whether they’re registered for the whole seminar or just one day, because if you don’t come you feel like you’re missing out. Mainly, this is a one-of-a-kind experience, a true collaboration between the music industry, radio and all the associated industries.
I don’t know when exactly, but it seems like about 10 years ago, I started noticing more and more attendees from different parts of the industry, in addition to radio. We made a conscious effort at one point about 10 years ago to be more inclusive. The world has transformed immensely, as everyone knows, and not all broadcasting companies pay to send their programmers here like they used to. Mainly, though, CRS evolved to reflect the current climate and stay relevant, so you’ll see publicists, publishers, entertainment lawyers, bankers and people from every end of the music industry.
Is CRS still a radio seminar?
Yes and more. The agenda committee has done a phenomenal job at producing panel discussions that appeal to everyone. For instance, this seminar should not be missed by sales people because there are lots of panels and other sessions specifically for them.
On this year’s menu, I noticed that there are discussions about Facebook, podcasting, digital and tech, even one on smart speakers. Is that so radio programmers can maximize these platforms for their respective stations?
Facebook is still the 900-pound gorilla in the room and it’s critical for programmers to obtain the latest research and how the algorithms have evolved so they can capitalize on that info for their stations. In all, it’s a way to utilize many different platforms. With technology changing by the second, it’s crucial that we all add as much up-to-date data and research to our individual skill sets as possible. It’s all about finding out what your listeners want and then delivering.
CRS recently made the switch to the downtown Omni after many years at the old convention center attached to the Renaissance Hotel. Also, this year’s event is starting the day after the Super Bowl, on a Monday instead of the traditional Wednesday-through-Friday routine. How are the changes panning out, in your opinion?
First of all, from my point of view, being held on the Monday after the Super Bowl isn’t an issue, because a lot of people will come in on Sunday and it adds an extra day to the seminar. It’s all based on hotel availability and the Omni is the place to be right now. The hotel has a great energy; it’s easy to manage, too, because we can hold everything under one roof. Also, with so many record labels staging music events at clubs downtown, it’s a plus that the hotel is within walking distance to just about everything. Also, I already know we’re returning to a Wednesday-through-Friday schedule next year.
Is CRS more of an education seminar or a place to come and hear live music?
Really, it’s a 50-50 split. This seminar offers more music than anyone else. Anytime that I bring a sales manager or a general manager who has never been to CRS, they are always amazed at how much music is offered by so many artists. Plus, unlike in other genres, country artists are really accessible. You’ll still see them walking the halls. It’s really exciting.
In all of the years that you have attended, do any performances really stand out?
There are too many to mention. Keith Whitley really sticks out personally, Randy Travis, Garth Brooks and on and on. I remember Lady Antebellum playing at the Universal Music Group lunch years ago before they broke out and you just knew that they were going to be huge. They blew everyone away.
Would you pay out of your own pocket to come if you had to?
Yes and yes. We offer a special $99 rate for people out of work because, as you know, almost everyone in this business is out of work at one time or another. Believe it or not, you can still get yourself a job by connecting with decision-makers at CRS.