- Izzy Bohn is a student at Columbia University in New York, majoring in human rights and political science.
The dominant view of country music is that of white men singing about trucks, beer, and pretty women. However, the genre is changing; Minority artists like Kacey Musgraves, Lil Nas X, and Valerie June have risen to prominence, which means country music audiences appreciate tales from a variety of storytellers.
Either way, industry gatekeepers have consistently kept them out of the spotlight.
In February 2020, 98 KCQ, a country music station from Michigan, tweeted that the station was not allowed to broadcast two female performers back to back, sparking outrage among women country artists and listeners. The tweet was quickly deleted following the controversy.
However, more country radio programmers, alongside artists like Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini, began to speak out, revealing that for decades America’s country radio stations operated under the unwritten rule that women should never constitute the majority of a set.
In an interview with Musicology professor Vice, Jada Watson explained, “These unofficial rules date back to at least the 1960s… Without a lot of female songs to play, DJs flaunt them to create a sense of diversity in their sets.… 60 years later, in an era when there are more than enough female artists to spotlight, a number of programmers and DJs still stick to this strategy.
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Discrimination is a stain on the industry
The problem doesn’t end with women artists: the industry also snubs country artists of color, even men.
When Lil Nas X’s single “Old Town Road” climbed to No. 19 on the Billboard Country Music Charts, Billboard pulled it off the list on the grounds that it had not “kissed enough. elements of today’s country music “.
Again, as the Washington Post revealed in 2019, Billboard had no objection to white singers Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, and Sam Hunt incorporating rap into their songs. Ironically, country music is rooted in traditional African American music, particularly blues and bluegrass. Yet despite laying the groundwork, black performers were consistently removed from his narrative.
The race issues of the country music industry became clear when Morgan Wallen, a popular white male country artist, was filmed in February 2021 repeatedly shouting a racial insult in public. He was suspended by his label and most radio stations refused to broadcast his music. It seemed like a step in the right direction. However, NBC recently published an article detailing its sad but unsurprising “redemption arc”.
In June, Wallen was back on most country radio stations and last month announced a national headlining tour. Morgan Wallen has been welcomed back into the limelight, while artists like Lil Nas X remain shut out of the country.
These revelations are not new given that the controversial 98 KCQ tweet dates back almost two years. However, whenever I mention these systemic disparities to others, I am in disbelief. Last year, when I discussed industry sexism with my journalism professor, she actually replied, “that can’t be true.”
Originally from Nashville myself, I decided to conduct an experiment on the city’s biggest country music radio stations to see if anything had changed.
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My results are predictable
On December 7 and 8, 2021, between 11:30 pm and 11:30 am, four songs (approximately 12 minutes of broadcast) played by “The Big 98” were written and performed by women. The remainder of the 12 hours featured white men. None of the songs by the white male artists featured a woman or a singer of color.
Some white male performers even had their songs rehearsed during this time or several of their songs were performed – Tim Mcgraw, Chris Stapleton and Blake Shelton to name a few.
At the “95.5 Nash Icon” station in Nashville, the results were very similar. While they managed to play five female artists instead of four during this same period, none were performed back to back or at a distance from each other. Unsurprisingly, no artist of color has received airtime.
Due to the outcry over the 98 KCQ tweet, stations pledged to include more women in their programming; yet, two years later, everything remains the same. Likewise, despite the Morgan Wallen controversy, country stations rebroadcast it on a regular basis.
The system is not down, it is working as it is supposed to. It is evident to me that country radio stations are committed to maintaining their white male dominance and that the statements of change are only performative.
Radio host Elizabeth Cook says she’s hesitant to say that “the good old guys in charge are just going to start doing the right thing … They’re rich.” They are in power. They don’t care.
As women, queer and artists of color increasingly change the fabric of country music, what will it take for radio stations to change with them?
Izzy Bohn is a student at Columbia University in New York, majoring in human rights and political science. She is originally from Franklin, Tennessee and enjoys writing songs and performing in her spare time.