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Inside Country Radio’s Dark, Secret History of Sexual Harassment and Misconduct

Scores of women looking for radio play and professional opportunities say they’ve been subjected to harassment during station visits, conventions

Inside Country Radio's Dark, Secret History of Sexual Harassment and Misconduct

Brian Stauffer for Rolling Stone

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.

Atmosphere during the Academy Of Country Music CRS Music City Jam Featuring Blake Shelton And Friends on March 2, 2011 in Nashville, Tennessee.

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 pop superstar, on tour for her album Red, was groped by Denver country DJ David Mueller during a backstage meet-and-greet in 2013. He was fired and subsequently sued Swift, who countersued and won for assault and battery. As she recently told Time, “I figured that if he would be brazen enough to assault me under these risky circumstances and high stakes, imagine what he might do to a vulnerable, young artist if given the chance.” 

“It’s exactly like the Taylor Swift incident,” confirms one female radio executive. “[Male programmers] will flirt or make advances that they think you’ll enjoy, but you really don’t … and I’ve seen where artists have had to come and sit on the laps, kiss ass, snuggle up, do the deal.”

Solo artist and member of the Pistol Annies Angaleena Presley has not been on a radio tour but is well acquainted with other prominent women who have. She says she’s heard firsthand stories about the behavior of certain station employees during such promotional visits. “They expect you to sit in their laps, and kiss them on the cheek. It’s a corrupt, broken system,” Presley says, citing one conversation she had with a female country crossover singer who was shocked by the power dynamic afoot at country radio. “She said, ‘I just couldn’t believe how it worked. I would do these shows, spend my time and spend my money to entertain people.’ And they would expect her to send a thank you card afterward.” Adds Presley, “part of the job shouldn’t be to let [a] guy feel your butt.”

“One guy loved to talk about my breasts … how he wanted to see them and touch them.”

Stella Parton says she’s been seeing this behavior since the Seventies and recalls one event where a drunken head of a radio station tried to trap her in an elevator, and another where she witnessed a prominent DJ grab the breasts of a younger female artist when he thought no one else was around.

“It’s a culture of acceptance,” says a former female label executive. “I’ve seen it happen a million times, and everyone else in the room has to play along because they don’t want to offend the artist or the radio station. You know that’s affecting the lack of artists that are female [on the radio]. If they can’t make radio gatekeepers happy, they don’t get a spin. It’s a direct correlation.”

Asked whether or not she believes such harassment could have an impact on the airplay that women in country music receive, Nashville‘s Khouri asks, “How could you ever prove such an obvious theory? Gee, I wonder.”

Country singer Meghan Linsey, who detailed her own story of country-music sexual harassment, including threats to her life, on Facebook, remembers a time when she was on a 2010 radio tour with her previous band, Steel Magnolia, and was seated next to a program director. “I felt him rubbing my leg under the table,” she says. “I was like, ‘Is he really doing that?’ Then he did it again. I couldn’t say anything. I was kind of frozen. I’m trying to get my record played, and I brushed it off and went about my day.” Linsey had actually reported other instances of groping to her former management, but to little results. “Every time I have reported it, I heard, ‘Oh, we’re not going to do anything about that. We don’t say anything about that.'”

Before singer Kelleigh Bannen – who took to Twitter last week to express her outrage over how she was recently told that women don’t want to listen to other women on country radio – embarked on her first radio tour, she recalls how two men from her then label, EMI Records Nashville, took her husband out to dinner and promised to protect Bannen. She interpreted the gesture as a way of acknowledging a pervasive industry problem. “They said, ‘Look, we’re going to be out there with your wife,'” she tells Rolling Stone Country, “‘and we want you to know that we have her back.'”

It’s not just artists who are being harassed. Female employees and executives who work in radio – often radio reps at labels whose job it is to service their artists’ songs to country radio – relay similar experiences. One female radio promoter, who also doesn’t want to use her name for fear of repercussions, would be routinely harassed over the phone while making her “radio calls” – essentially, her daily routine of ringing stations to sell her artists to the airways. “It was very commonplace for me in my mid-twenties and into my thirties, to have radio guys who were sexually harassing,” she says. “One guy, every single call, loved to talk about my breasts. I have big ones, and he loved to talk about that. And how he wanted to see them and touch them.”

Another woman who worked at an independent label in radio promotions tells Rolling Stone Country about an instance where she believed her sexuality was being presented as part of the package to program directors. She also claims that another woman who joined her on such meetings was allegedly hired with the explicit understanding that she’d be willing to reciprocate flirtatious behavior with program directors at radio stations.

