New station gets into the twang

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The Independent Online
ON THURSDAY at 10.35am precisely, Europe's first 24-hour country-music radio station is due to go on the air.

But while the switch-on time is a gimmick - a play on the station's name and frequency - and the launch of Country 1035 AM will be marked by a showbiz party at London's Planet Hollywood restaurant, there is a decided lack of the gaudiness usually associated with the country scene.

The new station's studios are on a nondescript industrial estate in south-west London. But modest as that sounds, the chairman and chief executive of the new station, John Wellington, believes that the timing is right for the venture to succeed.

In country music's United States homeland, where superstars such as Garth Brooks outsell the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson, it is the fastest-growing music sector, with album sales more than doubling from 1990 to near dollars 1.5bn ( pounds 1bn) in 1992. While other genres declined, country's share of US record sales revenue rose by 88 per cent to 16.5 per cent of the total in that year.

The surge in popularity here has also been remarkable. A Gallup survey for the British Phonographic Industry and the Country Music Association (CMA), showed that album sales rose 73 per cent in 1992.

Live music has also boomed, with clubs putting on shows by home-grown talents such as Wes McGhee and the singing gynaecologist Hank Wangford, as well as US visitors, almost nightly.

When it was announced that Garth Brooks was finally appearing at Wembley earlier this year, the show sold out within two hours.

'Country music is making itself attractive to a younger audience worldwide. It's the last great undiscovered music - like soul was 20 years ago,' said Mr Tony Rounce, the UK and Ireland's CMA representative.

He and others give a lot of that credit to CMT, the country version of MTV, which has penetrated about three million British homes since its launch here nearly two years ago.

European artists are now submitting their videos to the station, and according to its director of development, Cindy Painter, purists cannot complain, for country's roots include Scottish and Irish music.

Industry insiders attribute the worldwide rise in the popularity of country to, as much as anything, the decline of other forms of popular music.

'It's a return to the traditional three-minute song with a story and a beginning, a middle and an end,' said Country 1035 AM's Mr Wellington.

The audience could be even bigger. Mr Wellington produces evidence from a survey of 700 Londoners in which 21.3 per cent said they wanted to hear more country on the radio.

Indeed, if Country 1035's proposed playlist is anything to go by, country is pretty much anything you want it to be. Much industry attention has focused on the so-called new country acts, such as Nanci Griffith, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Brooks, and Vince Gill.

Country 1035 will also be playing traditional artists such as Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, along with Buddy Holly, and even the Eagles and Dire Straits.

Mr Wellington, an Australian with broadcasting experience covering three decades, admits the range is broad. But he insists it is not as difficult a mixture as that attempted by specialist station Jazz FM (now JFM 102.2, largely on account of its dwindling jazz content) when it started four years ago.

One lesson learnt from Jazz FM was to avoid the costs of being based in central London.

With research suggesting that country music is significantly more popular than jazz, the aim of reaching 600,000 listeners a week does not look ambitious. But will a genre that has an image problem in Britain attract enough advertisers?

The research and response from test transmissions suggest that listeners could be reassuringly normal from the advertisers' point of view - 35 years old with a reasonable income.

As Mr Wellington puts it: 'You don't have to wear a stetson and have a four-legged friend to enjoy it,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)