Why ‘AI’s’ Scotty and Lauren may be dead in the water at country radio

Regardless of whether Lauren Alaina or Scotty McCreery wins “American Idol” on tonight, it looks like these two crazy, country-loving teens are going to have a tough row to hoe at country radio.  Some radio programmers have resolutely declared themselves neither Team Lauren nor Team Scotty before they”ve heard the first note of any post-”Idol” project. We call that crazy talk.

My former Billboard colleague Phyllis Stark surveyed radio programmers recently for radio tip sheet Radio-Info to take their temperature on the two contestants. While 17-year old McCreery has been stone-cold country from day one, 16-year old Alaina has proven more versatile, but seems headed to Nashville as well given that most of her vocal selections have come straight off the Billboard country charts.

One would think that the younger audience that acts such as Taylor Swift have brought to the country format or the success that past “Idol” winner Carrie Underwood has experienced would make the appeal of McCreery or Alaina a slam dunk: Youth + a built-in fan base of millions= instant country radio play. That, however, would  be wrong. The general consensus from programmers interviewed by Stark was that McCreery was a Josh Turner wanna-be, who, quite frankly, creeped them out. McCreery loves him some Garth Brooks, he even sang Brooks” “The River” for the week that the contestants got to perform a song by their personal idol, but his deep voice understandably brings comparisons to Turner and Randy Travis.

A number of programmers told Stark that they already had a Josh Turner and that they aren”t looking for another.  Some programmers were downright rude. “I wish people would quit comparing this kid to Josh Turner,” said Toni-Marie, music director for KUZZ Bakersfield, Calif. “He attempts to sound like him, but the only thing he is successful at is looking like the kid on MAD magazines” Hey now, Toni-Marie, McCreery is only 17. Lighten up a little!

Buzz Jackson,  program director at KIIM in Tucson, Ariz., was even harsher, commenting on McCreery”s often weird mannerisms. “Scotty hasn”t demonstrated that he can be anything but creepy.” Others even joked (we think) that they would make sure to be gone the days Scotty made a promotional visit.

Alaina seems to have a better shot at country radio, although she could use a little seasoning. “Lauren is a doll and very talented, [but] needs some more experience,” Tony Randall, half of the syndicated morning show Tony & Kris told Stark.

One of the few voices of reason came from Gregg Swedberg, program director for KEEY, Minneapolis, who likes both Alaina and McCreery. Plus, as he points out, we have no idea how either singer will sound like away from “Idol”s” formula. “I just think it”s silly to unconditionally reject [Scotty],” Swedberg says. “It”s all about the songs. If they get him the songs, if he can do a good job choosing them, if he learns to write them himself, if he gets the music, he”ll make it…let”s see what the kid can do.”  Exactly. They should have to prove themselves like any new artist, but don’t start them at so far down, they’re in a hole they can never crawl out of no matter how good they are.

Stark”s initial article raised such a ruckus that she smartly followed up with responses from programmers who felt their colleagues had been unnecessarily harsh. Among them, of course, were the programmers at WQDR Raleigh, McCreery”s hometown station. “He”s an incredibly talented young man who sings God”s glory and looks you in the eye when he shakes your hand,” said WQDR”s music director Billy Dukes.  Wow. I”m from the same hometown as McCreery and I”m so glad I didn”t drink the Kool-aid that Dukes obviously did.

But we loved how, like Swedberg, Nate Deaton, general manager of KRTY in San Jose, Calif. interjected a teeny bit of common sense into the proceedings. “Let me get this straight,” he told Stark. “[Alaina and McCreery] are still in the competition because they get over 25 million votes each week and we are going to say, ‘Sorry, we are not interested.” Are you crazy? We will welcome Scott and Lauren with open arms.”

Here”s the thing, however, if too many programmers are heading for the hills before giving either kid a chance,  then the Universal Music Group Nashville-based imprint that signs them (UMG has the right of first refusal to finalists) may have such an uphill battle that it simply puts together an album quickly, releases it with little fanfare and cuts its losses.

What about Carrie Underwood, you say. Underwood is now the most successful “Idol” alum of all genres. However, for every Underwood, there has been a legion of poor country performers from “Idol.” Some, such as Josh Gracin, Kellie Pickler or Bucky Covington, have had varying degrees of success, but others have flamed out quickly, such as Danny Gokey.  (Let’s also note that, for the most part,  “AI” acts have not had a great batting average at pop or R&B either, with such notable exceptions as Kelly Clarkson, Chris Daughtry, Fantasia, David Cook, and, briefly, Clay Aiken and Jordin Sparks).

Quite frankly those odds– one out of five– are higher than the usual batting average for introducing new artists in any format (although country tends not to throw quite as many acts up against a wall to see what sticks as some other formats).

Plus, given that programmers constantly beat the drum about how new artists are the lifeblood of the format,  aren”t many of them being a little hasty to disregard a new talent with huge name recognition? We’re calling it as all bluster. If either McCreery or Alaina shows up with a song that’s a hit, these programmers will have blessedly short-term memories and be forced to eat their words. I say the kids are alright.