Experienced programmers are just as likely to agree empathetically and shrug as they are to say there’s a quality issue with the music, though many have been careful to distance themselves from Hill’s statements.
Part of the problem stems from the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the monolithic radio chains that sprung up in its wake, a timeline that generally overlaps with the decline of women on radio after the Nineties boom. Certainly, that bit of legislation helped wrest some autonomy from the local markets and centralized a lot of programming decisions.
If that’s a depressing thought, it may help to banish the notion that radio has any responsibility whatsoever to promote great art or gender equity. Radio’s goal is to sell advertising, which is wholly dependent on ratings. Following a by-the-books approach is — at least from radio’s perspective — the most dependable way to maintain pace or at least keep a job in a competitive marketplace.
However, it’s hard not to look at the success of artists like Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark and Ashley Monroe — all of whom have enjoyed strong sales and touring without radio support — and feel like something is askew. People’s hunger for hearing female artists hasn’t diminished, but perhaps migrated to other platforms, as new Sony Music Nashville signee Maren Morris’ rapidly accumulated six million-plus Spotify streams suggests.
So where does that leave us?
There hasn’t been some sweeping, overnight corrective — that might have been too much to expect from a radio format slow to embrace change. In addition to the industry’s efforts, artists have taken their own stands. Miranda Lambert used her superstar clout to organize an all-female bill on her fall Roadside Bars and Pink Guitars Tour, while CMT’s Next Women of Country initiative put Jana Kramer and Kelsea Ballerini on the road together. On the radio front, better days may well be ahead.
Ballerini was an early hopeful sign when she became the first solo female artist since Underwood nearly 10 years earlier to have her debut single reach Number One with “Love Me Like You Mean It.” Her current single “Dibs” is aimed squarely at the Top 10, as is Jana Kramer’s sincerely great “I Got the Boy.”
Perhaps most encouraging is Cam, whose gorgeously stark ballad “Burning House” set playlists ablaze when syndicated host Bobby Bones played it on his show and immediately garnered passionate feedback. Already confirmed platinum for sales, the song appears destined to be a Billboard Number One and the robust first-week sales of Cam’s album Untamed are equally promising.