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How CMT’s Pledge to Play More Videos by Women Could Influence Country Radio

Rolling Stone — Marissa R. Moss

The lineup yesterday morning on CMT could not have looked more different than what was queued up at most country radio stations across America: In the network’s morning bloc were videos from Pistol Annies, Tanya Tucker, Maren Morris, and the eternally banned-from-airwaves Dixie Chicks. It was Day Two of CMT’s new commitment, announced Tuesday, to airing a 50/50 split between videos by female and male artists.

While CMT was already at a healthy 40/60 ratio, this new initiative serves as a nudge to country radio to do something similarly radical in order to increase the amount of female artists who make it into rotation. According to a study by Dr. Jada Watson in consultation with WOMAN Nashville, women represent just 11.3 percent of the songs on year-end airplay reports.

Here’s how the programming will look: In CMT’s morning and overnight windows, when videos are played consecutively, you’ll find Morris alongside Ingrid Andress and Tenille Townes, next to “gold” throwback programming that nods to Shania Twain and Faith Hill. But you’ll also find videos from artists who receive next to no terrestrial airplay whatsoever, like Brittany Howard, Joy Williams, and the Highwomen. The idea is to not only give these artists exposure, but up the “familiarity” factor that might eventually trickle down to radio. It’s also geared to show radio that there’s no shortage of viable songs from women in the inventory — anything but, actually.

For CMT, actively supporting women is nothing new: Under the leadership of senior vice president of music strategy and talent Leslie Fram, the network launched its Next Women of Country franchise in 2013 (this year’s tour is headlined by Tanya Tucker), and Fram has been stirring the pot alongside Tracy Gershon and Beverly Keel with their Change the Conversation org ever since the infamous “Tomatogate” comments. But if all of this feels like part of a discussion that has been spinning on repeat as frequently as a bro on country radio sings about his “girl,” that’s because it has: “Tomatogate” happened in 2015, and most on Music Row are more keen to talk about the problem rather than act on it.

While video play has no direct connection to radio spins (nor are videos any longer CMT’s bread and butter, as the network continues to focus on original programming), Fram hopes that the gesture will be a motivator across the industry. “We’re not saying you have to play every song by every woman,” says Fram. “But what we will be doing is reaching out [to radio] saying, ‘What kind of pledge can you even make?’ It would be nice if radio could increase women’s spins even by 10 percent. It’s not that difficult, it’s not some scary thing.”

It’s not scary, unless you’re a program director. Rolling Stone Country reached out to more than 30 country radio PDs and asked if they would make a similar pledge (not to increase to 50/50, but whatever margin they could), and/or remove the “no women back-to-back” rule that has plagued the genre for decades. Last week, it became the subject of a viral tweet from Michigan’s 98 WKCQ-FM in which they stated “we cannot play two females back to back.” “Smells like white male bullshit,” Kacey Musgraves tweeted in reply. Only a handful of PDs responded at press time, including Tom Poleman, chief programming officer and president of iHeart.

“Not sure what station said they have a ‘no women back-to-back’ rule, but it’s definitely none of our stations,” Poleman told Rolling Stone Country. “iHeartCountry continues to recognize the pivotal role of women in country, and our top country on-air personality, Bobby Bones, and the entire iHeartCountry team have been strong supporters of women in country.” Poleman pointed to iHeart’s “On the Verge” program, which put a spotlight on Caylee Hammack and Ingrid Andress this year, as well as their “Women of iHeartCountry” once-a-week program — which gives women a spin during the weekends (it takes 300 spins at least, says Fram, to get an artist to the point of “familiar”). iHeart Radio recently announced a slew of layoffs that targeted small and medium markets, further consolidating and automating their programming.

Others, like David Corey, the program director of WKLB in Boston, went further. “I am 100 percent in favor of supporting women in the format way more than we have been,” he said. “I think the goal for our industry [and] radio programmers in general is to increase adds and rotations of female artists over the next six months to a year so that the songs we are playing in that time frame can get to a point where they will be big hits several months after the airplay starts. We should give them the exact same chance we do with male artists.… These are artists that are now taking up a good percentage of our playlist. Going immediately to 50/50 can’t happen overnight, but we need to get there this year.”

Corey homes in on an important concept: that “hits” are made, not born. Yes, there are sonic markers that make a song viable for radio, but, all other things being equal, a “hit” is the product of repeat listens. That’s a sharp contrast from programmers like Randy Brooks of Kix 102.5 in Missouri, who insist that all decisions are made simply on “the power of the song and the performance as a whole,” a hard pill to swallow when you consider that Cole Swindell’s “Flatliner,” a song Rolling Stone Country said “should have died in the ER,” reached Number Two and Dylan Scott’s vapid “My Girl” hit Number One during the same year that Ashley McBryde’s stunning “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” and Cam’s powerhouse “Diane” failed to make any significant impact on radio.