“I worked with another radio promoter that was female, and we were at dinner one night,” she says. “We went and met a program director, and she said, ‘We’re going to dinner with them,’ because that’s what you do, you buy them things – it’s like payola but without the cash. So we get there, and [the program director] had his roommate with him, which I thought was a little strange. She kept pushing me to take shots and drink. And then she suggested going back to their apartment, which I refused.” Like many others, she ultimately chose to leave country radio behind.

Staci Kirpach, who worked as a radio rep at label Cold River with the country artist Katie Armiger (one of few who has chosen to speak out publicly about her experiences of sexual harassment), had to develop a toolkit in order to field harassment and misconduct. “That was a question: How would you handle inappropriate advances from a program director?” she says. “We were always looking for the most creative answers.” Eventually, it became such a way of life that she didn’t even discuss it much with her female colleagues.

“There wasn’t any question to this being part of the culture,” Kirpach says. “But there aren’t a lot of conversations about it. You don’t have conversations about where you go to eat, because everyone knows where the cafeteria is.” Kirpach, after several years in promotions and then on a consultant basis, has since left the music industry.

“You can’t do payola, because it’s illegal. You can’t pay them money,” says Armiger about her experiences of wooing program directors on radio tours for Cold River. “But it doesn’t mean you can’t go to the station, take them out to a super fancy dinner, go to a strip club, and donate 10 iPads to their station for a free giveaway. You can do all of those things. That’s not payola.” Multiple sources confirmed to Rolling Stone Country that visiting strip clubs as part of a radio tour is routine – even Margo Price, known for paving ground without the traditional support of the Music Row establishment, confirms having heard of the practice. “It’s billed back to you,” points out Linsey, “so you are paying.” Asked to comment on any of the allegations, Pete O’Heeron, president of Armiger’s former label, Cold River, states that he’s “never heard of that in my life.”

Male artists are also encouraged by record labels to bond with program directors and DJs, which can sometimes mean engaging in lewd conversations.

“It is so prevalent,” says the former record label executive. “The guys will feel obligated to carry on with the banter just to become friends with the radio people. Even though that’s not really what they would do in real life. They join in on the conversations. They try to shrug it off so they don’t ruffle any feathers.” (One source tells Rolling Stone Country, however, of a story in which one male artist approached his female radio rep appalled when a program director showed him photos of the director engaged in a sex act.)

“Nashville is a town of subtleties. Everything is covered by a friendly gauze.”

The female ex-label exec speaks of labels and management striving to “break down the professional wall” between artists and staff and radio, putting them in social situations where the goal is simply to become friendly. “How this all plays out on the radio charts, well, I don’t think they are purposely not trying to play women at radio,” she says. “But I think they don’t have the same type of bonding experiences with [women] that they have with [men].” It’s in search of that “bonding” that women so often have to look the other way when misconduct occurs, and the industry excuses such behavior as “friendliness.”

“If you’re a female, you don’t really want to stay out that late and get drunk because that’s putting you more at risk,” says the artist who was made uncomfortable by the frequent meetings in hotel rooms at CRS. “If that bonding is where that relationship-building is coming from, either you go out and put yourself at risk or you don’t go out, and you don’t get to know that DJ, and they are less inclined to play your song.”

“Nashville is a town of subtleties,” says the artist who described CRS as a “shit-show.” “Everything is covered by a friendly gauze. ‘Oh, he’s just being friendly.’ Is he? Or is he trying to molest someone?” When O’Heeron called Nashville “an island of morality” in a Billboard interview, the comment was met with outrage online by Kirpach. Where friendliness ends and misconduct begins is one of the most trying lines in country music, if not the entertainment business as a whole. 

“We have a great job, we get to meet new artists all the time, but it is just that: a job,” says Nate Deaton, the GM of California country-music station KRTY. “[Artists] are not our friends, they are not someone who wants to have lunch or dinner with us; they are doing it because of the position we hold.” Rolling Stone Country reached out to representatives from 10 of the largest country radio stations across America, and Deaton was the only one willing to provide a response: the remaining stations either declined comment or did not reply at press time.

What Armiger, who embarked on her first radio tour when she was 15, claims to have experienced goes well beyond just murky boundaries. She recounts being told to dress provocatively by her label and to endure unwanted advances from program directors and DJs under the auspices of this is just the way things are. “The radio reps would kind of warn you,” says Armiger. “It was typical to do a show, go out to dinner, go out somewhere afterwards, and be like, ‘Hey, this person drinks a lot, watch out.’ If they do touch you or do proposition you, you’re just supposed to laugh it off.” Sued by O’Heeron after leaving Cold River for breach of contract, she’s since fought on social media, and in court, with a countersuit, to bring the realities of misconduct and sexual harassment in the music business to the surface. “So many females think that is the way it is,” she says. “People don’t view being groped as assault. But it is assault.”

