Radio

Is the Tide Finally Turning For Women at Country Radio?

Maren Morris
Mickey Bernal/WireImage

Maren Morris performs onstage during the 53rd annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on Nov. 13, 2019 in Nashville.

Why there are encouraging signs amid a still troubling imbalance.

Though there is still enormous progress to be made, women in country music are seeing strides in radio in 2020 that they haven’t seen in several years, according to Billboard’s Country Airplay chart and other indicators.

Sure to be a hot topic at Country Radio Seminar 2020, the alarming airplay disparity between men and women at terrestrial country radio has dominated conversations for the last five years as established and new female artists have struggled to gain sustained traction.

"It's a long road, but I'm feeling hopeful for the first time," says manager Mary Hilliard Harrington, whose clients include Dierks Bentley, LANCO and newcomer Caylee Hammack. "It does feel like we are starting to feel a little momentum behind some of the new female artists." 

“I’m optimistic that we’re going back to a little bit more of that balance on radio,” says MCA Nashville senior vp of promotion Katie Dean, who will moderate CRS’s Feb. 20 panel “All the Singles, Ladies: Breaking Female Artists.” Dean admits she didn’t feel as hopeful even one or two years ago, “but I do feel like the tide is shifting.”  

“It’s changing. I don’t think it’s as gloomy as it once was,” agrees Maren Morris's manager, Janet Weir, who attributes some of the shift to country radio paying more attention to streaming numbers. “Country has been slower to adapt to streaming than other formats,” she says, “but streaming has forced [country] radio to look at the top songs and pay attention because that’s what people want to hear,” she says. “That could be partially why there's more females because their songs are reacting.”

While it’s too soon to tell if women at radio are having a moment or a movement, among the encouraging signs are:

*Maren Morris’s “The Bones” (Columbia Nashville), the Country Airplay No. 1 for the chart dated Feb. 22, is the first song by a solo female to stay at the summit for two weeks since Carrie Underwood's “Blown Away” in 2012. “If I can be honest, I really thought the only way this could ever happen was if I was the feature artist on a guy’s song," Morris posted on Twitter. "Sitting here seeing my name at the top of the chart at all is rare, but to break this 8-year streak just feels unbelievable.”

*For five consecutive weeks, there have been five female-inclusive acts (solo female, duets or co-ed acts including women) in the Top 20 of the Country Airplay chart, which measures terrestrial radio play based on data from Nielsen Music/MRC Data. This week, in addition to Morris, Ingrid Andress, Carly Pierce, Gabby Barrett and Kelsea Ballerini reside in the top 20. In 2019, there was an average of three female acts in the Top 20 per week. In 2018, for the chart dated Dec. 8, for the first time in the then 28-year history of the chart, there were no female acts within the top 20. The lock out happened again the next week. (Worth noting: There were two five-week spans in 2018 with five women in the Top 20, but they included pop acts Bebe Rexha, Tori Kelly and Julia Michaels duetting with male country acts).

*For the last six weeks, women have co-written the No. 1 song. In 2019, 41 female songwriters contributed to tunes that hit the top 40 on Country Airplay, the most in more than six years.

*Should Andress’ “More Hearts Than Mine” (Atlantic/Warner Music Nashville) and Barrett’s “I Hope,” (WMN) both of which are bulleted in the top 15, go to No. 1 on Country Airplay, it will mark the first time two women have taken their debut singles to No. 1 in a calendar year since 2001 (“There is No Arizona” by Jamie O’Neal and “What I Really Meant to Say” by Cyndi Thompson). Without taking away anything from the “undeniable” quality of the songs, Andress’s manager Blythe Scokin says the conversations surrounding lack of inclusion “has certainly enabled women to potentially have better opportunities because of a higher awareness level by radio.”

Warner Music Nashville chairman CEO John Esposito agrees that the indisputable power of the songs leads the way. Andress and Barrett “are great songwriters on top of being great vocalists,” he says, “Their lyrics are resonating with people and perhaps it's because they're speaking from a heart that is theirs. They're co-writing these songs.

Esposito notes their gender did not seem to make a difference to programmers, adding that Andress got added to playlists “fairly quickly…but I don’t believe for a second that they added her because she was a female,” he says. Programmers were slower to add Barrett despite strong streaming numbers, but Esposito said the label has had the same uphill battle with male artists with large streaming tallies. Unlike some executives interviewed for this story, Esposito says he’s seen no evidence that programmers are giving female artists more of a shot in recent months. “I haven't felt any particular ‘We're more open to it’ attitude. They’re just programming,” he says. “I haven't had a single overt conversation with somebody who said, ‘We're going to give them a chance because we gotta focus on females.’”

Scokin believes the bar remains higher for women artists at radio. “I think that's the tough thing— there have been a lot of men who have gotten to No. 1 many times over who haven't made the quality music that's being made right now,” she says. “You hope that the cream rises to the top. I think that's why there are five women [in the top 20] right now.”

