Sorting Out This Current Kerfuffle of Playing Songs by Women on Country Music Radio

By now, you may have heard about the shitstorm emanating from comments made by radio consultant Keith Hill on his advice for programming country music radio. It comes down to this: programmers should try to avoid scheduling songs by female performers back-to-back.  This comes from a music industry newsletter called Country Aircheck:

Hill cautions against [playing too many songs by females] on country music stations. And playing them back to back, he says, is a no-no.

“If you want to make ratings in Country radio, take females out,” he asserts. “The reason is mainstream Country radio generates more quarter hours from female listeners at the rate of 70 to 75%, and women like male artists. I’m basing that not only on music tests from over the years, but more than 300 client radio stations. The expectation is we’re principally a male format with a smaller female component. I’ve got about 40 music databases in front of me and the percentage of females in the one with the most is 19%. Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”

On the surface and to the layman, this seems incredibly sexist and offensive. (He probably could have come up with a better analogy, one that didn’t compare women to tomatoes.) But let’s step back from the ledge, shall we?

I worked with Keith for a number of years when I had to deal with a music scheduling system called Selector, one of the most popular software programs used by radio stations around the planet. . Stations use such programs to remove human bias and prejudice when presenting songs on the radio. They make sure songs come up the right number of times in the optimum order around the clock. And trust me when I say that no one knows Selector as well as Keith. Whenever I needed help setting up all the arcane categories and rules that go into making up radio station music schedules–which is equal parts art and science–Keith was the guy I’d call. He’s a music scheduling scientist and he knows how to order songs so that ratings go up. That’s his job.

Here’s a secret. Back in the day, the no-back-to-back-songs-by-females rule was gospel throughout all formats, including rock and alternative. But this had nothing to do with (a) being sexist; or (b) the quality of songs by female artists vs. those by males. It was all about audience research.

At the time–and this was 15-20 years ago–virtually all audience research pointed to the fact that women listeners had a limited tolerance for songs by women. Too many songs by women in a row caused women to tune out, which is death to a radio station that’s chasing ratings.  I know, I know, it sounds crazy now, but every time we did some research into this, the results came back the same. So we’d code all our music for male and female lead vocals and then set up a rule that prevented the software from scheduling two songs with female leads back-to-back.

(I should also point out that we had all kinds of rules preventing certain back-to-back segues and no just the female-female one. For example, back-to-back Cancon was discouraged. So were back-to-back ballads and back-to-back hardcore punk songs. The goal of music scheduling is to create a perpetually perfect playlist.)

Over time, though, audience preferences changed. Research shows that–in the alternative category, anyway–that there’s a more-or-less equal preference/tolerance for male and female vocals. The no-female-vocals-back-to-back rule isn’t enforced like it used to be. Instead, music directors care most about is tempo, texture and mood, each of which has its own coding protocols inside Selector or Music Master or whatever software is used. The gender of the vocalist is now pretty much irrelevant. At least at the stations where I’ve worked.

Keith was simply stating the cold truth when it comes to country audiences. It’s not about radio stations discriminating against female artists: it’s the reality of what country audiences–including the female members of those audiences–like to hear. Yes, it seems counter-intuitive and backward and insulting and sexist, but it’s not the first time radio audiences have surprised radio programmers.  From the Washington Post:

“I’m not advocating less females on the radio,” he said in a phone interview, adding: “All I have done is read a dashboard of metrics and read a suggestion to an internal part of the industry.” He said it’s like he’s a radio “doctor,” and this is his diagnosis: “If you play more than 15 percent female on [country] radio, your ratings will go down.”

Keith’s job as a consultant is to help radio stations increase their ratings. From the Washington Post again:

“I have no acrimony toward women,” Hill said, adding he’s a fan of artists like Lambert, Underwood and McBride. “I’m not a social engineer. I’m not trying to get parity. Never was my goal.”

When asked about bringing new, diverse voices to country radio and its importance to the health of the industry — given that he’s in a potential position of power — Hill insisted that’s not his duty. He reiterated his responsibility as a consultant is to help radio stations get ratings.

And there’s another reason for this in country radio: there are fewer hits by female artists.  From USA Today:

When Country Aircheck Publisher Lon Helton edited the initial story, he didn’t blink an eye because everyone in radio knows this, he said.

“Remember, since the 1960s, program directors have been telling people not to play two women back to back,” Helton said. “It has nothing to do with sexism. It has to do with the fact that through the years, you have had very few hits by women, so you want to spread them out a little bit because there are fewer of them.”

Generally, about 15% of songs on country radio are from women, he said. The 1990s, when women such as Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless and others dominated the airwaves, was an aberration.

He also denied the lack of women on country radio is sexist, noting that female radio programmers make the same choices as their male counterparts.

“Aha!” you’ll say. “There are fewer hits by female country artists because they’re allocated less airtime. Less airtime means that their songs have less of a chance becoming hits. This attitude results in a self-fulfilling prophecy!”

Valid argument. Or maybe more female artists need to start producing better records. Or maybe we’re just wrapped up in an era of Bro Country where artists like Blake Shelton, Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan are going to dominate for the next while. Or maybe country music audiences have definite male-skewing preferences. But to shout about sexism is a little too simplistic.

Me? I don’t care about who’s singing any particular song. When I program for a radio station, only one question matters: “Is this a good song?”



Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

2 thoughts on “Sorting Out This Current Kerfuffle of Playing Songs by Women on Country Music Radio

  • June 1, 2015 at 10:54 am

    I’ve long been aware of the male vs. female thing in terms of my personal listening habits but I never gave much thought to radio practices or how other listeners felt about it. FWIW I find that I’m drawn to female singers much more than when I was younger although I know I’m an exception in my circle of family and friends. The question of whether “quotas” are bad or simply are what they are is interesting; are there similar guidelines for other variables such as black and white, straight and gay, old and young? I’m not sure that radio should have any obligations here but it certainly flies in the face of where society seems to be moving these days.

  • Pingback: Links: 06/05/15 — Pretty Terrible

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.