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Inside the battle for Boston’s country music soul

A brash radio newcomer, WBWL/The Bull, takes on a legacy station, WKLB, spurring a good ol’ throwdown.

Aram Boghosian

WKLB had a country music monopoly for years; its team includes program director Mike Brophey and music director Ginny Rogers.

IN MID-JUNE LAST YEAR, Ginny Rogers flew down to the US Virgin Islands for a couple days of music, rest, and rum. Rogers, the longtime music director at Boston’s country radio powerhouse, WKLB (102.5 FM), craved the getaway. Programming one of the city’s top stations was a demanding job.

It was a business trip, but the fun kind. Country superstar Kenny Chesney had invited Rogers and her husband, WKLB boss Mike Brophey, to Chesney’s house in the islands, along with a small group of radio executives. Chesney, whom Rogers and Brophey had known for years, wanted to preview songs from his forthcoming album, The Big Revival.

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Brophey stayed in Boston — they weren’t comfortable both being far away from the station — so Rogers went alone. She got into her hotel room, dropped her bags, and then her cellphone rang. It was Brophey. He had news: They suddenly had company on the FM dial.

At 3 p.m. that day, June 13, radio behemoth iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel) had quietly flipped its 101.7 FM frequency in Boston from electronic dance music to a country format. The new station, WBWL, called itself The Bull and promised an entire summer of country hits commercial-free.

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Thus began a good ol’ country radio throwdown, pitting a brash newcomer against WKLB, a beloved heritage station that had more or less enjoyed a monopoly on Boston’s country radio market for two decades.

And what a lucrative monopoly it had been. Country music, once considered a lost cause in Boston, has captured the city’s heart. Top country artists now routinely fill area stadiums and arenas and sell many singles and albums locally. Country records accounted for 8.5 percent of all albums purchased in the Boston area last year, according to Nielsen, a higher share than in New York, Los Angeles, and even Washington, D.C. For WKLB, owned by Braintree-based Greater Media, this ballooning fan base has brought sky-high ratings and accompanying advertising dollars.

Now, despite some industry skepticism about iHeartMedia’s commitment to country radio in Boston, The Bull is vowing a spirited challenge for the city’s number-one country spot. The station, which targets a younger audience with its playlist and edgier attitude, has applied to the Federal Communications Commission for a far more powerful signal, to better compete with WKLB’s broad reach. “At the end of the day, we both want to win,” says Lance Houston, The Bull’s program director and afternoon host. “And there can only be one winner.”

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Rogers and Brophey had long expected competition. They’d heard rumors. Suddenly it was real. Pacing in her oceanside hotel room, Rogers wondered what this would mean for the station they’d painstakingly built over many years. She thought about catching the next plane back to Boston. “When you find out that all the sudden somebody is possibly coming after your brand, your franchise, you just want to be all in,” she says. “And I was so far away.”

Relax, Brophey told her, suggesting she stay down there with Chesney, who was a key partner for WKLB anyway. Rogers agreed. They both had confidence in their station. Still, Rogers and Brophey had been in commercial radio long enough to know this was a big moment. Was there room in Boston for two country outlets? They’d know soon enough.

BOSTON WAS KNOWN as a country music backwater for years, the cultural gulf between artist and audience thought too vast. George Strait would play Worcester but not Boston, believing he’d never sell in the city, Brophey says. Boston had rival country stations in the 1990s, WKLB and WBCS, but their ratings were minuscule. Then, in 1996, Greater Media consolidated the stations and gave WKLB a chance to strike out on its own.

03/04/2015 BOSTON, MA Morning DJ's John Willis (cq) (left) and Lori Grande (cq) broadcast from WKLB in Boston. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Aram Boghosian

WKLB’s team also includes DJs John Willis and Lori Grande.

The next year, in April, Garth Brooks — who had also avoided Boston — sold out two shows at what was then the FleetCenter, challenging assumptions about country’s viability. “I will never forget — I saw a couple really young kids going to that show, like 18-year-olds, with AC/DC T-shirts on,” says Brophey, who has been WKLB’s program director since 1996. “I’m thinking, ‘Look at this!’ ” FleetCenter executives shrewdly collected ticket buyers’ information in a database, which the venue then tapped to alert Garth fans to future country shows.

Country’s local fan base steadily grew as the music changed. Shedding some twang, artists picked up influences from pop, stadium rock, even hip-hop. The lyrics, too, spoke more to the universal. These pivots broadened the audience, attracting suburban parents and college students alike. Chesney, Taylor Swift, and others began packing massive venues like Gillette Stadium, sometimes night after night. When Jason Aldean’s summer 2013 concert at Fenway Park went on sale, fans snatched up 70,000 seats in less than an hour. WKLB’s signature annual live music events — a festival at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield and a Lansdowne Street block party — are some of the hottest tickets in town.

