People who aren’t overly familiar with country music probably don’t think there’s a gender imbalance within the genre. Ask them to name a few country music singers, and they’re as likely to mention Dolly Parton as they are Garth Crooks and as likely to think of Tammy Wynette as they are Willie Nelson. What they fail to realize is that big female stars like Dolly and Tammy are the exception rather than the rule, and that female country musicians have been struggling to get the same opportunities as their male counterparts for decades. On a radio level, at least, that all may be about to change.
As is so often the case with anything in music (and life in general) these days, the current debate about under-representation of female artists on country music radio started on Twitter and came from the most innocuous of sources. WKCQ-FM, a radio station based in Michigan, allegedly told a reporter from Variety that their DJs are subject to an order from management not to play two female artists back to back. They would later try to walk the comment back and claim it was a joke, backed by a statement from their parent company that no such policy either exists or had ever existed, but the fires of the debate had already been stoked, and they broke out into flames.
Kasey Musgraves, who knows a thing or two about what it takes for a female artist to become prominent within the field of country music, fired off a Tweet directly to the station accusing them of doing exactly what they denied they were doing. According to Kasey, WKCQ-FM and many other stations like it have no qualms about playing multiple consecutive (and similar) songs by male artists but never balance it out by allowing an equal amount of airtime to be given to equally-talented female performers. Before anyone knew it, the issue had become a big talking point among fans of the genre on social media, and stations who wanted to be seen as ahead of the curve were pledging to take positive action on the post.
The first company to step up to the plate was CMT, who announced that they would introduce a new policy of equal airtime for male and female artists with immediate effect. A Canadian country station followed suit, although their pledge only extended to a single week. It’s unknown why they felt they could only commit to equal representation for a single week, or what kind of ratio they would seek to return to after the week was over. While CMT received the positive response from fans that they were looking for, the approach of the station based on Ontario met with a mostly negative response.
Mickey Guyton, another prominent voice among female country performers, was skeptical about WKQC-FMs claims that no anti-female policy existed at their station. She insists that she’s been told multiple times by multiple different DJs that such rules are common practice, and the facts of the matter appear to back her up. A report and survey commissioned by WOMAN Nashville in 2018 found that not only is there an enormous disparity between the amount of airtime given to men and women, but also that the situation has become significantly more lopsided within the past decade. If the results of the survey are to be believed, the number of country songs by female artists played on radio stations across the country has more than halved since 2008. Given that the number of female performers hasn’t halved during the same duration, that’s an unacceptable situation.
It should be noted that airplay isn’t necessarily conducive to success because of the conservative attitude of the music industry toward signing and promoting performers as of late. With record sales falling each year, labels have – with some justification – been accused of dealing with artists as if they were games on a slots website. They’re happy to spend a little money on them, but if they don’t like what they get in return, they just move on to the next online slots game (or next artist) and put a little money into them instead to see if the return is any better. Ultimately, they end up in profit because in this metaphor they own all the online slots anyway, and all the money goes to them. It’s fans who suffer because they end up with a list of recording artists that’s even less diverse and varied than the airplay schedule of the radio stations.
We shouldn’t suggest that every radio station is guilty of the same sin because there are bright spots among the male-heavy stations. One of them is another Ontario station, CKLC-FM. They introduced an equal play scheme recently, but even prior to that, they enforced a maximum male-female ratio of 60%-40%. Brittany Thompson, who directs programming at the station, fears that short-term measures won’t be enough. The lack of female artists being given airplay time over the past few years has meant that listeners have become accustomed to hearing male voices and will need ‘re-training’ to accept female country singers on the airwaves again. That’s a process that’s likely to take time, and also strong resolve in the face of likely criticism from some listeners for being ‘too politically correct.’
Country music has a lower profile now than it has at any point in the past eighty years, and stifling female artists won’t help it regain the platform that it’s lost when it comes to mainstream acceptance. We know that there are exciting female country music artists out there. Carrie Underwood, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert, and Mickey Guyton are just the tip of the iceberg, and they’re representative of dozens – possibly even hundreds – of other female artists who could prove to be just as exciting and popular with audiences if they were given a chance.
Ultimately, if you love country music, you should love it for the sound and the lyrical content. The gender of the person expressing those lyrics shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of a great song one tiny little bit. This should be an initiative that all of us can get behind, and we hope to see (and, more importantly, hear) women in country being given a bigger stage to show us what they’re capable of in the future.