Study Finds 'Alarming' Gender Representation on Country Radio

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Dierks Bentley and Brandi Carlile perform onstage during the 54th Academy Of Country Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 7, 2019 in Las Vegas.

A new study confirms what even the casual listener already knows: that country radio is heavily male-dominated -- and provides "alarming" evidence that the gender imbalance is only getting worse. 

Released today (April 26), "Gender Representation on Country Radio: A Study of Published Reports from 2000-2018" was published by the University of Ottawa's Jada E. Watson in consultation with WOMAN Nashville, a collective that advocates for equal opportunities and market share for women in the music industry. Using country airplay reports published by Mediabase over the past four months, Watson examined the representation of the top 150 songs on year-end reports from the top of the millennium to last year, as well as 2018’s weekly airplay charts. They also investigated how male, female and male-female artists (i.e. bands or collaborations with men and women) are represented by total annual spins. Their findings indicate that the longstanding practice of programming women at 13 to 15 percent of a station’s playlist is not only self-perpetuating, it seems to be having a tangible effect on female artists’ careers.

This "13 to 15 percent rule" refers to the infamous 2015 interview in which radio consultant Keith Hill told country-radio trade publication Country Aircheck's Russ Penuell that if country radio were a salad, "The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes in our salad are the females." After backlash from genre luminaries like Martina McBride, Miranda Lambert and Sara Evans, WOMAN Nashville confronted Hill on Twitter about the practice. He chalked up his decision-making to the results of market research he conducted in the 1990s on listener preference, and his belief that the genre's mostly female audience would prefer male voices.

"As noted in [my own 2016 study] study of Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, Hill failed to consider long-term consequences of applying a programming quota to female artists," Dr. Watson writes. "By playing mostly men, radio is training listeners to appreciate just one type of voice, one type of sound, one type of narrative subject position or story." 

Hill's strategy plays out in the below charts. Coding songs by the various possible combinations of men and women artists (e.g. male solo artist, male group, male solo artist featuring female artist, male-female ensemble, etc.), Watson shows, overall, that male artists are programmed more than female artists. This 19-year research period showed that male artists are played more than women by an average of 58.6 percent -- a 4.4 to 1 ratio -- when looking at all 2,850 songs on the year-end chart. Same on the weekly charts: men are programmed at a higher rate than women. Furthermore, men have more current and recurrent songs than women, by a margin of 52.5 percent and 58.4 percent, respectively.

In addition to showing that this gap exists, Watson gives evidence that it's growing bigger in several-year increments. From 2000 to 2002, there is an average 36 percent difference between the number of songs by men and women; that disparity increases to 56 percent in 2003, and maintains a steady 60 percent between 2003 and 2013. In 2014, it grows to 76 percent, and stays that way until last year. "Female artists enter the new millennium with 50 songs (33.3 percent) on the year-end country airplay reports and declined to 17 songs (11.3 percent) by 2018," Watson writes. "The decline points to the self-fulfilling nature of the gender-based programming practices outlined above. Indeed, the results strongly suggest that radio is gradually programming fewer female artists every year."

It's worth noting that male-female ensembles, like Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town and The Band Perry, are coded by country radio programmers as "female," and make up an even smaller percentage of these charts. There are none represented on the chart until 2001, but from 2006 to 2012 the number of songs increases to 17, only to decline to 11 songs (7.3 percent) in 2014, settling to an average of 4 songs (2.3 percent) between 2015 and 2018. These numbers are, if possible, even lower when looking at the top 10 during this same time period. Except for 2000, when female artists had 3 songs in the top 10 of Mediabase's year-end report, there are 10 years in this study when they had only one song in the top 10, and 8 years with no songs in the top 10. 

"While there is one song by a female artist that ranked at 8 on the Top 10 in 2018, the song in question was the pop-country collaboration of Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line, showing that, in fact, no female country artists registered a Top 10 hit in this year as well," writes Watson. "Women are programmed at such a small percentage of radio playlists that they have not received enough spins to rank in the top 10 of a year-end list for five years." These statistics are especially troubling, she adds, given the amount of visibility that inequal gender representation received after Hill's widely criticized comments. 

Watson also discusses the fluctuating frequency of overall spins on stations between 2000 and 2018. The first year of the study saw 6.9 million spins for the top 150 songs on the chart, increasing to 8 million from 2001 to 2003, dropping back down to 6.8 million from 2004-2007, and then gradually rising again to a high of 11.5 million in 2018. Though there isn't yet a clear explanation for the 2004 dip, Watson suggests that an early-'00s spike in radio ads diminished the number of songs played, until Entercom instituted a "two minute promise" to cut commercial breaks to no more than three 2-minute commercial breaks an hour. During this time period, the total annual spins for male artists in the top 150 of the year-end reports increases from 5.8 million in 2000 to 10.3 million in 2018, while spins for women actually decrease from 2.8 million to 1.1 million during that same time period, resulting in a ratio of 9.7 to 1 last year.

"Often, when discussing the current struggles facing the women of country music, people bring up women we all know and love: Dolly, Reba, Shania, Carrie, Faith and others," WOMAN Nashville wrote in an email to Billboard. "It’s important to realize that the careers of many of the women most commonly mentioned began before the industry went through some of its biggest changes. One of the things this report does is focus in on the reality for women over the last five years. We can clearly see the shortcomings of gender-based programming now that it has had long enough to take full effect."

There isn't clear, decisive reason why female artists started disappearing from the charts about 20 years ago, but rather a number of possible factors, sources tell Billboard. Since the Telecommunications Act was passed in 1996, deregulation allowed for radio conglomerates like Clear Channel, which narrowed the number of unique decision-makers dictating what was allowed the chance to become a hit. Additionally, the invention of automation created opportunities for programmers to schedule songs based on an artist's gender, or filter songs out of rotation by the same metric. Finally, unsupported claims like Hill's that "women are bad for ratings" because country music fans are mostly female and "women don't want to hear women" became widely accepted. 

Leslie Fram, senior vp music strategy for CMT, agrees and says she has thought and heard similar reasoning for this sudden shift in programming at the turn of the millennium. "You are training the audience not to hear female voices, so that when you do hear a female voice, maybe it's jarring," she tells Billboard. Ironically, she adds, "It's actually starting to hurt the males, because the more males that are signed to record labels, it's really hard to differentiate yourself and what makes you stand out from the other 10 to 15 males that might be signed to that label. And it's hard for the consumer, if you can imagine that."

"There's a return on investment in having diversity of all types, not just gender diversity but racial diversity -- every type," adds Terri Winston of Women's Audio Mission, a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of women in music. A member of both the Grammy Awards' and Country Music Awards' gender-equality task forces, she admits she was stunned when she heard the results of Dr. Watson's study. This weekend, from April 27-28, Women's Audio Mission will be hosting WAMCon in Nashville to address the gender disparity in country music, featuring workshops and lectures with engineers like Emily Lazar, Shani Gandhi and Linda Perry

"When you have someone blocking your way to make a living, your commerce, women country artists aren't going to have as many awards because they're based on shareholds and popularity," she adds. "Even if it's a people's choice, if they're not getting the same exposure. It's incredibly unfair."