“It has nothing to do with gender, one way or the other,” Brooks insists. “If an artist wants chart movement, I believe they should focus more on their art rather than social issues.”

MoJoe Roberts of 98.7 the Bull in Portland says the concern is fair and not simply “social issues,” whatever that may be. “I feel there is a lot of validity in the outcry for more airplay for women,” says Roberts, who is adding a woman-centric weekend show to his programming. “We stand with the movement and are showing our support.”

Nashville’s main leadership organizations, the CMA and CRS (Country Radio Seminar), offered gestures of support as well (the ACMs did not offer comment at press time). “CMA is supportive of any music discovery program that helps give women artists and creators an equal opportunity,” said Sarah Trahern, CMA CEO in a statement to Rolling Stone Country. “The organization has been part of both public and private initiatives to help continue the ongoing conversation about equity in country music, and we applaud Leslie Fram and CMT for their 50/50 pledge in 2020.” While the CMAs devoted their awards show in 2019 to “celebrating women,” there was no mention of the imbalance at country radio during the broadcast.

“The music industry in general, and the country genre specifically, are in need of greater diversity and gender balance when it comes to artist airplay,” says R.J. Curtis, executive director of Country Radio Seminar. “What Leslie and her team at CMT have done here is exemplary, deserves attention, and is consistent with the network’s past initiatives.”

At last year’s CRS, the topic of women in country was referred to as “the elephant in the room,” while some programmers discussed how artists like Kacey Musgraves “won’t do the promotional things radio expects especially a woman artist to do” (Rolling Stone Country has reported extensively on how inappropriate those expectations can be). This year’s CRS, which will take place in February, does have a stronger-than-normal representation of women: artist interviews with Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, and a new artist class that includes Andress and Runaway June. There will also be a panel on breaking female artists called “All the Singles, Ladies.”

Nate Deaton, general manager of KRTY in San Jose, is sitting on that panel. “Frankly I am tired of the whole issue,” he says. “What we need to do is break acts in this format and that has been scarce the last couple of years. Not just female but for everyone. The ACMs just announced there is not any eligible Duos or Groups for a new artist award; that is a sad commentary on breaking new artists.”

Artists themselves, however, are embracing CMT’s pledge — with the caveat that they mostly wish they didn’t have to discuss their gender at all. “It’s my hope that one day we can all be referred to as artists, not female or male artists,” says Erin Enderlin. “But until the great discrepancy and bias against an artist who happens to be female subsides, it’s absolutely imperative that we have leaders such as CMT providing platforms for female artist to promote their music.”

Hailey Whitters, who just released the stunning life-lessons song “Janice at the Hotel Bar,” agrees. “I am ready for gender to not be a factor when deciding great music,” she says. “Unfortunately, until there’s an even playing field, women are faced with the disadvantage of ever being heard. Props to CMT for providing an equal opportunity for the cream to rise to the top.”

Male artists, like Radney Foster, are celebrating the pledge, too. “This is a wonderful development,” he says. “Lyrically and musically, women are making some of the most interesting country music out there, from Miranda Lambert, Ashley McBryde, and Margo Price to Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris. Kudos to CMT.”

Lindi Ortega, after applauding CMT on her Twitter page, was one artist who had to endure messages like “you require a pedestal because you have a vagina,” which she quickly made public (CMT was likewise showered with similar comments from the anonymous “merit police,” who refuse to accept, as Brandi Carlile once told Rolling Stone Country, how “inequality prevents merit-based success”). “My hope is that this will spearhead an initiative for much needed change,” Ortega says. “If country radio and country music festivals follow suit then they will be setting an example and doing the right thing. Music created by women is in danger of becoming extinct from these platforms. I truly believe that this is not what the public wants to happen.”

Some artists, however, point out that while a 50/50 pledge is good progress, it stops short of intersectionality. “Calling it 50/50 implies that there are only two genders, when there are more than that,” says Letitia VanSant. “While it comes naturally for white, cis-gendered women to band together and advocate for representation in the face of a male-dominated industry, sometimes we don’t realize who is unintentionally being left out.”

But motioning the industry toward equality is undeniably an important step, and one that women in video production are especially excited about. More videos from women artists generally means more women videographers, producers, and crew. “There are not a lot of female photographers, not a lot of female video directors,” says Peyton Dale, a wardrobe stylist for country artists. “Older men in the industry are still driving things, and are still making women feel like they are products and not people.”

As for CMT, Fram promises their 50/50 pledge isn’t the end of their activism. “There’s more to come. Research we commissioned,” says Fram. “We want to reach out and see who else would make some sort of pledge. We have to get to the point where women are part of the regular mix. We just didn’t want to wait another year, and have the same results, and be sitting in the same exact place.”

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