Country music and cowboy hats often go together, but Standard Hat Works owner Cameron Morris takes it one two-step further: He runs a country music station out of his New Road store.
You can’t find it on the radio, however. Troubadour Country Radio is online only, accessible at www.troubadourcountryradio.com or through a phone app available for iPhones and Android phones.
“It’s a new way to listen to country music,” Morris said.
The 39-year-old Waco native, a Texas Tech University graduate, sees streaming audio as a current way to free a country music confined by the mechanisms of the music and radio industries.
“I grew up loving country music, but God didn’t give me that talent (to perform) so I decided I’d be a No. 1 fan,” he said.
While his love for country was grounded in the traditional sound of its past, think Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, it also was shaped by the classic rock he liked, think Led Zeppelin. He’s also open to newcomers reaching fans outside of mainstream country radio and major labels, like Cody Jinks, Koe Wetzel or the Texas Troubadours.
While that broad taste may be fairly common among music listeners, it doesn’t conform to the one-hat-size-fits-many-listeners formats of country radio stations. As he thought about what country radio format might suit him and the independent musicians he wanted to support — the sort of mental curation that a fan of streaming audio services such as Pandora or Spotify does — Morris realized technology was providing a new option: his own streaming country music station.
In roughly a year, Morris has moved from conceiving a plan to renovating part of his store. A car repair bay from the building’s original life as a garage was converted to a studio, and he flipped the switch on for Troubadour Country Radio.
Online audio doesn’t require the considerable investment into broadcast equipment such as a tower, transmitter and the power needed for a radio signal, but other essentials weren’t cheap. A quality soundboard, computers to run programming and advertising, ASCAP and BMI royalty payments for songs, and servers to handle online traffic all had price tags, though Morris declined to say how much those cost him.
Radio veteran Jim Alvarado and local musician Allen “Ballcap” Brown signed on as Troubadour’s on-air voices as the streaming station started its 24/7 programming in late August. Morris scored a considerable coup this year, however, when veteran country radio personality Jennifer Allen left KRMX-FM (92.9, Shooter FM) for the new horizons that streaming-driven Troubadour offered.
Allen, 44, started in the Waco radio market in 1997 at KCKR-FM, then worked for WACO-FM and its College Station sister station KAGG (Aggie 96) for 11 years before three years with Shooter FM. For her, Troubadour offered a change and a chance to try something new.
“I loved working for WACO 100 and Shooter, but I see this as an opportunity, a challenge,” Allen said.
Allen is currently nominated for Large Market On-Air Personality of the Year for the Texas Regional Radio Music Awards. It’s her sixth nomination, leading her to quip, “I’m the Susan Lucci of this award,” a reference to the daytime soap opera actress whose Daytime Emmy Awards nominations far outpaced her wins.
She brings considerable savvy in radio and country music but admits streaming audio is a different game in many ways. Available to anyone with an internet connection or a phone app, Troubadour’s reach isn’t confined by the geographic limits of a radio signal. Because of that, there’s no strong sense of time as there is in radio. Morning drive time doesn’t mean much when listeners may stretch across multiple time zones.
That relative freedom from a specific time zone also subtly shifts standard radio practices such as song rotation, the timing and frequency when certain songs are broadcast. Allen and Morris say Troubadour may blend old and new country in its sound, but there’s nothing like a playlist driven by a strict by-the-clock rotation. That’s the game the big music and radio companies play. At Troubadour, music is chosen to fit a certain “texture,” Allen said.
Being open to artists who aren’t pushed by major labels has opened Allen to new performers.
“I’ve been 22 years in the market and I’ve heard people I’ve never heard before,”she said.
Broadcasting from within Standard Hat Works also has given her a new way of looking at people.
“Oprah wears a size 8 hat,” she said. “I wear a 61/2 with expandable bands.”
So, just how many people are listening to Troubadour?
That’s a bit fuzzy, though for broadcast stations audience size is a matter of a station’s life or death. Online audio has no listener diaries to measure audiences, although Troubadour’s phone app provides feedback on those users listening and when.
“The analytics are hard right now,” Allen said.
But being online also offers revenue streams beyond the on-air commercials that are standard radio’s bread and butter.
This spring finds Troubadour trying to get the word out to potential listeners. There’s an active presence on social media, and the station has helped bring in several country acts to the Waco Hippodrome and The Backyard, such as Gary P. Nunn, Jack Ingram, Hayes Carll and, in September, Ronnie Milsap.
Television actor and country singer John Schneider (“The Dukes of Hazzard”) did a live interview last week when he dropped by Standard Hat Works. And Morris, who counts several Texas country artists among his customers, including size 71/4 Cody Jinks, is open to more. 2018 promises new albums from many of Texas country’s hot acts, some of whom likely will visit Standard Hat Works when in town, he said.
Where will Troubadour go from here? Morris isn’t sure, but he’s looking forward to the journey. The man who makes a living from putting hats on heads also is interested in providing something for ears.
“If it’s good, it gets played. We want this to be the new way country music is being played,” he said.