Boston’s not necessarily unique in this. Country, spotlighted on ABC’s prime-time drama Nashville, is the top radio format nationally, its share of the American listening audience growing from 12.9 percent in 2008 to 15.2 percent in 2014, according to Nielsen. Younger listeners are a big part of the growth. “That’s sort of what has lit the format on fire,” says Russ Penuell, radio editor for the trade publication Country Aircheck.

Locally, WKLB has been both an instigator and beneficiary of country’s surging popularity. So, too, has Providence’s strong WCTK (98.1 FM), which reaches listeners south of Boston. WKLB, broadcasting from Greater Media’s Morrissey Boulevard studios, hit number one in Boston in the summer of 2013 and has since ranked among the city’s top radio outlets. “This is an awesome time to be in radio for us,” says John Willis, who has hosted WKLB’s morning show with Lori Grande for more than a decade. “I never thought I’d get to the day when this would happen.”

Now, one caveat before we get too far. Both WKLB and The Bull, like their commercial counterparts in other US markets, play contemporary country, or new country. That means you’ll hear a lot — and I mean a lot — of songs by a relatively small group of mega-artists like Aldean, Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, and the Zac Brown Band, which just announced a return to Fenway for two shows in August. If you’re after Loretta Lynn, say, or Hank Williams or Johnny Cash — “real” country music, some would call it — tune in to the show Hillbilly at Harvard, which airs Saturday mornings on WHRB (95.3 FM), or Sunday Morning Country on WZBC (90.3 FM) with “Cousin Kate” Walker, a true curator with killer playlists week in and week out.

Contemporary country, at its best, resonates with lyrical honesty and a Zen-like appreciation for living in the moment. At its worst, the music is cookie-cutter pap — written to sell, never to inspire — and patronizing to women. (Google Maddie and Tae’s “Girl in a Country Song” for a perfect retort.)

Boston’s emergence as a hot country market has made WKLB one of the format’s more influential stations nationally. When a song plays on WKLB, it carries more weight on the country charts than a play by almost every other outlet. Record companies want their artists on the station, which was an early booster of Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, and Kip Moore, now among country’s biggest stars. WKLB, and Rogers and Brophey individually, have won numerous industry awards, including major-market station of the year in 2012 from the Country Music Association. The station was recently nominated for a similar award by the Academy of Country Music.

Unlike in other genres, commercial country radio remains the dominant showcase for artists. Major stations are key cogs in the country machinery, along with record labels, artist management companies, and concert promoters. When the machine’s cranking, they all work together in profitable synergy.

Record labels need their artists in regular radio rotation. That generates royalties and gets listeners hooked on the artists, which then drives up local music downloads. Come concert time, those fans clamor for tickets. For the stations, the more people listening, the more money the stations can charge their advertisers. The more sway that stations have, the more extras labels will offer them — special concerts, signed guitars, and so forth — which creates more fan loyalty to stations and artists alike. And on it goes. “Everybody benefits from the success of it,” Penuell says.

Radio plays, listener preferences and requests, ticket sales, and music downloads are all intensely tracked and scrutinized. Radio programmers and record executives know almost instantly what’s working in a market and what isn’t. Take Sam Hunt, a former football player from Cedartown, Georgia, who’s become one of country’s hottest acts. As of earlier this month, Boston was Hunt’s top market for downloads of his single “Take Your Time” and the second-best market for his prior single, “Leave the Night On,” according to Nielsen. It’s no coincidence that WKLB and The Bull both play him a zillion times a day. For radio programmers, it’s part art, part science. Data may tell you what’s hot and what’s not, but you have to know your listeners. Sometimes that means trusting your gut.

03/04/2015 BOSTON, MA DJ Carolyn Kruse (cq) broadcasts from WKLB in Boston. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Aram Boghosian

Carolyn Kruse is another DJ on WKLB.

Despite the familial camaraderie that exists in the country community, it remains highly competitive and political. When WKLB had Boston to itself, labels and artists didn’t have to worry about alienating anyone. Now that The Bull has arrived — and with it the national clout of iHeartMedia — things are more complicated. How do you split up concert tickets? With whom do you partner for events? “It’s always tough for artists to come into a market that has two radio stations,” Kip Moore says. “You don’t want to ruffle any feathers. You try to do enough for everybody.”

