Radio Disney Country Embraces Women Ignored On Terrestrial Airwaves

Rachel Deeb
Carly Pearce

When the 50th annual Country Radio Seminar convenes in Nashville Feb. 13-15, terrestrial programmers will likely be talking mightily about a subject that's not officially on the agenda.

The conference is packed with panels on time management, improving technical skills and increasing revenue. But in the hallways, it's guaranteed that many attendees will address the story that plagues country radio most in the current news cycle: its general dismissal of female artists.

The genre's reticence to play women hit a record-setting level in December 2018: Billboard's Country Airplay chart, based on audience impressions from spins granted by radio gatekeepers, featured zero women in the top 20 on the lists dated Dec. 8 and Dec. 15. Nearly two months later, Carrie Underwood's "Love Wins" (No. 15) remains the only female single to crack the top 20 during the span.

Programmers have defended themselves by suggesting female fans don't want to hear female artists and that women are simply not making commercially viable music at the moment. Countering that notion, Radio Disney Country -- a service that grew out of Disney's radio properties -- is making huge leaps in audience by flouting that viewpoint.

Since its launch on Nov. 4, 2015, RDC has made women the focus of its programming. In fact, the top 12 tracks on its Jan. 14 playlist all have a prominent female voice: Eight were recorded by female acts; the other four are male acts with women as a featured guest. Disney's latest internal research claims RDC piles up 12 million-15 million listeners per month, and the artists certainly know it makes a difference. Tenille Arts, for example, saw YouTube plays of her current single, "I Hate This," jump from about 35,000 to 200,000 in the two weeks after its No. 1 peak on the RDC playlist.

RDC's success ought to provide some consternation for traditional country broadcasters.

"It's hogwash that women don't want to hear women and women don't support women," says Disney Channels Worldwide vp music strategy Phil Guerini. He points in particular to the RDC-sponsored stages at CMA Music Festival, which have become some of the best-attended presentations in the festival's Fan Fair X exhibit hall at the Music City Center and provide face-to-face experience with ardent country fans.

"I've not actually met any of the women that say that they don't like or won't support women artists," says Guerini.

RDC has certainly supported them. Guerini jumped early on female singles that sounded like hits -- including Arts' "I Hate This," Carly Pearce's "Closer to You" and RaeLynn's "Tailgate," which are all top 10 on the current list -- preferring to set the agenda for his company rather than to play it safe. RDC was an early supporter of Kelsea Ballerini, played singles by Cassadee Pope and Maddie & Tae when terrestrial radio dragged its feet and established a new short-form on-air series, Let the Girls Play, hosted by Kalie Shorr and Savannah Keyes, two new acts it has helped expose.

"It would certainly be short-sighted to not recognize how much young female music is being produced, and it's really great in many cases," says Guerini. "It can be very competitive if given an opportunity."

The RDC channel has a terrestrial component -- it's heard on KRDC Los Angeles -- but it's primarily a streamed product, reflecting the company's approach to music platforms. Radio Disney aired at one point on roughly 40 FM and AM signals, but they generated mixed financial results with little room for improvement, and Disney divested itself of most of them.

Guerini, who began his career in radio, believes RDC is establishing itself in the country space the same way that Radio Disney set a tone in pop. Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez all received early boosts from Radio Disney before they reached the wider terrestrial audience. They grew as artists at the same time the company's audience was maturing into adults.

The RDC target is slightly older -- the core listener is aged 17-24 years -- but that's also an age at which music makes a huge impression. Underscoring that fact, Shorr has encountered fans who have tattooed "Fight Like a Girl," her signature song, onto their bodies. Those fans mostly encountered Shorr on RDC and SiriusXM, and that's one reason that Nashville managers and labels are offering exclusives and premieres to both of those outlets before they even bother going to radio.

"We focus our energy on where we feel like it's winning and where it's reacting," says Fusion Music/Red Light manager Daniel Miller, who represents Pope.

RDC will devote some of its energy during the Country Radio Seminar to a public-facing event within walking distance from the convention's base at the Omni Nashville Hotel. The showcase is intended to demonstrate to Nashville's music community that RDC is paying attention to the up-and-coming creative class, but Guerini is confident that radio programmers who venture to the event will witness a response from an audience they have misjudged.

"Hopefully," he says, "they will see firsthand females enjoying females perform."

That's an important aspect of the current controversies surrounding country radio's disrespect of female artists. Shania Twain, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire and Taylor Swift have inspired countless women through the years, delivering a vital message to their fans that women have value.

"As someone who was raised on country music and heard a lot of female voices historically, I want my daughters to have that same kind of experience and hear music that reflects their lives and their points of view," says Shorr's manager, Cassetty Entertainment president Todd Cassetty.

While females have faced hardships in the past in country, the issue was not nearly as bleak just 10 years ago as it is today. The bro-country movement may have contributed to it. The themes of the songs from that period -- heavy drinking, quick and easy sex -- are acceptable for males in the culture but widely frowned upon for women. Thus, female voices were squeezed out at that time. The sound and themes of country have widened now that that phase has passed, even if women's place in the mix has not.

The RDC audience ballooned by 798 percent in its second year, notes Guerini, and some of that expansion is likely due to young listeners discovering music they can't find elsewhere. He's convinced that women will rise again in the genre, similar to the ascent they are experiencing in other areas of culture, particularly politics. Thus, terrestrial radio faces a dilemma: represent female artists better in the mix or allow the audience to slip away to other platforms as fans find a wider sonic variety through other sources.

"I think the best days are still ahead for female artists -- for artists in general -- to right some of these things, because those decisions are no longer going to be left to programmers," says Guerini. "Those decisions are going to be left to the audience."