EQUAL PLAY FOR WOMEN

Tonight, CMT will hold an event to kick off its year-long Equal Play initiative. According to a study by Coleman Insights commissioned by CMT, 84% of listeners want equal play for women. This goes against the long-held thinking that fans don’t want to hear women artists on the radio as much as men. The belief was further perpetuated in 2014, when radio consultant Keith Hill compared women to “tomatoes” in a salad—to be enjoyed sparingly, as opposed to men, who were the “lettuce.”

Furthermore, the study, which surveyed 1,000 radio listeners ages 25-54, revealed seven out of 10 want more female artists in the genre and 28% say they would listen to radio more if additional female artists were featured. Only 11% said they would listen less.

“We want to work together with all the gatekeepers and have them pledge real commitment to moving the needle so that we have more positive results at the end of 2020,” says CMT senior vp of music strategy Leslie Fram.

To that end, last month, CMT pledged 50/50 video airplay parity for female and male artists across CMT. “CMT Radio Live with Cody Alan,” which airs on approximately 20 stations, followed suit by implementing a 50/50 split, marking a 100 percent increase in female airplay on its weeknight radio show airing 7p.m.- midnight.

“You can look at the stats and the data certainly shows that women are not given an equal chance for play,” Alan tells Billboard. “That's why this decision to increase the amount of females being played on our radio show was so important because it allows for more artists to be heard…So much of our audience is female, so shouldn’t we be sharing their stories as well?” As Scokin points out, the move will train listeners, some of whom have grown used to not hearing back-to-back songs by females on the radio, to hearing more female voices so that parity becomes the norm.

Alan’s move follows Bobby Bones’ launch of “Women of iHeartCountry,” an hour-long weekend program devoted to female country artists that launched Labor Day, 2018 on 125 iHeartMedia country stations.

Alan says he doesn’t expect a formal 50/50 split on his other syndicated show, “CMT After MidNite with Cody Alan,” but stresses the program’s tie in with CMT’s Next Women of Country and several features highlighting female artists, including Woman Crush Wednesday.

Johnny Chiang, director of operations for Cox Media Group, which includes Houston’s “93Q”-KKBQ, feels the pendulum is swinging “simply because it is a conversation, and it’s about damn time,” he says. The increasing awareness “is a real thing. It is somewhat of a movement and I'm very glad that is happening, that it is opening doors.”

Chiang, who is on Dean’s Feb. 22 panel, admits that until the Country Airplay chart registered no women in the top 20 14 months ago, “I never looked at gender as a factor in selecting music.” Since then, he says, “I would be lying if I said I’m not taking the gender of artists into consideration because I do want to play more female artists… especially with new artists.” He notes of the current songs in full rotation at KKBQ, 41 percent are from female artists or female-inclusive groups.

MORE WORK TO BE DONE

However, KKBQ’s numbers beat the average, which are much lower. At CMT’s Tuesday night event, University of Ottawa’s Dr. Jada Watson will share the results of SongData’s latest country radio airplay study. SongData’s stats, based solely on female artists and all-female ensembles, found that in 2019, 10 percent of the songs in the top 20 of the Country Airplay chart were by women. There was a 1.2 percent increase in spins for songs by women in 2019— up to 10.1 percent from 8.9 percent in 2018— but the increase occurred in evening and overnight plays. The stats for daytime remained nearly equal to 2018.

As Watson’s data reveals, female artists still face many challenges, not least of which is there are so fewer women signed to Nashville’s biggest labels. The combined current country rosters for BBR Music Group, Big Machine Label Group, Sony Nashville, Universal Music Group Nashville and Warner Music Nashville tally 134 acts, according to their websites. Of that amount, 38 —or 28.3 percent— are female solo acts or groups that include females.

Esposito stresses that Warner Music Nashville, which also has CMA Awards’ 2019 best new artist winner Ashley McBryde’s “One Night Standard” (Atlantic/WMN) rising 38-33 this week, is gender blind when it comes to signing acts. “I'm willing to engage in these discussions about what's wrong because the statistics are there, but I promise you the label's behavior isn’t we don't sign females cause it's too tough or we sign females purposely because we want to prove we can break them,” he says. “ We only focus on trying to sign who we think are geniuses. And lucky for us, we've got three and all three of them are on the chart.”

Those numbers could increase if Chiang has his way. His advice to his fellow programmers is take a chance on music coming from women. “You won't know until you play it. Just give it a shot,” he says. “I know we're trying to be all scientific about it, but at the end of the day, it's just a decision. Play it.”

Dean is encouraged by what she hears. “I like that we have some new fresh [female] voices that are making creative choices with these singles that are really connecting.” And just like MCA Nashville’s Sam Hunt ushered in a new sound at country radio following his spoken word/sung delivery, Dean suggests success begets success. “That’s going to be great for everyone. That rising tide will lift all boats.”

Assistance in preparing this story provided by Jim Asker.