LANCE HOUSTON GREW UP in Alabama hating country music. “Just stupid,” he says. “Hokey and stupid.” He preferred Michael Jackson and The Bangles. “I remember ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ was one of those first big songs where you’re like, ‘Whoa, this is really cool.’ ”

Houston, now 37, wanted to be a radio DJ from a young age. He pushed buttons at a small station while in high school. In college, he took his resume to nearly every station in Tuscaloosa. The only one that called him back was a country outlet. “And I’m like, well, ‘Dammit,’ ” he says. “But I tell you what, three months in — this was 1995 — I was hooked.” He’s been in country radio ever since.

In 2007, Houston became music director and assistant program director at an iHeartMedia station in Atlanta. The company had converted a “Lite FM” station to a country format, called it The Bull, and set its sights on Atlanta’s established country station, Kicks 101.5. After a few years, The Bull began to pull ahead in Atlanta and, as of January, leads in the ratings by a significant margin. (Houston’s weekday afternoon show, which he prerecords here, still airs in Atlanta.)

After a brief stint at another iHeartMedia country station in Baltimore, Houston was asked last year to lead The Bull in Boston. The logic was clear: Houston had taken on the heritage station in Atlanta and won. Now the company wanted him to do the same with Boston’s 101.7, a frequency once home to the city’s treasured alternative rock station, WFNX.

The Bull, broadcasting from iHeartMedia’s studios in Medford, ended 2014 tied for 18th place among all Boston stations, with almost 400,000 unique weekly listeners, according to Nielsen. (WKLB was third, with more than 860,000.) Houston knows that overtaking his rival won’t be easy, nor quick. “It just takes time and it takes building relationships,” he says. He has faith that listeners will ultimately choose the better product, regardless of longtime habits. “Country fans are more loyal than other radio fans, but even that is changing,” he says. “People are generally less loyal today to brands like that than ever before.”

The Bull is aggressively courting 18- to 34-year-old listeners, casting WKLB as the radio station of their parents. The distinctions between The Bull and WKLB can be subtle, but they exist. The Bull’s playlist has been narrower and more focused on the biggest hits, although recently that strategy has shifted. WKLB plays the hits, too, but has been more willing to throw in older cuts. The Bull plays slightly racier versions of songs — you’ll hear “kiss my ass” in the Dierks Bentley song “Drunk on a Plane,” compared with “kiss my yeah” in the WKLB version.

The Bull has also tried to stand out by playing fewer commercials. And then there’s the attitude. Houston and the other Bull DJs, including midday host Jessica Callahan, attempt a younger sound than you will hear on WKLB. (“Can someone explain what Reddit is to me?” WKLB nighttime DJ Keith Stephens said recently of the popular message board site, going on to spell it out: “R-E-D-D-I-T.”)

WKLB’s Rogers and Brophey project calm confidence when I ask about the competition. “We feel that our radio station is solid,” Brophey says. “So we’re probably in a position to keep on keeping on.” They have made some shifts, though. They tweaked the station’s tag line — which is reinforced on a piece of paper affixed to the main studio console — to say, “Boston’s Number One for new hit country — Country 102.5.” The takeaway: We’re winning, and we’re all about new music, too. They introduced commercial-free blocks. WKLB also dropped its Sunday morning country oldies show in favor of regular contemporary programming that Rogers hosts, though she and Brophey say that change was already in progress.

The starkest difference between WKLB and The Bull is evident weekday mornings. John Willis and Lori Grande have hosted WKLB’s morning show together for about 13 years. They developed an almost instant chemistry, they say, and it’s worked ever since. They joke that they’re work spouses. “We finish each other’s sentences,” Willis says. Their show is, by design, generally uplifting and wholesome, making WKLB a safe preset with kids in the car. It is also local in every respect.

 Lance Houston, who is both the program director and the 3-7 p.m. host on Pop Country station WBWL, 101.7. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe (Magazine, helman)

Josh Reynolds

WBWL, with program director Lance Houston, made its debut in June.

Willis, 54, lives in Holliston and often talks about his three daughters. Grande, 50, lives in Stoneham and name-checks her twin nieces in Nashua. “She’s a North Shore, Hampton Beach kid; I go to the Cape,” Willis says. If they sound like the people next door, it’s because they are. “We’re experiencing the same things they’re experiencing,” Grande says. “The whole winter, this horrific snow, the elation of the Pats — everything that goes on, we’re going through it with them, good and bad.”

That local sensibility is newly resonant with the arrival of The Bull, which takes a much different morning approach. The station airs the syndicated Bobby Bones Show out of Nashville. The program, broadcast right from Music Row, is funny, and it brings listeners conversations and mini-concerts with big country artists in a way WKLB can’t do from Boston. But it’s decidedly national programming, no matter how many Boston-specific station promos and weather forecasts Bones records.

