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How a Twitter Joke About Women on Country Radio Reignited a Firestorm (Column)

A Variety writer's quip about how playing two women on the radio back-to-back broke all the rules led to a media tempest, once Kacey Musgraves and Kelsea Ballerini joined the fray.

Do you remember the classic Bee Gees song that goes, “I started a joke… that started the whole world crying”? (It’s okay if you don’t.) That’s how I felt this week after realizing that a sarcastic tweet I’d typed out in a half-minute at a stoplight led to a social media firestorm, then a tempest of attention in the “real” media. My quip had to do with the radical underrepresentation of women artists at country radio — a perennial sore point that some of us have written about for so many years, with so little remedy in sight, that sometimes gallows humor feels preferable to repeating the same sorry statistics over and over.

Here’s what I tweeted: “I turned on the 105.1 country station in L.A. just now, and they were playing the new song by Gabby Barrett, and then, without any pause or interruption at all, they went into a Kelsea Ballerini song. Can’t they get fined for that?” My punchline was intended as irony (something that went over the heads of a few respondents who apparently thought I really was advocating for the FCC to slap down the slightest show of girl power). But everybody who travels with me in country music circles got it: A unicorn sighting as I’d pulled off the 405 would have been less surprising than a station having the chutzpah to break the (usually) unspoken country radio rule about not letting one female singer’s voice succeed another.

It would have gone as unnoticed as my myriad other one-liners if the Twitter account for 98 KCQ, a station in Saginaw, Michigan, hadn’t responded back with unusual candor. “We cannot play two females back to back,” the station’s account tweeted. “Not even Lady Antebellum or Little Big Town against another female. I applaud their courage.”

The radio station’s courage in confessing this was not applauded, and things blew up after a couple of the leading ladies of the genre noticed the fracas and jumped in. Retweeting the 98 KCQ tweet, Kacey Musgraves — someone who is inescapably a country music superstar everywhere except on the radio — wrote: “Smells like white male bullshit and why LONG ago I decided they cannot stop me. … And yet, they can play 18 dudes who sound exactly the same back to back. Makes total sense.”

Ballerini got in on it. “To all the ladies that bust their asses to have half the opportunities that men do,” she wrote, “I’m really sorry that in 2020, after YEARS of conversation of equal play, there are still some companies that make their stations play by these rules. It’s unfair and it’s incredibly disappointing.” In follow-up tweets, Ballerini busted all-caps in their asses: “ALEXA PLAY LBT LADY A CARRIE MIRANDA KACEY CARLY GABBY MAREN INGRID RUNAWAY JUNE M&T LAUREN. ALL IN A ROW. …. AND LINDSAY AND ASHLEY AND WHOEVER ELSE I’M FORGETTING BECAUSE I NEED MORE COFFEE TO DEAL.”

From there, it escalated into a full-on pile-on on the radio station in question, which defended itself in a considerable amount of back-and-forth, telling outraged tweeters that they wished they could play the wonderful women of country in greater quantities, and had added Musgraves singles when the rest of the format wouldn’t, etc. Eventually their offending tweet was deleted and the parent company issued a statement saying, “In the history of MacDonald Broadcasting, there has never been a rule against playing females back to back… ever!” (If that’s true, it would be ironic that they’re one of the few country broadcasters around that doesn’t abide by it, despite having earlier admitted to the world they did.) Surely whomever just had his password taken away for the 98 KCQ Twitter account could have had no more idea than I did that this was something that’d soon escalate to a segment on “CBS This Morning” and other news outlets.

It’s been pointed out that there are other formats, too, that quietly abide by this rule. But what it really points to is the larger point — because not being played back-to-back is almost the least of the problems for women artists in country. It’s getting played at all.

So many civilians are just catching up with this issue now that it behooves us to say that many years of word and thought at the top levels of the country music industry have gone into how to fix this problem. Which does not mean that everyone in the business thinks a gross inequity between genders is a problem. I was at a country radio conference’s open forum last year where, after much earnest hand-wringing from some of the participants about what could be done to get more women on the radio, one program director got up and said it was a non-issue: Radio is a meritocracy where the best songs win, he asserted, and if those hits happen to all be by men, so be it — because any attempt to redress it by giving more exposure to women’s singles, in his view, would amount to affirmative action.

