Respect Equality

Inside the myth that listeners don’t want to hear female singers

(L-R) Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton perform onstage during the 53rd annual CMA Awards at the Music City Center on November 13, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee.  Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

Story at a glance

  • Data show that songs by female country music artists accounted for only 10 percent of total spins on the radio between 2010 and 2019.
  • A new study conducted by CMT finds that an overwhelming percentage of listeners want to hear more women on the radio, with 84 percent of listeners asking for equal play.
  • Popular female country music artists like Kacey Musgraves and Kelsea Ballerini have taken to Twitter to voice their concerns over the matter.
  • CMT recently instituted a 50/50 play parity pledge for female artists across CMT and CMT Music channels, effective this past January.

“If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” That’s what Sony Music Chairman and CEO Gary Overton infamously stated five years ago in an interview with The Tennessean. “I can’t think of one star, much less superstar in country music, who wasn’t broken by country radio,” he added. “It’s just a fact. That’s where the active audience is. That’s where they go to listen to it. I defy you to tell me one act that made it big without country radio.”

So, if that highly debated statement is rooted in truth, have female country music artists been effectively silenced by the radio?

Casted away

“Despite the central role that women have played in the development of country music culture, their voices have been slowly erased from country radio over the last 20 years,” says University of Ottawa’s Jada Watson in an extensive research report she conducted with CMT, the leading authority on country music and lifestyle. 

In her report, Watson cites a series of studies published in consultation with the women’s advocacy group WOMAN Nashville, SongData. They dug into airplay data to better understand how songs by women factor into radio programming — to startling results. The first study revealed a 66 percent decline in the number of songs by women on their Yearend Airplay reports between 2000 and 2018, as well as significant disparity in the total spins accorded to songs by men and women in this period. What was once a 2 to 1 ratio in 2000 was drastically increased to 9.7 to 1 in 2018.

A second study that was published at the end of last year revealed that female artists received just 8.9% of the daytime spins in 2018, with the majority of spins for songs by women occuring during the times of day with the lowest percentage of listeners. 

The people wanna hear ‘em

Today, CMT and Coleman Insights released new research unveiling some groundbreaking insights into country radio listeners’ habits and attitudes toward female artists. The Equal Play Radio Research reveals that not only do 84 percent of listeners want equal play for women on radio, but 7 out of 10 want more female artists in the genre. Listeners reported they would even seek out country radio more if women were specifically highlighted, with 28 percent saying they would listen to radio more if additional female artists were featured, versus 11 percent who would listen less. 

The numbers help to debunk long-perpetuated myths claiming both female and male listeners don’t want to hear female voices on the radio, and that playing more female artists would be bad for ratings.

“The age-old myth that ‘women don’t want to hear women’ has led to a multitude of unproven public claims about female voices on the air, including ‘you can’t play two women back-to-back’ or ‘ratings drop when you play women,’” says Leslie Fram, Senior Vice President, Music & Talent, CMT. “When we approached Coleman Insights about this specific line of research, we were shocked to learn no one had ever commissioned data on the listeners themselves. CMT took it directly to the fans and what we found couldn’t have been more clear: listeners want equal play and women do want to hear women on the radio.”

While it may be common knowledge among industry insiders that more male artists are played on country radio than female, listeners were polled for the first time to uncover whether or not they recognized the bias. The data proves the understanding to be nearly universal, with 72 percent of country listeners reporting they hear more songs sung by men on country radio, with no differences shown in gender or age.  Another statistic gleaned from the study? An overwhelming majority of listeners polled (88 percent) heavily acknowledge the pivotal role females have played in country music’s history.

The release of the CMT’s study marks the official kick-off of their Equal Play campaign, the brand’s year-long initiative to create measurable, industry-wide action to dramatically increase female representation in country music and create a path for parity in 2020. Last month, CMT pledged 50/50 video airplay parity for female and male artists across CMT and CMT Music channels. CMT Radio followed suit by announcing CMT Radio Live with Cody Alan would also be implementing 50/50, a 100 percent increase in female airplay on their weeknight shows.

Taking a stand

CMT’s Equal Play Campaign comes at a time when records were broken by female artists despite the disparity. Carrie Underwood’s Cry Pretty debuted at #1 on the all-genre Billboard 200 with the highest sales for a country album in three years, Kacey Musgraves swept the Grammys for her critically acclaimed album “Golden Hour” and Maren Morris launched “Girl” only to shatter the record for the largest streaming week for a country studio album, debuting at number one on the Billboard Country Albums chart. 

Female country artists have also been taking to public platforms to voice their opinions about the play disparity — from Twitter to the red carpet. The 53rd annual Country Music Association Awards, for example, was graced by Jennifer Nettles’ show-stopping Christian Siriano pant-suit and a Alice-Mizrachi-designed cape with “Play our F*@#in records please and thank you” scrawled across the interior. 

“This tells us country music fans want to hear good songs period,” says Fram. “But it also tells us that we are training listeners not to hear female voices. Without creating an equal playing field, fans don’t know what they are missing. This is about a balance of gender and diversity. It’s essential for all voices to be heard.”