The wry remark was a reference to the often unspoken but well-known “rule” that country radio stations shouldn’t play two songs by women in a row because of the persistent myth that female listeners (the target demographic for country radio) don’t like female voices. Then Willman received a reply from the Saginaw, Mich.-based 98 KCQ Country: “We cannot play two females back to back. Not even Lady Antebellum or Little Big Town against another female. I applaud their courage.”
Although that wasn’t surprising information, it was still an unusually blunt admission from someone in radio. (“I was not shocked by that, but I was shocked that somebody had the nerve to say it out loud,” Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town told “ET Canada.”) The tweet was deleted, and the program director for KCQ, who did not return a request for comment, told Vice that it was “dry humor” written by a DJ and insisted the station has no such rule.
Too late: It was the screen shot heard round the Internet, as responses and news articles poured in. Kacey Musgraves, who swept the Grammys last year and still can’t get a hit on country radio, wrote: “And yet, they can play 18 dudes who sound exactly the same back to back. Makes total sense.” Kelsea Ballerini, one of the few contemporary female country stars to find radio success, tweeted: “I’m really sorry that in 2020, after YEARS of conversation of equal play, there are still some companies that make their stations play by these rules. It’s unfair and it’s incredibly disappointing.”
Ballerini’s use of “YEARS” in all-caps is correct. Since 2015, when a consultant went viral for advising country music stations to play fewer women for higher ratings, the jarring lack of female artists heard on country radio has repeatedly made national headlines. (Women make up around 13 percent of airplay — just check any commercial country radio playlist, where you’ll hear about one female artist per hour.) The cycle is predictable: Fans and industry executives and singers express frustration. Radio hosts empathize but say they’re tied to corporate rules, or deny the problem exists, or blame labels for not signing enough women. And then … little changes, until the next time the topic is in the spotlight.
But this latest controversy fueled one new rule: On Tuesday, CMT announced that, effective immediately, it would institute a “50-50 video airplay” rule. Across the country-themed TV network’s platforms, songs by female artists are guaranteed to make up half of the videos.
The network said it already had a 40-60 ratio of women to men, so is it a small step? Maybe. But it’s an effort to inspire change.
“It has really been in the works for a while,” said Leslie Fram, CMT’s senior vice president of music strategy. “What ended up happening last week made us start a little bit sooner than planned. … We thought this would be the fastest thing we could do.”
Fram, one of the genre’s most outspoken advocates for equality on the radio — as well as on tours, in streaming playlists and at festivals — said that the network has more initiatives in the works, in addition to its Next Women of Country franchise, which includes tours and local events.
While plenty of listeners and artists (Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile, Mickey Guyton) applauded CMT, others started complaining about videos being based on gender instead of music. Fram pointed out that obviously, the best songs will still win, but when women don’t have an equal playing field, they don’t get the chance to be heard in the first place.
“The quality is going to remain the same,” Fram said. “That applies to male artists as well.”
Meanwhile, as many women in Nashville continue to speak out about the problem, the men of country music have been rather silent over the past few days. However, Fram said, she’s noticed some notable movement, such as singers like Luke Bryan and Jordan Davis bringing multiple female acts out on tour this year as openers.
“Women need a stage to play on,” Fram said. “And it’s really hard to get on a tour unless you have a song on the radio.”