Last Thursday night, country singer Lindsay Ell was getting ready for a busy weekend on tour in California opening for Brad Paisley. But first, on Friday, she was booked to perform three separate acoustic shows for the three country stations in the Sacramento market.
Then she got the news from her manager: One of the stations, CBS Radio-owned KNCI (105.1 FM), had rescinded the invitation. The reason? Because she was dating someone who worked for a competing company. Her boyfriend, country radio personality Bobby Bones, hosts a syndicated morning show that airs on iHeartMedia’s the Bull (92.5 FM), one of KNCI’s local rival stations.
Ell was taken aback — but at the same time, it almost wasn’t surprising. Before she and Bones went public with their relationship last fall, she was worried that in the competitive world of country radio, she would be “scrutinized” for being in a relationship with a powerful DJ. Bones wouldn’t even play her new single on air, for fear that it would look like he was giving her special treatment.
Now, it didn’t matter. It seemed that she was being punished anyway. Although it’s only one station, to Ell, it speaks to a larger issue of the challenges that women face in country music.
“It felt like, all of a sudden, you can’t be a powerful female with goals and dreams and date another powerful person,” Ell said in a phone interview on Monday. “It’s frustrating to me because I feel like it shouldn’t matter what a guy or a girl [does] in their free time — that shouldn’t affect their business.”
Ell decided to explain to her fans exactly why she would not be performing at KNCI, a performance that had been already been promoted by the station. “The radio station has asked me not to come bc of my personal life,” she tweeted on Friday. “Sorry guys.”
The post went viral, especially because it’s rare to see a singer speak out against country radio, given the immense power it has over singers’ careers. KNCI was inundated with angry posts on social media from Ell’s fans. Hours later, the station called the cancellation a “bad decision” and said they hoped to reschedule.
On Monday, KNCI declined to respond to specific questions about the reasons behind canceling the performance. The station is actively in communication with Ell and her team about bringing her back for another show.
Ell was overwhelmed by the amount of support she received. (“I didn’t even know my fans loved me as much as they do,” she joked.) And the incident shined a spotlight on challenges that women have breaking into the industry. At the moment, there are only four female solo artists in the Top 50 country radio airplay chart.
“It seems like women are having an extremely hard time getting on the radio as it is,” Ell said. “Females are criticized for other things than just the music. It’s hard being a woman in a male-dominated industry. And I just don’t think what happened to me is an isolated thing.”
Many think this never would have happened to a male artist; others call it an isolated incident that has nothing to do with gender. Jon Loba, president of Ell’s record label, BBR Music Group, acknowledged he “didn’t want to get in the weeds,” but that he heard both sides of the argument.
“We can all speculate why and rationalize why and what the root of all those reasons are,” Loba said. Either way, he said, “It’s simply a fact of holding up, preventing music from being exposed for any reason other than on the merits of the music.”
Loba said that he’s heard from some other stations who are hesitant to play Ell’s music because doing so might “create attention for Bobby.”
“There are absolutely stations out there that have verbalized that because of the relationship, they weren’t going to play [Ell’s new music], or they’re going to wait significantly longer than they normally would to play it,” he said. “And that’s what drives me absolutely mad, that she’s punished for that.”
There are plenty of other people who date in the same line of work, he added, and it’s not an issue.
“It’s unfortunate, especially with a format that really is so supportive of artists and is such a tightknit community,” Loba said.
Loba is quick to point out that the lone Sacramento station is not indicative of the CBS Radio chain — almost as soon as the news broke, he had calls from the company’s top executives saying, “This was a mistake and we apologize. What can we do to make up for it?” Some of the other companies who are rivals to iHeartMedia (where Bones is based), like Cumulus Media, have been extremely supportive of Ell.
Monday morning, Bones addressed the situation his radio show and used it as an opportunity to finally play Ell’s single, “Waiting On You,” for the first time. He expressed disappointment that her career could be hurt because of their relationship; he’s been writing down the names of people who have said they won’t support Ell’s music because of him. Still, he said, this “isn’t really about my girlfriend; it’s about a woman who was discriminated against because of her personal life.”
“This is just another example of a select group of radio programmers — not all of them — looking for any reason to not play female artists,” Bones said. “You don’t think it’s happening? It’s happening.”
Bones noted that it’s telling other female singers haven’t spoken out publicly, for fear of retribution from radio. Ell said that she decided to take to Twitter because she wanted to apologize to her fans. But it could also serve as a lesson to other artists.
“We hope that we can choose to fall in love with whoever we want, and it doesn’t affect what we want to do, or our dreams,” Ell said. “I just want to be able to be honest with my fans and who I am, and hope that they’ll be able to recognize that.”