At February’s Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, an annual industry conference, the firm Edison Research presented a national survey of country radio listeners showing that people do value weather, traffic, and other local content in their morning shows, but that they also enjoy laughs and live in-studio performances. However, Scott Fybush, editor of Northeast Radio Watch, an industry newsletter, says Boston is somewhat unusual in its loyalty to local programming, which he says bodes well for WKLB’s strategy. “Boston, more than any other market, is very unfriendly to out-of-town personalities,” he says. Edison’s Larry Rosin says only the most compelling national show can beat a local one.

Both WKLB and The Bull believe they’ve got it right. Willis and Grande have been asked to keep doing what they’re doing, to continue connecting with the Boston community. “People feel like they can touch us and touch the radio station,” Grande says. “It’s not in another part of the country.” Houston says that having Bobby Bones on air fits into The Bull’s game plan of appealing to a younger generation of country fans. “We’re new, we’re young, we’re different,” he says. “And this is part of that different strategy for us.”

SO JUST HOW SERIOUS is iHeartMedia about winning Boston’s country radio duel? Fybush is skeptical. He tells me about a radio industry ploy called a flanker — a new station launched by media companies purely to protect another one of their properties in a market. In Boston, iHeartMedia also owns the valuable KISS 108, which has been, on and off, the city’s top-rated station in recent years. When WKLB’s ascent posed a big enough threat, some analysts believe, iHeartMedia introduced The Bull — not really to beat WKLB, but to eat up enough ratings points so KISS 108 remained dominant.

It’s a strategy iHeartMedia has employed elsewhere. But is that what the company is doing here? I put it to Houston, who insists The Bull has only one goal. “I can tell you that we’re in this battle to win it,” he says, noting the investments the company has made to boost the station’s signal. “We want to beat WKLB.”

Jessica Callahan, mid-day host. host on Pop Country station WBWL, 101.7. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe (Magazine, helman)

Josh Reynolds

Jessica Callahan is a midday host on WBWL.

On a recent night, I stop by Loretta’s Last Call, a newish country-themed club on Lansdowne Street where WKLB sometimes brings emerging artists to perform. Talking to country fans, I hear sentiments that would warm hearts at both stations. Rob Glover, a 27-year-old professional dancer/choreographer from Newton, says choosing between the stations is easy. Country radio, he says, should be rooted in the community, like WKLB is. “I prefer the local feel,” he says. “That’s what country’s all about.” Sitting nearby, Brittany Bowman, a 24-year-old research technician from Cambridge, is loyal more to the music than a particular radio preset. Her station: “Whoever’s playing a song I like.”

Bowman and her friends also listen to streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, which, along with satellite radio, have disrupted the music and radio industries. Terrestrial country radio has proven more resilient to changes in listening habits, but it’s been a big topic of discussion in Nashville. February’s Country Radio Seminar had a panel devoted to Internet-ready cars and what they might mean for commercial radio. The critical question, Country Aircheck’s Russ Penuell says, is “How do you make sure you’re in those spaces?”

Changes in technology, shifting trends in music, fickle audiences — all of the uncertainty makes it hard for radio programmers to plan too far ahead. Will WKLB’s local, in-the-moment feel be an even greater asset if streaming really takes off? Perhaps. Does iHeartMedia’s digital radio platform position the company for future dominance? Perhaps.

For now, Boston’s country fans should relish the competition for their ears. It’s sure to mean more concert tickets, more giveaways and special deals, and more careful consideration of the music, including added attention to up-and-coming talent. Plus: Don’t like the commercial break? Try the other station!

Not too long ago, the idea that two ambitious stations could be riding Boston’s country boom was laughable. What’s remarkable now is how natural it seems. “Those are my people, man,” says Kip Moore, who’s had a string of number-one country hits. Moore has launched a project to build skate parks in urban areas and says Boston will get one of the first.

“There’s a few places where I’ve developed a true bond with the city and with the people,” he says. “And, you know, there’s just something special there.”

Among all albums bought in 2014, percentage that were country albums:

> New York — 4.8%

> Los Angeles — 5.4%

> San Francisco — 5.8%

> Philadelphia — 7.6%

> Washington, D.C. — 8.4%

> Boston — 8.5%

> Atlanta — 11.4%

> Tampa — 12.7%

> Dallas — 13%

Source: Nielsen

US country stations ranked by influence on charts:

1 — WUSN Chicago

2 — KKBQ Houston

3 — WXTU Philadelphia

4 — WNSH New York

5 — WKLB Boston

Source: Country Aircheck, Feb. 23

More coverage:

- Country music growing fast in New England

- Clear Channel converts 101.7 to country music format

Scott Helman is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at scott.helman@globe.com and find him on Twitter @swhelman.
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