Billboard introduced the Alternative Songs chart in 1988 to track the rise of left-of-center rock styles, a companion to the more traditional Mainstream Rock tally. It’s ebbed and flowed between college rock, grunge, rap-metal, and the increasingly guitar-less rock sounds of today, but a glance at who’s topped it the most puts that gender disparity on full display: the Red Hot Chili Peppers (13 No. 1s), followed by Linkin Park and Green Day (11 each), the Foo Fighters (10), and U2 (8).
And because today’s alt radio relies so heavily on old hits, this past is kind of inescapable. Last week, so-called "gold" songs -- tracks approximately at last two years old -- made up 53 percent of spins across U.S. alternative stations. Of the top 100, only three feature female vocalists: Bishop Briggs’ “River,” Of Monsters & Men’s “Little Talks,” and Paramore’s “Misery Business.” This version of alt-rock’s history is so skewed, it neglects even the genre’s few legitimate commercial stars. “They don’t play Alanis Morissette, they don’t play Garbage, they don’t play Fiona Apple,” says K.Flay. “They play Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden.”
If program directors are fixated on the ‘90s -- in all their white, male flannel-clad glory -- it's partially due to their listeners. As Millennials and Gen Z flock to streaming services for music discovery, alternative radio listeners are more likely to be old enough to remember all of those RHCP hits from the first time around. “If there was a younger demo, if there were more females, the way a station sounds would probably change,” Matsuki says. “This is just what I think -- females listening to alternative stations tend to speak up less than the male audience… If you look at a typical station website, it’s catered more towards men: dark background, dark colors, some kind of horrible, sexist advertisement on the side. I rarely see a website that looks like something a girl would go to.”
Stations have ratings to maintain, and that means focus-grouping potential new singles and taking listener feedback into consideration. “[Diversity numbers] haven’t come up yet,” says Mason Brazelle, program director at Columbus, Ohio alt station WWCD. “I’m not going to put something in power [heavy rotation] just because we need a female artist. It’s gotta be something really good. Alice Merton, for example, she’s in power because it’s a great record and it’s doing really well for us.” He outlines how weekly staff meetings cut to the chase: “We’ll listen to 90 seconds of a song and rate it between one and 10. A song could be a 7.48 or whatever, and we’ll go from there.”
Sometimes it works out. Brazelle works regularly with Matsuki’s Beggars artists, and WWCD’s weekly logs tend to include more female artists than most competitors. He recalls listening to “No Roots” in its trial stage not just as a fan, but as “the radio guy, because you have to separate yourself," he admits. "When we added it, I was a little hesitant -- not because it was a woman -- but was it going to catch on? For whatever reason it just took off much faster than I expected it to.”
But for someone like Matsuki, working with typical program directors can lead to some awkward conversations. “The general gist in any radio meeting I’ve been to in the past six years is as soon as I bring a female artist to the table -- Grimes, Tune-Yards, Cat Power -- it’s like a switch goes off where they just go, ‘Oh, okay,’ instead of being excited. We have to over-prove what the female artist is gonna do, as opposed to a band with a bunch of dudes.”