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New Study Examines Impact of Country Radio Programming on Women

Report by Dr. Jada Watson shows “that programming decisions have a direct impact on the success of songs”

Miranda Lambert

A new study released on Friday makes the case that programming decisions are to blame for the lack of women played on country radio.

Al Wagner/Invision/AP/REX/Shutte

When it comes to the lack of gender parity at country radio, there are many forces at play, and many ways to analyze the data, from a casual glance at festival lineups to the recent report from Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative that took a look at the Billboard Hot Country Charts, which comprises sales and streaming. But perhaps nothing gives a more clear picture than statistics gleaned from the Mediabase Country Airplay charts themselves, which has not been the subject of its own independent study until now.

Dr. Jada Watson of the University of Ottawa, in consultation with WOMAN Nashville, released today a report called Gender Representation on Country Format Radio: A Study of Published Reports from 2000-2018, the first study to explicitly examine Mediabase data. One of the two airplay-monitoring systems tracking country radio — the other is Nielsen’s BDS, which is used in Billboard‘s charts — Mediabase’s country charts are published weekly in the Nashville trade magazine Country Aircheck and used as the basis for countdown shows such as Country Countdown USA and American Country Countdown with Kix Brooks. The outcome of the new report is dismal, and puts the onus on country radio tastemakers themselves. According to the report, women  in the country music industry hear phrases like the below everyday when it comes to why they’re not represented on the airwaves:

If you want to improve station ratings, remove the women.

Country radio is a principally male format.

Women are not financially viable.

Women don’t have as many hits.

We only have space for one female on the roster.

Women don’t want to hear women.

“The results presented here suggest a different read on the cultural dynamics of radio,” the study writes. “They show that programming decisions have a direct impact on the success of songs, and that women are not afforded the same opportunities as their male colleagues.”

Studying 150 songs from the year-end reports from the period of 2000 to 2018, as well as the weekly airplay charts from 2002 to 2018, Dr. Watson looked at how women, men and duos faired in terms of spins — and determined that not only is the playing field dreary for the women of country music, it’s actually getting worse by the year. In 2000, women held 33.3% of songs on the year-end country airplay reports, but by last year, they came in at 11.3% — a decline of 66% percent. The last time women were represented well? Taylor Swift was still making country music, not commissioning butterfly murals. Grammy Album of the year winner Kacey Musgraves, meanwhile, is only seeing her latest single “Rainbow” continue to drop (Number 34 to 36 this week) on the Mediabase country chart.

“The trend shows significant decline for women, strongly pointing to the self-fulfilling nature of gender-based programming,” the report says. Indeed, the less women are played at country radio, the less familiar they become, trapped in a cycle from which it is nearly impossible to escape. Look just this week to the current spin counts in Country Aircheck: zero women in the top five, and only one woman in the top point gainers (Tenille Townes’ “Somebody’s Daughter”).

“This study is the first to use radio airplay data to investigate gender imbalances in country radio,” says Dr. Watson. “While studies of Billboard charts are valuable for evaluating inequality in a genre, to be sure, this data gives us perspective on the shape and impact of radio programming on female artists. These results do not just confirm gender imbalance, they show us the severity of the inequality that plagues country music culture, and how much more men are privileged in this space.”

Indeed, this report looks closely at the sheer number of spins, not just chart appearance — last year alone, the ratio of men to women on country radio was 9.7:1. Dr. Watson also found that the top-spinning male artist of the studied period — Kenny Chesney, with 6,047,111 — boasted nearly twice the amount of the top-selling woman, Carrie Underwood, with 3,182,237. Things look bleak as well when it comes to the Number One slot, one of Music Row’s most gate-opening achievements that often unlocks multiple opportunities for marketshare for artists. “Over the course of 17 years (883 weeks), male artists spent 749 weeks (85%, the equivalent of 14.4 years) in the Number One position,” the report finds, “while female artists spent 98 weeks (11%, 1.8 years), and male-female ensembles spent 39 weeks (4%, 0.75 years).”

In the 19-year period studied in the report, the artists with the most career spins have all been men — Underwood ranks at Number 11 and Miranda Lambert, who logs platinum albums and plays arenas, sits at Number 21 with less than 2 million career spins. Male artists who have emerged in the past five years have also had more spins than women artists who have been making music for decades. Florida Georgia Line (Number 13) and Thomas Rhett (Number 16) both rank higher than Lambert, while operating in a much shorter timeframe. Right now, a whole generation of girls are growing up barely hearing themselves represented on the radio — a scary reality for what the future of the genre could ultimately sound, and look, like.

“It’s important for industry leaders to acknowledge that the lack of women on current country radio, and beyond, is the result of years of unbalanced programming choices,” says a representative for WOMAN, an anonymous collective working to secure more marketshare, opportunities, resources and equality for women in the music industry. “We can use this information to learn more about the impact of an industry culture where song selections and spin counts consistently favor men over women. Then, we can work to change this problem. The industry has an opportunity to connect more deeply with country music’s diverse and growing audience. What we need now is for decision makers to commit to making more informed and inclusive choices moving forward.”

The report also offers solutions. Beyond simply asking radio to spin more women, it asks industry associations like the CMA “to set a standard for inclusion and representation throughout your mandate: update eligibility requirements for awards and honors to exclude ingrained bias and work with participating sponsors to develop diverse programming,” to develop inclusion riders and to demand that male artists “play an active part in this discussion.”

“People can only aspire to what they can see — or hear,” says Dr. Watson. “This report should serve as a warning that urgent action is needed to correct the course and work toward a more inclusive genre that reflects its diverse and growing audience.”

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