Armiger’s experiences with misconduct run the gamut, as detailed in her response to yet another recently filed lawsuit by Cold River. One instance speaks of a DJ who “sexually assaulted her by grabbing her butt” and whispered into her ear, “When are you going to be legal?” In court documents, she also recounts how when she, in 2010, “was being interviewed by a radio DJ, the DJ attempted to grab her legs under the table. “What we allege is a series of incidents where radio directors and radio station employees act incredibly entitled to discuss sexual things with female artists and sexualize them as part of their day-to-day work,” says Alex Little, legal counsel to Armiger. “I think it’s emblematic of the larger problem.” Speaking to Rolling Stone Country, O’Heeron categorically denied all allegations. “I have never been in a situation where it crossed the line or anybody complained to me that it crossed the line,” he says.

Of course, not all country radio PDs and DJs blur the line between the professional and the personal, and KRTY’s Deaton is just one example. “You have some really great radio people who are excited about music,” says Natalie Hemby, an artist and songwriter of hits by Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town. “But you have some who have gotten away with a lot of things for a lot of years. There are some great guys, but some really shady characters as well.”

“I’d like to think there is more good [radio staff] than bad. But any amount of bad is too high. Ten percent is too high,” says Sue Wilson of 94.9 WQMX in Ohio. Her station is doing its part to shed more light on artist relationships by taking radio tours from behind closed doors and into the open. Instead of office meetings, artists come and play for a group of invited fans. But WQMX is also unique in that it’s dominated by women, including morning show host Sarah Kay.

Kay and Wilson are trying to correct the climate by democratizing the process and ensuring that what is being auditioned is the song itself, not sexuality. They also agree that more women need to be hired at all levels of radio and the music business at large. “We have a female program director, and a female music director. And now there are a lot more record reps. But no one at the very top [of the industry],” says Wilson.

“I can tell you that one of the biggest reasons I don’t see or hear any of this is because our music committee is primarily female,” says Deaton. “We have a female program director and the other four people who are involved directly with airplay are also female, which leaves me as the lone male. Most of all, [at] the functions we have around new artists, lunch, dinner, shows, etc., I am not by myself with an artist. I can’t imagine the thought that goes through a programmer’s mind on anything that would make an act uncomfortable, male or female.”

Many artists report undergoing basic sexual harassment training early in their careers, provided by record labels, but note that it’s not nearly enough, while others point out that many independent labels are too small to even have proper HR resources at all. “People on Music Row in power positions need to band together and say, ‘This is unacceptable,'” says the female radio promoter who had to listen to comments on radio calls about her breasts.

Armiger’s lawyer Little believes that a few small changes can be made that would facilitate a process for women to register complaints experienced on radio tour. As it stands now, according to Little, artists are generally considered independent contractors, so they are unable to file claims if they experience verbal sexual harassment of any kind. A bill providing artists the same workplace protections that employees receive would provide a safer, more protective environment.

“Right now, it’s very hard for [recording artists] to argue that they are employees in terms of sexual harassment laws,” Little says. “In Tennessee, there is no reason legislatively [here] that the state legislature or congress can’t step in and protect artists in the same way that employees are protected.”

Nashville mayor Megan Barry told Rolling Stone Country that she would support such legislation. “Harassment of all forms should not be tolerated in any workplace,” she says. “I have signed executive orders requiring that Metro employees and members of boards and commissions receive mandatory sexual harassment awareness and prevention training. Regardless of the type of employment agreement or arrangement, no person should have to accept sexual harassment or sexual assault in a decent society.”

For artists like Linsey, the focus is on writing and delivering empowering lyrics and speaking out whenever she can, whatever the repercussions. “There is so much misogyny in this industry, and misogyny and sexual assault go hand in hand,” she says. “So I want to make music that empowers women, and makes women feel like it’s OK to be themselves.”

Stephanie Taylor, an attorney for Armiger and a former professional touring musician who played fiddle for the duo Joey + Rory and Chris Young among others, thinks that the time has come to finally start a broader conversation about one of country’s worst-kept secrets. “Country music was founded on three chords and the truth,” she says. “But this is the truth no one wants to talk about.”

Kirpach agrees. She watched with hope as the television and movie elite gathered at this month’s Golden Globes to raise awareness about harassment, abuse and gender discrimination in Hollywood – launching the #TimesUp movement – and is ready for the country music industry to have its own awakening, at long last. “Since this movement gained national attention, the country music community has whispered Me Too,” she says. “It’s time for the brave, bold women and men of country to feel comfortable enough to speak with full voice and say, ‘Time’s Up’ here, too.” 

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