CMT Helps Women Achieve Their Dream Careers With Equal Airplay Initiative

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CMT

On January 21, CMT announced that it would devote half of its primetime video hours to female artists, effective immediately.

For years, the conversation surrounding the dismal statistics that prove women are played significantly less than men have dominated the Nashville media cycle, but a recent resurgence of this issue inspired CMT to make a serious power play toward equality.

In January, Variety reporter Chris Willman remarked on Twitter that he heard a Los Angeles country radio station play songs by Gabby Barrett and Kelsea Ballerini back-to-back, nodding to an urban legend among the music industry that country radio is discouraged from playing two female artists in a row to maintain listenership. The comment received a since-deleted reply from a representative at 98 KCQ, a country station in Michigan, stating that they are not allowed to play two female artists back to back. The exchange prompted a firestorm of responses, including replies from Ballerini and Kacey Musgraves. “Smells like white male bullshit and why LONG ago I decided they cannot stop me,” Musgraves defiantly responded, while Ballerini used her platform to proclaim, “to all the ladies that bust their asses to have half the opportunities that men do, I’m really sorry that in 2020, after YEARS of conversation of equal play, there are still some companies that make their stations play by these rules. It’s unfair and it’s incredibly disappointing.”

Five days later, CMT announced that half of its 29 primetime video hours now feature female artists, balancing their previous statistics that offered male artists 60 percent of those primetime hours. “We wanted to look at ourselves first and say, ‘What more can we be doing?’ This to us was the quickest thing we could do,” CMT Senior Vice President of Music & Talent Leslie Fram tells Audiofemme about instituting the new format. “We felt that another year would go by with another research study that said the same things, and we were like, ‘We have to take action somehow.’”

In December 2019, Dr. Jada E. Watson, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa, released a comprehensive study showing the severity of this underrepresentation on radio. Gathering data between 2002 and 2018, Watson’s findings showed that top female act Carrie Underwood received roughly 3.5 million spins – half the amount of her male counterpart Kenny Chesney with 6 million. Additionally, female acts often hear the same false narratives from executives, such as “women don’t want to hear women,” while radio consultant Keith Hill made the controversial claim, “if you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out,” in a 2015 interview with Country Aircheck.

To help combat this inequality, CMT immediately put the 50/50 airplay initiative into action with five of the ten videos played on the channel per hour representing female artists. Fans get to see the videos that established the likes of Reba McEntire, Tanya Tucker and Martina McBride as legends, and the cinematic beauty of videos by modern superstars such as Carrie Underwood and Brandi Carlile. The tactic also provides an important platform for Nashville’s rising stars like RaeLynn and Madison Kozak, the first artist signed to Nashville’s new all-female label, Songs & Daughters. “You’ll be able to see the breadth of a female artists and you’ll see some people that are outside the lines of country that aren’t right down the middle,” Fram describes. “It’ll be very diverse.”

When the news broke, many fans and artists alike took to social media with notes of support and celebration. But several social media users also responded with sexist comments, calling the strategy “a sick joke,” “forced pc” and “a horrid idea.” Fram explains that such a mindset stems from a lack of understanding of the plight women have faced trying to break ground on an uneven playing field. “For anybody out there that says we’re forcing this and it’s a gender issue, it’s not. Women are having to work harder, they’re doing everything that they’re asked to do, and they’re still not getting the exposure, which to me is really unfair,” she responds. “We’ve always said let the best songs win, but women haven’t had an equal playing field. There’s so much great music out there and so many meaningful songs.”

CMT’s equal airplay also compliments its Next Women of Country program, founded by Fram in 2013, which provides resources to up-and-coming female artists. It also includes the annual CMT Next Women of Country Tour, which sees current headliner Tucker performing in more than 40 U.S. cities alongside a rotating troupe of up-and-coming female artists. With the new measure, Fram aims to establish a well-rounded genre that reflects the views of all types of people, breaking down the obstacles that stand in the way of certain artists being able to share their voices and artistry.

“It gives them a chance to have a career based on their music. It needs to be about the music first and foremost, to really give them a shot at having a career,” she says of her vision for the initiative’s impact on artists. “My hope is that we break that cycle and that more women get signed, have an opportunity to get in those writing rooms, have an opportunity to get on tours and really have the career that they dream of.”

CMT Next Women of Country Proves There’s a Sisterhood in Nashville

Each year in Nashville, the women of country music gather to celebrate one another and provide an important platform for the new artists working to break ground in the genre through CMT Next Women of Country.

Founded by CMT Senior Vice President of Music Strategy & Talent Leslie Fram in 2013, CMT Next Women of Country shines a spotlight on nearly a dozen promising new female acts in Nashville, providing them with tools and resources to be successful in a male-dominated industry, with past inductees including Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini. During the 2019 CMT Next Women of Country event co-hosted by Fram and Martina McBride at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, the 2020 CMT Next Women of Country class was unveiled, comprised of Gabby Barrett, Caylee Hammack, Hailey Whitters, Madison Kozak, Walker County, Avenue Beat, Abbey Cone, Kylie Morgan, Sykamore, Tiera and Renee Blair.

