At the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville earlier this month, there was a lot of talk about metrics, hit songs and streaming among the executives, program directors and deejays gathered from all across the country. What there wasn’t much of was discussion about what one CRS attendee referred to as “the elephant in the room” — i.e., country radio’s endemic gender imbalance. But thanks to the Grammy Awards, where women reigned and Kacey Musgraves took home Album of the Year honors, there was no escaping the conversation during CRS either.
“I think what happened that Sunday night was eye-opening for everyone,” says R.J. Curtis, executive director of CRS, over coffee the day before the official CRS festivities began on February 13th. “It wasn’t just the performances, but the domination by women. Look at the moment Brandi Carlile had: she was a star, but she can be a superstar now. I can’t speak for the [Country Music Association] or [Academy of Country Music], but any organization now has the opportunity and ability to create some sort of initiative.”
The initiative to which Curtis is referring would be similar to the one launched last year by the Recording Academy to address diversity among Grammy nominees and performers, which was ameliorated to some degree with an active task force dedicated to fostering inclusion. Country radio, often criticized for its lack of female artists in rotation, has yet to start an initiative of its own.
“I get into a real dangerous spot when I start telling people how to program their stations or run their companies,” Curtis says, “because some of those people are on our board, and I can’t speak for them. Personally, I think that there can be an airplay initiative that somebody steps out on and says, ‘We are going to focus on this like the Grammys did.'”
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There was no dedicated focus on gender inequality at CRS this year, however. Curtis says that he and the board couldn’t figure out a way to effectively address the topic in the timeframe of a seminar, and that while it was discussed over the summer, “even in June, it was hard to tell what was going to be a hot topic six months from now.” (At that point in 2018, only two women had reached the Number One spot on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart).
During the three days of CRS earlier this month, the gender-imbalance conversation was mostly relegated to an informal town hall referred to as “Beer-Thirty,” with free beer provided courtesy of Cold River Records. The label is in an ongoing lawsuit against artist Katie Armiger, who alleged it pushed her to over-sexualize her act and aggressively flirt with program directors. Armiger spoke to Rolling Stone at length last year about her experiences with sexual harassment and misconduct in the world of country radio.
At the open forum, a discussion erupted around “the elephant in the room,” particularly as it relates to Musgraves, returning frequently to a few recurring points: programmers insisting that it’s “the song itself” that reigns, not the gender, and that they are reluctant to play songs from artists who don’t “play ball” with the format.
“I don’t care if it’s male or female, a good song is a good song,” said one programmer. “The responsibility is on the creators.” Many echoed the sentiment that, yes, women aren’t getting played as often as they should, but insisted that it’s reflective of the song.
“I was so happy to see the topic come up in this less-structured forum, but disheartened to hear that no one seems to know how to address the issue or make a change in programming,” says Dr. Jada Watson, musicologist and professor at the University of Ottawa, who was in the audience. “Of course, all programmers are worried about their business, and any change in programming will have a business impact, to be sure. But to hear programmers say that they don’t know how to fix the problem, or blame labels for not signing or promoting women, or say that there just aren’t any hits by women right now is a tired response.”
Another popular response was that Musgraves, for instance, “won’t do the promotional things radio expects especially a woman artist to do,” as one attendee put it. He did not elaborate on what those things are.
“We tend to like and embrace artists who are interested or want to engage with the format,” session moderator Tom Hanrahan of Birmingham’s 102.5 The Bull said during the forum. “My interaction [with Musgraves] has been hit or miss. I promise I haven’t penalized her or any other artists. But from a humanity standpoint, people like to cheer on people who seem to want to row in the same direction and have connectivity. I haven’t felt a whole lot of connectivity with her, but I haven’t put her in the time-out chair. I’m playing ‘Rainbow.'” (In a scan of the Bull’s “recently played” today, however, they have not once played “Rainbow.”) [Editor’s note: the song has since been added to light rotation.]
It’s hard to definitively describe “connectivity.” For some artists, especially men, interacting with radio programmers, who are predominantly male, it’s the ability to be buddies: a female ex-label exec once described this relationship to Rolling Stone Country as labels and management wanting to “break down the professional wall.” “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 said. “But I think they don’t have the same type of bonding experiences with [women] that they have with [men].”
When privately polled as to who has effective “connectivity,” one programmer named “My Girl” singer Dylan Scott, while another cited Chris Lane, another up-and-coming artist. But even those same programmers see the fault in this logic. While that “connectivity” with radio staff may boost young artists into the top of the charts, it doesn’t necessarily translate to a loyal fanbase.
“Chris Lane, he’s had one Number One,” an attendee said during the “Beer-Thirty” forum, referencing Lane’s song “Fix. “But Chris Lane can’t sell out a two-thousand person club.”
Kacey Musgraves kicks off a series of four sold-out concerts at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium tonight.