In the mid-’80s, Leslie Fram was a fledgling DJ working her way through college at top 40 station WABB-FM in Mobile, Ala., when its program director critiqued her aircheck in a manner so harsh, it’s still seared in her memory. “He threw the cassette across the table and said, ‘You haven’t improved one bit,’ ” she recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘Hey, I can’t take that tactic if I’m ever in the position to mentor or help someone.’ ”
Fast forward a few decades, and Fram is in precisely that kind of position as CMT’s senior vp of music strategy and talent. She mentors artists daily — and it’s safe to say that she has never flung anything at them other than a compliment or some helpful advice. Since starting at CMT in 2011, Fram, who oversees all musical integration within the brand — including original programming, CMT.com and music video airplay across all CMT platforms — has been a fierce supporter of all country artists, especially burgeoning acts, as well as an outspoken advocate for diversity and inclusion.
In 2013, frustrated that female artists like Brandy Clark were struggling to get airplay on terrestrial country radio, she launched Next Women of Country, a signature CMT effort that bolsters 10 rising female acts each year through placements on all CMT platforms and social media, as well as a national tour. Many of the leading women heard on country radio today — Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, Carly Pearce, Gabby Barrett — are NWOC graduates.
That’s just one of the steps Fram has taken to shift the balance of power in her corner of the industry. In 2014, she co-founded Change the Conversation, a Nashville organization focused on fighting gender inequity in country music. The initiative has jump-started a speaker series, commissioned research and provided mentoring for young female singer-songwriters.
And just last year, following the release of a report showing that country radio played an average of 9.7 songs by male artists for every one song by a female artist, Fram pushed CMT to institute its Equal Play initiative, with a commitment to 50/50 video airplay on the TV network and CMT Music channels. “As one of the gatekeepers, we asked, ‘Where can we do a better job?’ Because we were not getting videos from diverse voices,” she says.
While the nation confronted a historic reckoning with racial issues over the past 12 months, Fram has remained one of the industry’s most prominent voices calling for change. Following George Floyd’s murder last May, she co-founded Nashville Music Equality (for which she is also a board member), an organization dedicated to creating an anti-racist environment in the music industry through conversation, education and mentorship. Her work close to home hasn’t slowed: She has premiered videos by Black country acts like Mickey Guyton, Willie Jones and BRELAND on CMT, and she selected four Black female artists — Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts, Sacha and trio Chapel Hart — for NWOC’s Class of 2021. (That group also includes Priscilla Block and Tenille Arts, among others.)
“Leslie has been such a pivotal resource for me as a new artist in town. She understands the need for diversity of both sound and perspective in country music and was an early champion of mine,” says BRELAND. “I’m excited to see how we will be able to shift the culture together.”
Fram has taken smart risks on unknown artists, and she has also bet on herself, fearlessly jumping among industry sectors, genres and geographic locations throughout her career. But growing up in Fairhope, Ala., “I was super shy,” she says. “I was one of those kids listening to the radio in my room a lot.”
Through her high school drama department, she helped produce Platter Ladder, a one-hour radio show on local AM station WABF, and started running the station’s Sunday-morning religious program. At the University of South Alabama in Mobile, she began working at WABB (which at the time was still a rock station), taking the midnight to 6 a.m. shift. “The first song I ever played was ‘The Court of the Crimson King’ from King Crimson,” she says. That was when she realized “the art of programming could be an amazing career — not only being on the air.”
After college, she became assistant program director at an Atlanta top 40 station, which in 1992 switched to WNNX (99X), one of the first and most influential alternative rock stations in the country. “The company let us change format based on what we thought the music would look like,” she says. “No research was done. We launched this station and the town turned upside down.” Fram learned two key lessons there that she continues to use at CMT: Listen to your gut, and know that the audience doesn’t care whether an act is signed. “It’s just, ‘Play us some great music.’ ”
After a three-year stint as program director (and morning show co-host with Matt Pinfield) at New York rock station WRXP, in 2011, she reunited with former 99X programmer and mentor Brian Philips, then-president of CMT. He offered Fram a job, even though she had never worked in country music or music video. Two weeks later, she was in Nashville.
Fram loved classic country artists, but she was less familiar with contemporary acts, so she dove in headfirst, learning everything she could. “I went to see Dierks Bentley at the Ryman. After the show, he stayed onstage and signed autographs for an hour. I had never experienced that in the rock world,” she recalls. “[Universal Music Group Nashville CEO] Mike Dungan looked at me and said, ‘Welcome to country music!’ ”
With her new team, Fram quickly expanded CMT’s music discovery circle. “We were already supporting the superstars, so it was like, ‘How can we foster the next generation?’ ” she says. She developed close relationships with music publishers, who would tip off Fram to up-and-comers. Before they even got record deals, artists including Morris, Luke Combs, Old Dominion and Russell Dickerson received video play on CMT.
Fram — who has ridden out the pandemic on her farm in Portland, Tenn., with her husband and their two donkeys, Betty and Sally (named after Mad Men characters), and a Percheron draft horse, Casper — still spends hours every week dealing with new artists. Unlike her callous former program director, she balances firmness with a warmth that keeps an artist’s dreams intact. Instead of no, she’ll say an artist’s music is not quite there or needs more work. “I never want to tear anyone down,” she says, “[but] I’m honest because then I can sleep at night.”
“The further the artist seems from the golden ring, the more Leslie seems compelled [to] boost that artist’s career,” says Philips, who is now executive vp content/audience at Cumulus Media. “She has confidence in her own beliefs, and she is naturally inclined to pull for the underdog.”
For Fram, who is a decade into her CMT career, championing country music means championing everyone in it. “How hard is it to play a great female artist? It’s not hard,” she says with a laugh. “I love the format. We just need to open up this big, beautiful tent for all underrepresented voices.”
In the meantime, she has a small piece of encouraging advice for anyone who may not have as big of a soapbox as she: “A baby step is a step. A lot of women, from songwriters to publishers to artists, have created these amazing platforms for diverse groups, whether it’s a showcase or songwriter camp. To me, that is how we move forward.”
This article originally appeared in the June 26, 2021, issue of Billboard.
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