I’ve got to admit it: I’m not a country music fan…as a listener. But as a radio researcher and strategist, I do admire the Country format.

I was reminded of Country’s strength by a blurb in this morning’s Inside Radio email: “From the new edition of the 2006-2007 Radio Book – for Country, the most-programmed format at U.S. commercial radio, this is literally the first time Inside Radio shows a year-to-year gain since the early 1990s. Country grows from 2019 stations to 2035.”

Then there’s Arbitron’s Format Trends Report. From Fall 2000 to Fall 2005 across the U.S., Rock formats lost 10% of their average quarter-hour persons nationwide. A/C’s lost 9%. CHR’s lost 5%. Country is down just 2%.

And check out Albright & O’Malley’s Country 2006 report: “For most programmers, the old adage ’25-54 isn’t a target demo, it’s a family reunion’ is true. But for Country, the fact is that 18 to 75+ is indeed our target demo and at least to this point the format continues to resist fragmentation.”

They’re so right. Country has broad demographic appeal. In strong country markets, the Country station can be #1 in every cell from 18 to 64. And Country hasn’t suffered the fragmentation that splits other formats. Going back to the Fall ’05 ARB, 94% of the format’s AQH Persons are simply credited to “Country.” Only 5% are credited to “Classic Country” and a mere 1% to “New Country.”

Why does country have such broad appeal? How has it avoided fragmentation? Because OLDER COUNTRY LISTENERS LIKE TODAY’S COUNTRY!

This is in stark contrast to other formats. For example, the typical 45-54 rock fan thinks today’s rock flat-out sucks! That’s why he’s listening to a Classic Rock station that plays no new rock at all, and spending little or no time with AOR.

Older Country fans are more than happy to listen to Rascal Flatts, Sara Evans, Brad Paisley and other new artists. As are younger Country fans. That’s how a station can dominate “18 to whatever.”

And because older country fans like the “new stuff,” they have less motivation to prefer stations that specialize in the “old stuff.” So gold-based Country — while a viable niche in some markets — isn’t as big as Oldies, Classic Rock, Jack and other gold-based pop and rock formats. Country just doesn’t fragment that way.

Country did fragment on the young end in the early ’90s, because younger Country fans do not like the “old stuff.” Some of those Young Country stations became the dominant Country stations, then broadened their appeal. And heritage Country stations often moved younger as a response to Young Country. Either way, the vast majority ended up as simply “Country.”

Many further broadened their appeal with strong information, community involvement and personalities. As a result, they have become the “Full Service” stations for their markets. These stations are tough to challenge because it’s hard to find a powerful music flank against them, and service credentials take years to build.

Big appeal, broad appeal, and (in many cases) little vulnerability. That’s why I admire Country.