A consistent theme carried throughout the annual event is empowerment, whether the artists are championing one another or singing introspective and thought-provoking songs they’ve penned. The 2019 event reflected the variety of the music these women are creating through an acoustic songwriters round that invites each of the new inductees to perform an original song. Caylee Hammack delivered a stirring performance of “Small Town Hypocrite,” a song inspired by the ex-boyfriend she gave up a scholarship for who ended up cheating on her, while Hailey Whitters also proved to be a compelling songwriter with her depiction of a fictional character named Janice, an 80-year-old woman who offers sage life advice like “stay off the pills, but get on the pill if you ain’t ready to start a family,” the line calling to mind Loretta Lynn’s 1975 feminist anthem, “The Pill.” Madison Kozak, the first artist signed to Nashville’s new all-female label Songs & Daughters led by groundbreaking songwriter Nicolle Galyon (Camilla Cabello’s “Consquences,” Dan + Shay’s “Tequila”), held every heart in the room like it was made of glass with “Household,” touching on the universal feeling of wanting to leave home, but longing for that very place when you’re finally gone.

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CMT)

The talent displayed in the room reflected country radio’s glaring lack of inclusion for such artists. In December of 2018, it was reported that for the first time in the 28 years since the Billboard Country Airplay chart launched, there were no women in the Top 20. However, up-and-coming artists are slowly fighting their way out of these alarming statistics, as Hammack’s debut single “Family Tree” has cracked the Top 40 on the country charts, Ingrid Andress is in the Top 20 with “More Hearts Than Mine” and Runaway June became the first all-female trio since the Dixie Chicks to have a Top 5 hit with “Buy My Own Drinks.”

But the conversation surrounding the lack of women on country radio still lingers, with Mickey Guyton remarking on “the elephant in the room” the moment she took the stage to open the show. “There is without question an injustice happening to women in country music. There are a lot of great songs that are not getting a shot,” Guyton professed before performing her new song “Sister” with her country music “sisters” Tenille Townes, Clare Dunn, Rachel Wammack and Leah Turner. “But one thing is for certain: it is going to take us women to lift each other up out of these trenches.”

A burgeoning superstar who has gone above and beyond to support her female contemporaries is Brandi Carlile, who was honored with the Next Women of Country Impact Award. Carlile, who scooped up three Grammy Awards in 2019 for her acclaimed album By the Way, I Forgive You, has made it an integral part of her mission to elevate the women around her, curating the all-female stage at the 2019 Newport Folk Festival that featured her supergroup The Highwomen and a surprise performance by Dolly Parton, in addition to creating the women-centric festival Girls Just Wanna Weekend. She’s also pivoting her support for women into a behind-the-scenes role, serving as co-producer of Tanya Tucker’s new album While I’m Livin’ with Shooter Jennings.

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CMT)

Rather than point a finger at country radio, Carlile encouraged radio employees in attendance to be intentional about the songs they’re sharing through the format while expressing the reverence she has for the genre that raised her. “If country music is the story of rural America, then what is the story that we’re telling to our young girls?” she questioned. “What we’re hoping, and what we’re inviting country radio to do is to catch up with the way that we all understand. I would urge anybody that’s involved in country radio…ask yourself the question every morning before you go to work ‘what do I want my job to say to my daughter today?’ Because she’s an American girl, she’s in love with a boy, she needs wide open spaces, she’s a wild one,” she continued, referencing iconic songs by Trisha Yearwood, the Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill. “She’s more than a pair of blue jeans in a cab of a truck.”

Additionally, a handful of behind-the-scenes movers and shakers were present at the ceremony, including Cindy Mabe, president of Universal Music Group Nashville, who made it a point to continue to call for change in the industry regarding support for women. “We can all keep moving through and thinking that things have changed at the rate that they need to change, and they haven’t,” she stated. “This is about how we give a voice and a perspective to half the world.”

She encouraged emerging artists to explore other methods of promoting their music outside of radio, pointing to artists like Musgraves, who received little attention from radio for her Grammy winning Album of the Year Golden Hour, instead reaching listeners through other formats like social media. “Women are bringing more adventurous, interesting, state of the art, cutting edge music and it doesn’t go and fit in a box. We will spend the next years figuring out how we get it exposed, one foot in front of the other,  because great music should always rise and it’s not about fitting into a box,” she said, actively taking Carlile’s words to heart. “I have to get out of bed every day and make a movement towards making women’s voices matter again.”

The program continues with the CMT Next Women of Country Tour, headlined by Tanya Tucker, in early 2020, with supporting acts and dates to be announced in the coming weeks.