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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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For big country acts, radio is still is a lifeline
On the air
Brantley Gilbert smoozes with fans in Madison. For more photos, click gallery, above.

Some Madison music fans never listen to mainstream radio. For live shows they favor small and midsize venues, never to fork over a Ticketmaster fee or slurp fluorescent nachos in the nosebleed seats.

But if you want proof that big radio and big-ticket acts still have a foothold here, look no further than country.

This winter, the 10,321-capacity Veterans Memorial Coliseum has already hosted Eric Church, and Brad Paisley and the Band Perry pull in on Feb. 23. Translated to rock-charts terms, that is the equivalent of Foo Fighters, the Black Keys and Coldplay all visiting town in the dead of winter. (I would say Nickelback, but if Nickelback had Paisley's charm and finesse, well, they wouldn't be Nickelback.)

Big country shows succeed here thanks in part to the promotional efforts of Madison's two major country stations, Today's Q106 (106.3 FM) and Star Country (96.3 FM). Even in these increasingly networked times, country fans buy CDs, and they are loyal radio listeners.

"One of the distinguishing factors for country radio is that [stations] are definitely hometown heroes," says Wade Jessen, Billboard magazine's Nashville-based country charts manager. "Country music stations are notorious for being involved in their communities...that's the expectation that fans have had for generations."

While digital sales are catching on, Jessen says that radio stations are still country's primary marketing tool. Country fans have grown used to having something of a personal relationship with their favorite artists, and local radio stations know that.

"One of the things that make country listeners so loyal is the connection to the song," says Ilana Bar-Av, who works promotions at Mid-West Family Broadcasting. In Madison, Mid-West owns Q106, rock station WJJO, Magic 98, 93.1 Jamz and three AM stations. Earlier this month, Bar-Av and her coworkers were brainstorming promotions for the Paisley concert, to pair with the tickets and meet-and-greet packages the station gives away. Meanwhile, Star Country listeners could donate food to Second Harvest Food Bank for a chance to win backstage passes.

Bar-Av says social media and texting promotions are catching on at Q106, but more slowly than at the company's other stations. "Jamz, their text database is much larger than ours is right now," she says. "Their main listeners are younger." The number of likes on stations' Facebook pages tell the story. Early this month, Jamz had 8,418, WJJO 20,001. Q106 had 2,396.

"A good deal of it is just, historically, country music consumers have not been early adopters of new technology," Jessen says. The last technological change country music listeners embraced wholeheartedly, he says, was "the 8-track tape, because that was the first time recorded music went mobile."

For now, radio stations still have the power to make people do weird stuff. When Eric Church played the Orpheum Theatre on St. Patrick's Day 2010, Q106 encouraged fans to dress up for the holiday. "We had a line wrapped around [the block], these people dressed as leprechauns with Q stickers stuck on them," Bar-Av says. For the recent Church show, with opener Brantley Gilbert, Q106 dreamed up a promotion whose winner received a digital camera, then got to go into the press pit in front of the stage (a dubious honor, if you've ever done this) and take photos for the station's website.

What's significant about country radio's presence in a place like Madison is that it disproves the notion that country is a strictly Southern or even rural art form.

"You have successful country stations, through the years, in major metro areas, and in some cases, those are market-leading stations," Jessen says. "That is an old stereotype that almost nobody believes."

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