One of the most unusual sights in country music is a singer speaking out against country radio. In Nashville, radio is known as the gatekeeper — if you can’t get a radio hit, there’s a slim chance you’ll find mainstream success. So although artists are often frustrated with the system, they keep it to themselves.
But on Friday, up-and-coming artist Lindsay Ell tweeted a message to her 82,600 followers:
As Ell’s fans know, the “personal life” alludes to the fact that she’s been dating iHeartMedia country radio DJ Bobby Bones since last year. Bones, one of the most powerful figures in country music, hosts a syndicated morning show from Nashville that reaches millions and has a fiercely devoted following.
Though Ell didn’t name the station, Sacramento’s KNCI (105.1 FM) had recently promoted a live performance from Ell and Chase Bryant, who are openers for Brad Paisley’s tour on Friday night in Sacramento. By Friday morning, Ell had disappeared from the poster.
KNCI is owned by CBS Radio — a rival station of Sacramento’s the Bull (92.5 FM), which is owned by iHeartMedia, the same company that employs Bones and airs his syndicated morning show.
On Friday evening, KNCI released a statement to The Washington Post, calling the cancellation a “bad decision.”
“Lindsay is an amazingly talented, up-and-coming artist and today we regrettably made a bad decision to cancel her show,” KNCI said in a statement. “We only hope that she — and our listeners — will forgive us, and that Lindsay and her team will allow us to reschedule the show.”
Judging by the steady stream of angry comments toward KNCI on Instagram and Twitter, Ell’s fans were not happy. Earlier, a fan asked Ell on Twitter if she and Bones were still together, because they rarely talk about each other. “Don’t worry. Everything is good! Some people just won’t play my music if I talk about my personal life…” Ell tweeted back.
Earlier this year, Ell appeared as a guest on Bones’s podcast, “The Bobbycast”; they talked about their relationship, which they kept a secret at first. Bones admitted that he was worried that his job would hurt Ell’s career.
Ell’s record label, BBR Music Group, declined to comment.
Meanwhile on Friday, Sacramento’s iHeartMedia station eagerly jumped into the fray, noting on Twitter that any fans supposed to go to Ell’s show at KNCI were more than welcome to come to their studio, where they were hosting Ell for a live concert at noon. During the performance, the program director joked, “Anyone, just out of curiosity, been on Twitter today?” Ell didn’t directly address her tweet, but did tell him, “Thank you for supporting me regardless of what’s going on in my life.”
A third Sacramento country station, 101.9 FM (owned by Entravision), also extended a Twitter invitation to fans for their studio, where Ell was scheduled to play at 1:30 p.m.
Afterward, the iHeartMedia station declared Friday “Lindsay Ell Day” in Sacramento and promised to play her new single, “Waiting On You,” once an hour. In response, Bones tweeted: “I’ve stayed out of this. Not my fight. and frankly, @lindsayell can handle herself,” but acknowledged that was pretty funny.
Leslie Fram, CMT’s senior vice president for music strategy, posted in support of Ell: “Dear Gatekeepers-Your decision to support an artist should be based solely on the artist and their music and nothing else.”
Fram is one of the co-founders of Change the Conversation, a Nashville-based coalition that helps “level the playing field” for female artists in country music. The group was created after a radio consultant advised stations to play no more than 15 percent of songs by women, which sparked a national story that shone a light on the challenges that women face in the industry.