If you need any stats before you make up your own mind about whether an army of Luke Bryan wanna-bes on the air represents the free market at its finest, here are a few. Mediabase recently issued a list of the 100 top songs in the format for the entire decade of the 2010s. Want to guess how many women were on the list? Nice try, but go lower. No, lower still. Keep guessing. You’re really not very good at this, are you? Okay, we’ll cut to the chase. There were only two solo women represented anywhere on that chart — Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert. (No, not even Taylor Swift had a song in the decade’s top 100, even though she released two albums during that time frame that were marketed and promoted with country singles. No wonder she got out.) Lady Antebellum was also in there with some male-female duets, and you could find a track with a Kelly Clarkson feature if you scoured the finer print. But there is no way to look at that list of living ballcaps and not see the 2010s as an unfortunate era for a format that 20 years ago counted Faith, Shania, Reba and the Dixie Chicks as just about its biggest stars.

Contrary to outsiders’ conventional wisdom, I’m not willing to consign the whole problem to the whole business being chock-full of misogynists or even sexists (although the “problem? what problem?” guy I cited above made me wonder). I see a lot of people at radio at the very least know that the optics of seeing articles about this imbalance year after year makes for bad optics, and at most are actually personally concerned. But there is a lot of buck-passing, blaming the labels for not signing enough female artists to begin with, or the listeners, for favoring male artists to a wildly disproportionate extent in requests and research, or just the times, for giving us a slate of female artists that aren’t as good as the guys. There are answers to these arguments — like, yes, maybe women aren’t represented by an artist as compelling as the Chicks once were right now, but the anony-dudes you’re pushing up to No. 1 right now aren’t exactly George Strait, either, so answer that. And while the labels may release fewer records by women than by men, it still hovers around the 30% point, which doesn’t explain why, in an average week, there’s one woman in the top 10 (and, some weeks, none).

Here’s where I do break from some of my fellow advocates for a greater presence for women at country radio. That data that programmers point to —the research that supposedly shows listeners not only aren’t clamoring to hear more women on the radio, but often resist female artists when they come on? I don’t believe it’s all made up. I may take some friendly fire for conceding this point. Here’s a comment that was left by a PD on a Radio Ink story about the current controversy: “Very few (female artists) research well enough in the country format to get power plays/spins… even Carrie and Miranda struggle to research. It’s hard for programmers to play more female artists when listeners rating music rate female artists poorly. … Keep complaining all you want about the lack of females. If you are in this fight for more female artists on country radio, the minds and opinions you need to change are the listeners rating music on their favorite radio stations.”

I’d like to chivalrously (and figuratively) bust that guy in the chops for his cavalier attitude, but he’s got a point: Radio would be playing women in droves if its existing audience was giving any significant indication of wanting more of them. “Existing audience” may be the key term, though, as the programmer/audience relationship becomes a slowly shrinking echo chamber of mutual congratulation. And if you’re blaming your audience for their own current biases, isn’t that a little like a parent blaming a high school kid for a bad diet after raising them on one food group their entire lives?

Country radio rode the wave of bro-country to success in the early and even mid-2010s, but even as occasional post-bro monster successes like Luke Combs come along, there’s nothing obvious in sight to replace the waning trend of backroads/beer-blasts/Daisy-Dukes songs as the next crest. I recently checked out the website of Keith Hill, the polarizing consultant who created his own firestorm when he said that female artists should only be isolated “tomatoes” in the otherwise all-male salad of country radio. Hill has made some provocative claims lately about how even the limited successes of women in the format lately have been inflated by label promo teams gaming the charts in favor of artists like Underwood, Maren Morris and Tenille Townes. Yet even as he’s saying radio needs to play women in even lesser numbers to get ahead, Hill also acknowledges that the format’s cumes are down, alarmingly.

