Issue #8: No Two Ladies Back to Back!
This newsletter, written by two women, is basically illegal on country radio
By Marissa R. Moss
A handful of months ago, a radio source I talk to from time to time told me a story that I’ve repeated often to friends, and maybe even on this newsletter at some point: that his colleagues in the business were having trouble figuring out how to program the proliferation of male-female duets (Ingrid Andress and Sam Hunt, Lainey Wilson and Hardy, Lainey Wilson, again, and Cole Swindell among them) when it’s expected that you don’t put two songs from two different women artists back-to-back. These songs were hits, rising fast up the charts, but could you play them one after another? Or play one of them followed by another woman’s song? The answer, they deemed, was no. Any lady is too much lady for more than once an hour, if that.
No two women in a row.
A new study spearheaded by Jan Diehm of The Pudding and Dr. Jada Watson, “They Won’t Play a Lady-O on Country Radio: Examining Back-to-Back Plays by Gender, Race, and Sexual Orientation,” confirms exactly this – that, in addition to astonishing lows for (white, cishet, straight) women on country radio, those songs are almost never played back-to-back. Dr. Watson found that women comprised 11% of country airplay in 2022 (a year that included a plethora of “women in country are back! Things are getting better! Yippee!” type articles, mostly written by men, that got excited about the success of one or two white ladies, letting the industry off the hook in the court of public opinion and allowing everyone to ignore queer artists or women of color once again as part of this metric), and that only .99% of songs were back-to-back by women plays.
Brief side note: while we’re here, ask yourself how many woman music editors are working in Nashville right now, and how that might contribute to this mix. How many on-staff female music editors and writers can you name in Nashville/country music? How does an almost entirely male roster of editors contribute to who is ultimately covered & deemed a star?
On book tour for Her Country, I repeatedly got this question – is it true that women can’t be played back-to-back? I’d always answer yes, with an asterisk: it’s the kind of thing that’s always been hard to get good data on, let alone sources on record, because who would admit such a thing? Deep in research, I found some programming manuals that did dole out this advice, and talked to Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom about how it’s so deeply connected to the preservation of whiteness in country music. Here’s that passage:
Jan Diehm and Dr. Watson’s data is so useful because it gives hard data to back up a lot of assumed beliefs: that this just isn’t a bunch of “hysterical women” stuff, but an actual occurrence with numbers to prove it. Here’s the hard data that shows how even the best performing station for women, KKGO, only played two women in a row 1.27% percent of the time. 1.27%!
But what about Lainey Wilson, you might ask? Aren’t women doing better right now?Now, I like Lainey Wilson. A lot. Take that fact and put it in a box somewhere apart from what I am about to say: which is that it’s very easy to get excited about the success of a couple women while understanding we still only let one woman triumph at a time, and never two in a row, so the sound of country music does not change, and its inherent whiteness reinforced (we all get excited about one woman triumphing, who is always white, and the cycle continues, and I hold myself very accountable for times I have done this myself). It does not serve some greater good when there is no overall parity, no deeper institutional change. I also refuse to accept that the work is Lainey or any woman’s alone to do – we repeatedly make women aware of the “high stakes” and create scarcity fears, and then ask them to be the ones to carry each other above the sexist frames.
This kind of success is one that Music Row can hide behind: look, the women problem is gone! But it’s still one woman at a time on country radio. Right now, that means that the “chosen breakout” is Megan Moroney, who is also quite good, so don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here: two things can be true. Still, she’s the only solo woman right now in the top 20 at Mediabase. And don’t just point fingers at radio itself - look at the labels. Where’s the promo money going? Who is getting the support to succeed?
Changing the ability to not just play more women, but play them together, is profound: when you play women back-to-back, you change the inherent sound of country music. You change women’s voices from fringe to mainstream, you change women grouped together from a “lady thing” to just a block of music made by musicians [who happen to be women]. You make women’s voices familiar, other tones familiar, you open the gates to different ways to program outside of the Lukes.
For now, they won’t play a lady-o on country radio, and they definitely won’t play two. Cue Tami Neilson…
Make this a big deal and get some major (too big to punish) artists on board (how the f**k is this even possible in 2023!). Lots of radio ad buys are done in national packages. Find the top 3 advertisers on country music nationally and [very] publicly ‘ask’ them for their support in changing this policy. If you got artists to support this it would be seismic. The unspoken threat of what would happen if the advertisers didn’t support you in getting this policy changed should be all it takes. Need one big female and one big male star to lead the charge.
For what it’s worth-- I’m a country music fanatic, and I play and write my version of it, but I’m snobbish and perhaps even reactionary about it.
Willie and Waylon are more or less my cutoff point for “modern” stuff. With some outliers like Randy Travis.
That said: I read your stuff because it’s excellent, and I like feeling connected to modern country music even if I mostly avoid listening to it. (I do like Sturgill, and a few other people sound ok when my son -- also a snob, but a younger snob-- plays them around the house.)
I’m in the camp of “yeah, most of my favorite country artists are men, but the women I do like I like VERY much. And they influence my writing too. Dolly, Loretta, Tammy, Bonnie Owens, etc. Then there’s Maybelle Carter, one of my biggest influences on guitar. And tons of current women instrumentalists killing it esp on fiddle.”
This radio policy (which of course I wasn’t aware of) is some bullshit. Thanks for writing about it.