The Dixie Chicks have been unwelcome on country radio for 17 years. It defies common sense that programmers would turn their back on a million-selling, arena-filling, Grammy-winning group, but that was exactly what happened after the band told a London crowd they were against President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
So it was a surprise when the country wing of iHeartMedia, the largest conglomerate in radio, threw its considerable weight behind the trio’s new single “Gaslighter” this week. The track, which skewers a liar with a thwacking back-beat and heaps of three-part harmonies, has earned nearly 750 spins in less than 48 hours, reaching around three million people, according to Mediabase. Nearly all of those plays came from the country format, and on Friday morning, 70% of spins came from iHeart stations.
iHeart, whose country programming is helmed by Rod Phillips, did not respond to a request to comment on its Dixie Chicks support. But several programmers welcomed the chance to play the group’s first new single in 13 years. “For me to be a gatekeeper and say you shall not pass because of something that happened almost 20 years ago, that’s crazy,” says Dan Zuko, who oversees WCOL in Columbus, Ohio. “You have to give it a shot. You can’t ignore a cultural event like this, the Dixie Chicks back on country radio.” Zuko’s listeners agree, at least for now: “I haven’t seen a single negative piece of feedback.”
Viewed in one light, iHeart’s decision makes perfect sense. The company likes to lend its muscle to major stars to help launch their singles. Streaming is driving the music business, but radio wants to prove its continuing worth through coordinated assaults on morning commuters’ airspace. In recent months, the company’s stations spun the hell out of Justin Bieber’s “Yummy” (rhythm, Top 40, and Hot AC stations were instructed to play it every other hour from 5 p.m. Friday through 11 p.m. Sunday, according to radio sources), Khalid’s “Know Your Worth” (Top 40 stations were told to play it every hour from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., then every other hour until 11 p.m.), and Sam Smith’s “To Die For” (same as Khalid). A handful of iHeart’s country programmers gave “Gaslighter” the rough equivalent of the every-other-hour-for-24-hours treatment as well.
But there was no guarantee that anyone on the airwaves would embrace the Dixie Chicks with open arms. In recent years, country radio has a miserable record of playing songs by women. And some listeners still haven’t forgiven the Dixie Chicks: When they popped up on radio singing background on Taylor Swift’s “Soon You’ll Get Better” last fall, programmers in Portland, Oregon, and Houston, Texas, were hit with angry calls or Facebook posts. The Dixie Chicks are signed to Columbia, but perhaps because mainstream Nashville is still unsure as to how to treat them, programmers say promotion of “Gaslighter” was outsourced to an independent company, In2une, which declined to comment.
Even those in radio who are fans of the group — like Jim Dorman, who helms KZSN in Wichita, Kansas — expressed some trepidation about playing “Gaslighter.” “I wasn’t sure, with everything that happened since 2003, what the response was going to be,” he acknowledges.
Non-iHeart stations seem content to sit back for the moment and let other program directors risk censure. But Casey Carter, who works at WNOE in New Orleans, is predicting that most listeners are ready to forget the political battles of 2003, if they haven’t already. “I think it’s time to let go,” she says. “I would like to think that after 17 years, people go back to hearing the music and not what [Natalie Maines] had to say that one time.”
“With celebrities being so outspoken these days on Twitter, especially about politics, if she would have said what she said in 2020 as opposed to 2003, would it even mattered?” Carter continues. “It probably wouldn’t have been a headline. It would have been scrolling on to the next thing.”
Dorman feels similarly. “Our country has changed so much in the last 17 years,” he explains. “What [the Dixie Chicks] were against back then, over the years most people have agreed with. At the time the incident happened, a lot of people were not in agreement. It’s one of those things where it’s like, ‘Didn’t I used to not like those girls? Why did I not like them? I don’t know.'”
Although the conversation around the Dixie Chicks often focuses on a vocal contingent of detractors, there are also plenty of listeners who still love the group. “I was at a sold-out Dixie Chicks concert just a couple years ago; there are obviously a lot of people that want to hear their music,” Carter says. “They have a passionate fanbase,” Zuko agrees. “It would be crazy to ignore that.”
While any artist welcomes first-week support from iHeart stations, that initial burst of airplay is no guarantee that a single will become a hit. Radio playlists are narrow and hyper-competitive everywhere. In country in particular, if artists aren’t a (usually male) fixture of the Nashville establishment, their singles tend to stall out in the lower reaches of the airplay chart — or take nearly a year to crack the Top Ten. Radio promotion is also costly; if airplay doesn’t drive streams or ticket sales, then artists are shoveling a lot of money out the door without bringing much back in.
So it will take more than 48 hours to determine the fate of the new Dixie Chicks single. Stations owned by another radio conglomerate, Cumulus, played “Gaslighter” around 100 times, mostly on Thursday. Dorman promises “we’re going to continue to play the song.” He and other programmers will also scrutinize local streams, sales, and Shazams of the track in an attempt to determine how listeners are responding. And radio insiders say iHeart’s corporate center also has the power to influence continuing airplay.
For now, Zuko, Carter, and Dorman are heartened by the fact that none of their listeners have responded with outrage after 24 hours of exposure to “Gaslighter.” “We’ve had calls on it; they’re loving it,” Dorman says.
“We put out several social media posts and [found] not one negative comment — yay!” Carter adds. “I knock on wood as I say that.”