Ever since the Carter Family promoted their concerts with posters that read, “the program is morally good,” country music – with its songs about family, faith and idyllic small towns – has thrived on a reputation as the more wholesome of musical genres and communities. But when it comes to what goes on behind the scenes in country radio, that isn’t always the case.
Over the course of four months, Rolling Stone Country spoke with more than 30 sources, including artists, managers and radio reps, who confirmed a climate of harassment and misconduct in the world of country radio. They reveal an environment where artists and other music professionals – especially women – are expected to be overly accessible and use sexuality as currency when visiting stations and meeting with certain program directors, or attending industry events, in the hope of having their song added into rotation. But unlike in Hollywood, where the #MeToo movement quickly caught fire, few have been willing to speak publicly for fear of professional repercussions. As a result, some sources have chosen to remain anonymous.
A young woman, fresh out of college, who was just beginning a promising job in syndication, recalls attending a country radio convention in Nashville, where she was pressured to join a program director from her hometown station in his hotel room.
“I don’t remember what led to this, but he just pulled his dick out and started masturbating,” she says. “We definitely didn’t have sex but I remember feeling like I had to participate. Thank god his boss walked in the room. He quickly zipped his pants up and I just ran out and I didn’t hang out with him ever again. I never reported it, I just put it out of my memory and out of my past.”
The woman says she didn’t feel like she could do anything about what had happened and, after experiencing what she says was more uncomfortable behavior from her male peers and colleagues, she left the country music industry altogether. “I loved radio, but what turned me off most were my male colleagues, and eventually I switched career paths.”
The convention during which the incident occurred was Country Radio Seminar, known as CRS, a three-day gathering for radio professionals held every February. Staged at a hotel in downtown Nashville and centered on late-night events where new and established artists perform for radio execs, and copious amounts of alcohol are served, multiple women report to Rolling Stone Country an environment where they witnessed or were victims of sexual misconduct in social settings. During CRS, numerous events – many of them not officially sanctioned by the CRS organization – are held around town and at hospitality suites in the hotel, and it’s not always clear to the women participating what is a professional meeting and what is social. But for up-and-coming artists in particular, CRS is a priceless resource where they can meet dozens of radio executives over just a few days.
“If there’s a bed right there, even if it’s the middle of the day, it’s really not a professional environment,” says one artist. “It’s, ‘Oh hey, let’s go up and grab my jacket,’ and then you’re alone with people you don’t want to be alone with.”
“CRS, I think it’s a shit-show for artists. You go, and you’re supposed to be the fun artist to do shots with,” says another female country artist. Yet another recounted to Rolling Stone Country a story where a powerful man in radio solicited her and another female artist to come to his room to have a threesome.
The CRS organization did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, but not long after being contacted, it announced that it would be holding two workshops on workplace harassment at next month’s conference.
According to multiple sources, much of the harassment and misconduct at country radio is targeted at women who are just starting their careers, especially those who are on their make-or-break “radio tour.” Radio tours are a rite of passage for young country artists, requiring them to visit multiple country-music radio stations around the country (a group of 100 to 200 that report to the Mediabase and Billboard tracking systems) to meet with and sometimes perform for the program directors, DJs and staff in the hope of having their song added to the rotation.
“I wish I could be like, ‘Hey, everybody that touched my ass during a radio tour, I am calling you out.'”
The format of the country radio tour is built on the idea of relationships and often the artists are expected to put themselves on display as much as, if not more than, the song they’re promoting, and look the other way when things get uncomfortable. One country singer who was reportedly willing to flirt and play along is often held up as the gold standard. If she could do it, then why can’t you? is what some hesitant artists are told.
The problem of sexual harassment at country radio is so well known that even the TV series Nashville addressed it. In an episode from its second season, Hayden Panettiere’s character Juliette finds herself dodging the unwanted advances of a handsy DJ.
“We wanted to show what it’s really like for young artists going out into the world where something is expected of them. If you want your record played, this is what you do,” Nashville creator Callie Khouri tells Rolling Stone Country.
“It’s accepted behavior, so it’s protected behavior,” says one female artist, who has had several major-label singles released for country airplay. “I wish I could be like, ‘Hey, everybody that touched my ass during a radio tour, I am calling you out.'”
Another female artist says she was stunned when, on a radio tour at the age of 21, a program director asked her to sit in his lap in front of her mother, who was also in the room. She says he still contacts her on Facebook. “He says, ‘Beautiful Lady, are you there?’ and ‘Missed hearing from you.’ It’s really inappropriate,” she says. Sometimes, these incidents of harassment will lead to women choosing to skip certain stations altogether, which means less opportunities to have their song played. The woman reported that, out of 50 stations she visited on her first radio tour, there were about “five or six that I would hands-down not go back to.”
“No one is talking about this, and it’s a well-known fact,” says country-gospel singer Stella Parton. Stella’s sister is Dolly Parton, whose ex-publicist Kirt Webster has been the target of several sexual assault allegations in recent months. “It’s like a disease or virus, and people are trying to act like it’s not true. Who are we holding these lies for?”
As is now widely known, even Taylor Swift was not immune. The po