Country Radio Still Playing the Same Old Song When It Comes to (Not) Playing Female Artists, Study Finds
A new study solidifies the belief that country radio has long been reluctant to play songs from women in general — and almost never plays two women artists back-to-back.
The study, by Jan Diehm of The Pudding and Dr. Jada Watson, is titled They Won’t Play a Lady-O on Country Radio: Examining Back-to-Back Plays by Gender, Race and Sexual Orientation. It pulls from the daily logs of 29 country radio stations in large market areas, analyzing 24-hour programming in each month of 2022 to see how often listeners of those stations could expect to hear back-to-back songs by women, artists of color and LGBTQ+ artists. Among the country radio stations included in the study were KKGO (Los Angeles), WUSN (Chicago), KKBQ and KILT (Houston), WKDF (Nashville) and WMZQ (Washington, DC).
The study found that at these stations, songs from women country artists were played back-to-back an average of 0.5% of the time. In data that is consistent with SongData’s findings regarding daypart programming, the majority of these back-to-back plays (46.1%) occurred in overnights (between midnight and 6 a.m.), while 19% were played during evening hours (between 7 p.m. and midnight) — time periods with lower listenership. In the intro to the study, an anecdotal sample is given, noting that if one had tuned into a particular (unnamed) station at 8:35 a.m. on Jan. 7, 2022, it would have taken over nine hours before hearing two consecutive songs from female artists.
“If you listen to this station non-stop from midnight to 11:59 p.m. today, you’d likely only hear three back-to-back songs by women, compared to 245 from men,” the report states.
“We’ve heard for many years that songs by women should not be programmed back-to-back — as we say in the study, it’s been part of industry rhetoric since at least the 1960s and was even written into programming manuals,” Watson tells Billboard via email. “But it’s one of those issues that is spoken about anecdotally and now we have this study to show not just that it’s true, but just how bleak it is for women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists at radio.”
The new report builds upon Watson’s earlier work, including her March 2021 study, Redlining in Country Music: Representation in the Country Music Industry (2000-2020), and an updated version released earlier this year.
“As a listener, it’s pretty easy to pick up on the bias in country radio when you can spend 20 minutes in your car and go without hearing a single song by a woman, let alone back-to-back songs by women,” Diehm tells Billboard via email. “So, I was expecting the worst, but it was so much worse than that. My hometown station is San Antonio (KCYY-FM), the station we used in the intro of the piece — [and] you know it’s bad when you start to think of a station that plays women back-to-back at 0.99% as one of the ‘better’ stations.”
Diehm added that while compiling the study, she and Watson brought in statistics professor Sara Stoudt, who ran 1,000 “coin-flip” simulations for each of the stations represented. “Even when accounting for the already low rate of plays for women, 17 of the 29 stations played fewer women’s songs back-to-back than you would expect them to if the plays were left up to chance,” she continues. “Not that I needed convincing, but it proved even further that these were absolutely programming decisions and not something that stations could talk themselves out of. That one-two punch of qualitative stories and quantitative data might just help move the needle.”
Moreover, the majority of songs from women that are played back-to-back are not current singles. “Gold catalog” songs (songs that are several years old) make up 36.2% of the back-to-back songs played by women, while recurrents (songs that have reached their peak on the station’s playlist but are still part of the station’s programming) account for 43.7%. Meanwhile, current singles from women artists accounted for just 20.1% of the small percentage of back-to-back airplay for songs performed by women.
The impact of current music from women being absent from country radio creates a harmful spiral that impacts other areas of women artists’ careers. It leads to fewer women signing to record labels, fewer women earning performance opportunities on major tours, festivals and awards ceremony slots and fewer women receiving awards nominations, the study asserts.
“It creates a culture where women are competing only against other women for an already teeny tiny amount of slots,” Diehm says. “Playing only ‘gold songs’ by women artists also means that you’re freezing them in time, not allowing them to grow or evolve, because heaven forbid we let a woman gain or hold power.”
Songs by women of color and LGBTQ+ artists were played even less on country radio — earning less than 1% of airplay last year. Songs by female artists overall earned 11% of last year’s airplay, with 10.97% of that low percentage of airplay going to white women and only 0.03% to Black and biracial women. The study further notes that only six solo Black women and one group of Black women have ranked on country radio charts since 1958. Meanwhile, LGBTQIA+ artists received just 0.13% of airplay in 2022.
“The bar for entry is high for new women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists. And then we’re left with this practice in which radio supports one woman at a time — and that duration for which white women are supported is becoming shorter,” Watson says. She adds that from roughly 2005 to 2014, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift received “sustained” support from radio and were responsible for a whopping 83% of the No. 1 songs by women during that period — and 55% of No. 1 songs by women over the last two decades in total.
While the above women artists still receive airplay (and Swift has transitioned to pop), Watson notes that since 2015, newer women artists like Kelsea Ballerini, Maren Morris, Carly Pearce and Lainey Wilson have received only “short periods of support,” adding that “the industry only lets one succeed at a time…This is a culture that limits space for white women and then tosses out their music once it’s peaked on the charts. They don’t even open the door to BIPOC women and LGBTQ+ artists.”
The report also offers historical insight, showing how female representation on country radio (specifically cataloged by Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart) rose from 6.5% in 1958 to a peak of 33.1% in 1999 (a time when the chart was based only on radio airplay). But in the decades that followed, charting songs by women artists plummeted to a low of 11.4% in 2015 (the same year that radio consultant Keith Hill made his now-infamous comments that compared female artists to the “tomatoes” in a male-dominated “salad”). The study notes that over the past seven years, the percentage of charting songs by female artists has averaged just 15%.
Though the Hot Country Songs chart now incorporates data beyond just radio airplay, the study shows that the numbers from the early 2000s correlate to Mediabase airplay data, which was used to calculate back-to-back rates of airplay in the study.
Going forward, Watson plans to continue studying the country radio format but is also interested in “thinking more broadly about the distribution ecosystem and exploring user engagement with Spotify’s recommender system.” She has also embarked on studying the Triple A format, which she notes has “a much different strategy for programming and is a format that has been a major launching pad for new artists of all genres.”
“Country music may be the closest to my heart,” Watson adds, “but examining representation in radio programming and charts of other formats is really important for understanding how these genre systems developed over time and work together within the larger industry ecosystem. Country isn’t the only format with these forms of inequity.”
Billboard has reached out for comment to a number of radio chains with country stations and will update the story as they respond.