Oliver Anthony Gets a Slow Start on Country Radio—Why?

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Oliver Anthony radio airplay

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Photo Credit: Oliver Anthony Music

Oliver Anthony’s viral country folk hit “Rich Men North of Richmond” rockets to fame online but arrives late on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart at No. 45. So why has country radio ghosted the new star?

“Rich Men North of Richmond,” the breakout hit from Oliver Anthony Music, the moniker of Farmville, VA-based singer-songwriter Christopher Anthony Lunsford, launched at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Country Songs. The song made Anthony the first artist in the chart’s history to launch at the top with no prior charting history.

But many media outlets have speculated when or if country radio would get behind the colossal hit. Despite not being promoted to radio, one programmer is supporting the song: Bo Matthews, program director at Alpha Media’s KBAY in San Jose, California.

“(The song) simply sounds great on the radio,” says Matthews. With 32 plays, “Rich Men North of Richmond” was KBAY’s 16th-most-played song during the week of August 18-24, one of the few Country Airplay-reporting stations to break their silence about the hit.

“We haven’t gotten any negative feedback for playing it, and I think we are merely meeting the expectations of our listeners,” Matthews continues. “In fact, I have been impressed and proud of the positive feedback we’ve received from people in the industry and the record community expressing their thanks that we’re supporting it. Finally, it’s obvious that radio listeners are becoming the real gatekeepers for the music we decide to play.”

But this isn’t the first time a track identified as predominantly “country” has had a slow start on the Country Airplay charts, like Lil Nas X’s breakout hit, “Old Town Road.”

With country radio, the focus is on whether an artist is believed to be a “long-term prospect,” perhaps more than any other genre. And despite his rapid rise to fame, Oliver Anthony is still pretty green around the gills.

“One of (the) big differences between Top 40/CHR (contemporary hit radio) and country is that Top 40 is much more built around the song, (whereas) country radio tends to be built around the artist,” says Brian Mansfield, editor of the radio tipsheet Country Insider. “So when you have a new artist, one of the questions that country programmers ask themselves is: How likely is this act to still be around in two or three years?”

Country music isn’t known for producing one-hit wonders for precisely this reason—labels want to make big bets on major stars like Garth Brooks, Luke Combs, and Morgan Wallen. Not the guy who is turning down millions waved at him because he says he doesn’t want to start a career in music. Building radio airplay around someone who may not produce a full album just doesn’t make sense for most.

Radio stations just “aren’t used” to playing a record that doesn’t have a label or promotional outfit backing it. Still, the political angle might also be a deterrent for some stations. “Rich Men North of Richmond” is widely portrayed as a “right-wing anthem,” despite Anthony’s opposition and insistence that he’s “right down the middle” politically.

Nevertheless, Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” recently broke the airplay Top 10, which may put to bed any notions that a politically controversial song might be an airplay killer.