For a format that primarily targets women, country radio is playing surprisingly few female artists these days. Equally surprising is how few women there are behind the scenes making programming decisions, as detailed here last week.
This week, we asked both male and female country radio programmers for the reasons behind the lack of females in the format right now. While no one claims to have a definitive answer, plausible theories abound.
KAJA San Antonio, PD Travis Moon believes female singers are more likely to be pigeonholed into existing niches—the diva, the ingénue, the girl next door, the toughie—and are given less of an opportunity to “show their individuality,” something he says is a “double standard” when male artists are given more chances to “carve out their own place and own it.
“That’s why new females don’t stand out as much,” Moon says. "Programmers tend to say, ‘I’ve seen this before. This person just has a different name.’
“We saw a little bit of what can happen when an artist is allowed to carve out their own place and own it in Gretchen Wilson [in 2004],” Moon adds. “Obviously that didn’t flesh out as a long-term thing necessarily, but it can happen.”
KBQI Albuquerque, N.M., PD/creative services director Bev Rainey also believes artist image is a factor. “I’ve heard many solid vocals from up-and-coming female country artists over the last few years. There’s no denying that there is talent out there,” she says. “The real challenge is presence. The more memorable females have big personalities to back their vocal skill. They know who they are and are confident. Take Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood and Reba [McEntire] as examples. Each has a different but very solid foundation of what they want to represent to the world. It is hard to not be drawn to them. I say put away the cookie cutter and encourage women with amazing voices to let their personalities shine. You’ll find some unforgettable diamonds in the rough.”
KPLX (The Wolf) Dallas assistant PD/music director Smokey Rivers thinks three things work against female artists. First, he says, “They generally don’t research well. Not many female artists can generate the broad base support quickly that someone like Carrie Underwood has [and it's] been that way for years.” Second, he continues, “Since it takes longer, Nashville—or the artists themselves—give up on the process. Programmers are then more leery of giving up valuable playlist real estate to long shots.”
Finally, Rivers says, the crossover factor works against some female country acts. “There has been the tendency that once the female country artist gets real traction, the artist decides to broaden their reach and market themselves towards other formats,” he says. “That increased airplay can cause quicker burn for the artist. The audience gets tired of hearing her on every station in town, which forces country radio to have to go looking for the next female superstar prematurely, and the cycle begins again.”
“As a program director, and a woman, I’ve asked this question over and over of my colleagues: ‘Why is it so tough for women, especially new artists, to get a hit song in country radio?’” says Sue Wilson, PD of WQMX Akron, Ohio. “We have played Kacey [Musgraves], Maggie Rose, Mallary Hope, Sarah Buxton—I could list so many from the past five-plus years—and so many get dropped and given up on. It frustrates me [that] these talented artists can’t get heard. Pop targets women, and there are tons of female stars in that genre. Not sure what gives." She says what confuses her most is that it wasn't long ago that programmers executives and listeners embraced Jo Dee Messina, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Faith [Hill], Pam Tillis, Wynonna, Martina [McBride] and Trisha [Yearwood], "with all these artists having huge hits, and seemingly [ones] guys loved."
“Not that I'm some flaming feminist, but . . . what happened to women wanting to hear other women speaking for them, relating to feelings and heartbreak and life and love,” Wilson asks.
KRTY San Jose, Calif., PD Julie Stevens calls the lack of female country stars “baffling.” While—like most—she doesn’t claim to know the root cause, she cites one theory she agrees with from KRTY GM Nate Deaton. He believes that, "because we do so much with brand new acts, we’ve noticed that when a new guy singer gets an offer for a gig he grabs his guitar and he’s on a plane before you can give him all the details. People—labels, managers, the act themselves—are a little more cautious with a girl. They have to be a little more careful about where she stays, who she’s with, who’s doing the asking for her to perform the gig, etc. Could it be that there’s a reluctance to send her out to every dive bar from California to Tennessee that doesn’t exist when you’re talking about a boy singer? Hence, he gets more initial exposure than she does?”
Whatever the reason, Stevens says, “I hope we can pinpoint the problem, because I’d like to see more girl singers out there.”
Of equal concern is the lack of female programming leadership in country music, which has improved little in the last 15 years.
“Here at WestwoodOne, there’s good news and bad news, says Penny Mitchell, assistant PD/music director of the company’s Mainstream Country format. “The good news is that when we have a programmers’ meeting I see about 25% women in the room. The bad news is that when we have a programmers’ meeting, I see about 25% women in the room. And we’re outpacing the industry. It’s encouraging, but the progress has been glacially slow.”
Mitchell believes formats like country that primarily target women “could only benefit from more female programmers.”
KAJA’s Moon agrees. “As a program director, you have to clearly understand your audience,” he says. “I hear radio all the time [that is] clearly pandering to a female audience because they don’t quite understand it.”
Moon also believes “there’s sexism in radio—all formats.” He thinks radio executives are often unwilling to try "out-of-the-box" opportunities for women, such as staffing back-to-back air shifts with female personalities, or giving a woman the lead role in a morning show. “Outside of Laurie DeYoung [at WPOC] Baltimore, how many morning shows have a female who is the lead?” he asks. “How many afternoon drive females are there?
“There’s still some stereotypes [and] a cookie cutter thing that goes on,” Moon adds. “A lot of times radio doesn’t like to throw the ball down the field and try something out because there’s a lot at stake. They would just rather stay safe.”