When Leslie Fram, formerly a top programmer and morning cohost in radio’s alternative format, made the jump from FM to television by coming aboard the CMT network as the VP in charge of music in 2011, she liked almost everything she had to learn as a quick study in country music. That ranged from the greater collegiality of country’s artist community to how much earlier the music showcases started in Nashville than they had in New York. She didn’t even have that much reason to miss rock ‘n’ roll, when Keith Urban, Brad Paisley and Eric Church were putting on what basically amounted to rock shows.
There was just one thing she couldn’t get used to — and still hasn’t: Where were the women, in a genre that once had Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks as its figureheads and superstars?
In a new episode of Variety‘s Strictly Business podcast, Fram talks about the diversity programs she’s co-founded over the last eight years, some of them within CMT, some part of the broader Nashville music-industry community. Those include CMT Next Women of Country, an initiative aimed at giving female artists starting out in country a broader look, which has as graduates such then-unknowns as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini. The efforts are extending to racial diversity, with her co-founding, with mTheory, of Equal Access, which endeavors to bring people of color into executive suites as well as opening up stages.
Listen to the full interview here:
Fram makes it clear that, while CMT is doing its part by guaranteeing 50% of airplay on all its cable and digital platforms to women, she’s puzzled by why her former cohorts in the radio world aren’t following along with even more modest efforts to ensure a place at the table for female artists.
“I know we’re talking about terrestrial radio, but a lot of my friends at radio stations have their hands tied because they’re overseeing multiple radio stations and can’t make decisions in their own market,” Fram says. “But the Kacey Musgraves story is one of the most perplexing stories ever, because if you are in radio, you should jumping on anything pop-culture. The fact that she won all of those Grammys and was still not supported… there’s absolutely no answer. So she went out on her own and she has had and will always have a career without radio. But the fact that she is in a league of her own and took the format global and is not supported… I mean, this is how you’re gonna get me all worked up.”
In the podcast, Fram — who, besides being the senior VP of music and talent at CMT, is also the newly reelected governor of the Recording Academy’s Nashville chapter board — also talks about her network’s franchise music specials and shows, like “The CMT Music Awards,” which graduated to a prime-time CBS berth this year in the wake of the ACMs exiting that network, and “CMT Crossroads.” To those who complain that, outside of those specials, the “M” isn’t much evident anymore in CMT’s linear programming, she points to CMT now having its own all-music channel on parent company Paramount’s free Pluto TV platform. And she says the paid Paramount+ streaming service is increasingly serving as the home of CMT-branded music specials and even films that don’t necessarily show up on the cable channel itself.
Of the issue of parity for women, Fram says, “We can’t control what trust your radio does. We can’t control what streaming services do. What we can control is what CMT does, and with CMT Equal Play, we looked at CMT Music, which is our 24-hour video channel, and we started another 24-hour video channel on Pluto TV, which is owned by Paramount, and what’s happened is that we see that the country music index is so high, especially with Pluto TV. And there we have that 50-50 parity of male/female videos every single hour. Changing it to 50-50 was a bold move and quite honestly, the ratings haven’t gone down, and we’ve been able to expose that many more women, whether they’re signed or unsigned.”
The disparity between being able to do the right thing at CMT and what happens at radio is one reason she doesn’t look back too wistfully at her former medium, even if, on her social media, she does still post throwback pics of herself with former NYC morning-jock cohost Matt Pinfield and the rock stars they used to hang out with.
“A lot of people in town remember when Mickey Guyton made her debut at Country Radio Seminar 10 years ago, when UMG did their huge showcase at the Ryman,” Fram recalls, “and she came out on that stage and got a standing ovation. Now, remember the people in that audience are all radio people — and she still wasn’t supported after that. I don’t know what the research said or didn’t say, but I can tell you that my radio ears said that song was a smash. Then she goes back again last year and gets another standing ovation, singing ‘Black Like Me’ — and she’s really been largely ignored at terrestrial radio. To me, she has arguably one of the best voices, not just in country music, but just in music. And the fact that she’s been embraced by everyone from the Super Bowl (where she sang the National Anthem this year) to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame … that is a huge question mark, in my mind, for someone who’s held her head up and became the voice of everything over the last several years.”
If there’s a disparity between who the big stars of country are and how they’re represented at radio versus every other medium, at least you won’t see it at CMT, which definitely is putting the M back in its name… as in, C-Mickey-TV and C-Musgraves-TV.
“Strictly Business” is Variety’s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of media and entertainment. (Please click here to subscribe to our free newsletter.) New episodes debut every Wednesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher and SoundCloud.