In January, Country Radio Broadcasters’ Executive Director RJ Curtis took part in a Change The Conversation panel to address the lack of female voices heard on country radio.
“We don’t want to make a perfunctory, check-the-box pass at this,” Curtis said during that meeting. “Doing so would be an insult to everyone in this room tonight. It has to be done thoughtfully, intelligently. We have to recruit informed industry leaders who also participate in sessions during CRS (Country Radio Seminar) to contribute, too, so that any discussion we have ends up being productive.”
On Thursday, May 23, Curtis hosted the inaugural CRS360 webinar, the first in a series that aims to deepen discussions around hot button topics pertaining to country radio, the first of those being the lack of female artists heard on country radio.
The CRS360 webinar was the first of a two-part look into the topic. SummitMedia VP/Programming and President/GM of the company’s Wichita cluster Beverlee Brannigan served as moderator. The session included Stone Door Media Lab’s Jeff Green, Cumulus Dir. NASH Programming and WKDF/Nashville PD John Shomby, and Vanderbilt University postdoctoral scholar Rachel Skaggs, Ph.D., to look at chart data, as well as the sociological impacts.
Green offered several data sets, tracking country radio chart data over the past 45 years (1974-2018). He summarized the findings from looking at a nearly half-century worth of country radio data with three key points, including:
- Male country artists have historically dominated country radio airplay, having 70% of all singles released to country radio, 74% of all Top 15 songs, and 78% of all No. 1 songs over the past 45 years.
- He notes the downtrend in the number of female artists on country radio that has dogged country radio from 2011-today is not a new phenomenon and that it happened previously in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
- A slower chart further compresses opportunities for female artists, who must compete against a larger roster of male artists, whether at country radio or in the streaming world.
In 2018, female solo artists earned just 5.4 percent of the No. 1 songs at country radio, a drastic fall considering the peaks in 1978 and 1998, when female solo artists earned 30.3 percent and 30 percent of the No. 1 songs on country radio, respectively. However, 1982 served as the lowest point, when female artists earned 3.7 percent of the No. 1 songs, followed by 2014, when they earned 4.6 percent of the No. 1 songs.
The data found that on average over the past 45 years (1974-2018), female artists have achieved 27 percent of the Top 15 singles on country radio. Notably, since 2007, when Arbitron (now Nielsen Audio)’s Portable People Meter (PPM) was introduced, the number of female artists notching songs in the Top 15 on country radio fell to an average 21 percent (2007-2018). Over the past five years, that number continued to drop, to a 16 percent average. That data includes songs from solo female artists, duos or groups with a female vocalist, and duets that included a female artist.
According to data tracking the percentage of Top 15 country radio singles by females from 1974-2018, the late ‘90s offered a peak in the number of female artists earning Top 15 singles, with female artists bringing in 38.9 percent of the format’s Top 15 singles in 1998. 1999 saw similar numbers, with 37.2%. Prior to 1998, the peak year for females earning Top 15 singles (according to the data set) was 1979, when female artists earned 34.9 percent of the format’s Top 15 singles.
2018 marked a new low in the number of female artists notching Top 15 singles, with 12.2 percent.
Shomby and Green also attempted to address the effects PPM have had on radio stations and artists, versus handwritten logs that are still often used.
“With PPM it’s about exposure rather than the listener,” Shomby said. “If you are in a grocery store and hear music over the radio, it picks that up, whereas a diary is what you recall listening to. I think that affects radio’s ratings.”
“When stations ratings depressed from 2007-2009, radio stations built a lot of pressure about the music and started focusing on hits,” Green said. “We can’t blame 100 percent of the blame on the people meter but as you saw the change in 2000s, that has had an effect. Female artists who were outnumbered to begin with were affected by PPM.”
Adding to this is the slowing of the radio charts that began in 1995, as it takes longer for a song to reach the top of the chart. The study found that in 1998-1999, the number of total No. 1 songs (by males, females or groups/duos) on the country radio chart fell by half in the country genre, from 40 No. 1 songs in 1998 to 18 No. 1 songs in 1999. That downward trend seems to have largely recovered, as since 2013, there have been at least 40 No. 1 songs each year, with the exception of 2018, which saw 37 No. 1 songs.
“It means fewer slots for new adds each week,” Green said. “And with so many consistently active male artists, it makes it harder for female talent.”
The study also noted that Top 15 singles from female artists is down nearly 50% from 2011-2018. Several top female artists such as Martina McBride and Reba have not had hits since at least 2016, and though there are many female newcomers to the genre, most have not yet scored a Top 15 hit.
Later in the session, Shomby also offered an overview of the factors radio station programmers look at in determining songs to add to their stations, which included research (questionnaires, consumption, and national research reports), chart position, artist popularity, overall sound of the music,
Is Country Streaming Better?
The study compared the female artist share of country streaming vs. country radio and found that female artists (including female solo artists, female groups, females in groups and females in duets) made 13% of the Top 200 streaming country artists, according to data from Nielsen Music on the week of 5/14/19. This is compared to the percentage of female artists reaching the Top 15 on country radio from Jan-May 20, 2019, which is 10%.
Meanwhile the percentage of female country artists with ATD streams among the Top 200 country artists was 15.5% (taken from data from 2008-May 14, 2019), while singles reaching the Top 15 on country radio by female artists was at 21.4% (taken from CA/Mediabase from 2007-2018).
Radio And Awards: Different Audiences, Different Winners
Skaggs’ data highlighted the differences between artists and songs who find success on country radio and those that are honored at various awards shows and critics panels, including the Grammy Awards, NSAI’s “Songs I Wish I’d Written” honors, and the Nashville Scene’s Country Music Critics Poll. The study showed that songs performed by women are 135 percent more likely to be nominated for the Grammy’s Country Song of the Year category, no more or less likely to be selected as a “Song I Wish I’d Written” honoree, and 76 percent less likely to appear on Billboard’s Year-End Hot Country Songs Chart.
Shomby noted that much of the disconnect between the songs and artists that succeed on radio and those that win Grammys and other industry honors is due to the different audiences they reach.
“The Grammys are selected by industry folks—publishers, writers. It’s really not a listener-oriented situation, which is where that disconnect may come in,” Shomby said.
Curtis noted, “Historically, there is a disconnect between Grammy [winners] and what is played on country radio. Fifteen or sixteen years ago, the album [Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers] won the Grammy for Country Album of the Year, but had little sales and no radio hits at all.”
Shomby offered another example of the disconnect from earlier this year, when Kacey Musgraves took home several Grammy honors, including the evening’s top prize, Album of the Year, for her project Golden Hour. However, she has never had a No. 1 single at country radio.
“She is polarizing in this business at this point, but I don’t think there is a problem with Kacey, it’s that the Grammys are a different awards show. They are picked by people who aren’t listening to radio but are involved in music.”
The conversation surrounding the lack of female voices on country radio will continue with Part 2 on June 11 at 1 p.m. CT.
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