Could those cumes actually be down because there’s an exodus of any younger people who wans to hear a Kacey Musgraves and know a digital service is the only place to do that … leaving the format to a diminishing 35-and-up female demographic base that’s fine with hearing a torrent of soothing, interchangeable Blake-mini-mes at the end of the day?

And could those cumes be down because anyone who looks to country for rich emotional content and realness is not finding it in the party songs that are the bread-and-butter of male artists and not so much the women? Reading Hill’s blog, I found it interesting that he thought that Carrie Underwood made a mistake by releasing “Cry Pretty” and “Love Wins” as singles, but he was highly approving that she was following up with “Southbound” — the song on her album that’s most formulaic and, yes, most sounds like it could’ve been written and cut by a guy.

But lest this be just the thousandth in a series of “sky has fallen” takes on this perennial topic, I’m actually seeing some hopeful signs on the horizon, looking at the current chart.

In October 2018, when I wrote a Variety story on this subject, I looked at the then-current numbers: “In radio’s top 50 for the week of Oct. 1, as compiled by industry newsletter Country Aircheck, only six songs are from women.” That’s been typical in recent years — whether you look at the top 10 or the top 50, representation in the 10-15% range seems par for the course.

But I come up with much more encouraging numbers when I look at the same chart now. In the Country Aircheck/Mediabase chart for Jan. 13, the No. 1 song is Lady Antebellum’s ballad “What If I Never Get Over You,” a male/female duet ballad. Down a few slots, Maren Morris’ “The Bones” has leaped from No. 10 to No. 6. Twenty percent representation in the top 10? It may seem paltry, but for country radio as of late, that’s unusual and massive.

An aberration? Maybe, maybe not. Go deeper into the top 20, and you’ll find three more songs from women: Ingrid Andress’ “More Hearts Than Mine,” Ballerini’s “Homecoming Queen?” and a Carly Pearce/Lee Brice duet. Expand it to the top 50, and you’ve got Barrett’s debut single, a Trisha Yearwood comeback, Caylee Hammack as a freshman on the rise, Underwood’s latest, Maddie & Tae, Lauren Alaina, Runaway June and a new entry from Miranda Lambert. Some of these songs are languishing in low rotation or just starting their uncertain chart lives, but still, counting duets and group appearances, that’s women taking 13 women in the top 50 — more than double the amount when we counted 15 months ago.

I’m watching the progress of Andress in particular — she’s of that classic singer/songwriter country school that had more of a presence in the ‘90s, and nobody’s idea of a redneck woman (no offense to Gretchen Wilson) who’s trying to keep up with the boys by playing their same game. I hate to pin hopes and dreams on one song in particular, but if “More Hearts Than Mine” goes anywhere near the top, it might make you wonder if the playing field is being leveled a bit.

And, not to give men too much credit for this, but I suspect any leveling may be happening because trends are changing in what the males of the species are putting out and finding success with. Sometimes it really is all about the segues. When country was at its most testosterone-driven and ornery, it was inconceivable to image any non-robot DJ going from a Brantley Gilbert number into any song by a woman. But if Dan + Shay represent the dominant emerging strain, it’s not so much of a stretch to go from “Speechless” into a powerful female artist finding her voice.

Still, imagine a day in which you don’t have to rate the chances of a woman’s song by thinking about how smoothly it’ll fit into an hour’s worth of otherwise all-male programming. So, more power to L.A.’s Go Country 105 for correctly sussing that chasms would not open up in the earth and swallow parts of the city whole if Kelsea followed Gabby.

Anyway, in commenting on this brouhaha, “CBS This Morning” got one of its facts wrong. “If you’re not on the radio, you’re not on the charts,” said one of the show’s anchors, in signing off from the segment. Apparently he’s not familiar with the chart-topping success of Kacey Musgraves, who gets regularly played back-to-back-to-back, all by herself, on the format radio should fear most: an entire generation’s individualized Spotify playlists.

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