Three Theories & A Timeline That Examines The Lack of Women on Country Radio

Right now one of the hot topics of debate in country music is inequality of women on country radio. While many are trying to change the toxic culture, I’ve been trying to figure out how we got here in the first place. So being a data nerd I set out to look at the numbers and to test some of my theories as to what has brought country to this place in regards to women artists. My first theory: Women get punished for not following major trends in country music. Another theory: the 1996 Telecommunications Act hurt women at radio (h/t to Zack for reminding me of this Act). My final theory: The collapse of rock radio hurt women due to its male dominated audience flocking to country radio. Below I lay out the timeline of events from 1994 through 2017. I combed through Billboard’s chart data and list the number of women-based acts to achieve a #1 that year out of the number of artists to reach #1. In parenthesis are events and trends with other significant stats.


  • 1994 – 4 of 30
  • 1995 – 5 of 28 (Rock radio decline begins)
  • 1996 – 12 of 28 (12 solo women; 1996 Telecommunications Act enacted)
  • 1997 – 6 of 23 (5 solo women)
  • 1998 – 13 of 26 (10 solo women)
  • 1999 – 8 of 19 (7 solo women)
  • 2000 – 6 of 19
  • 2001 – 6 of 22
  • 2002 – 2 of 21 (Patriot country begins)
  • 2003 – 1 of 19 (Zero solo women; Dixie Chicks achieve last #1; Rock radio crashes)
  • 2004 – 4 of 21 (Patriot country fades)
  • 2005 – 3 of 20
  • 2006 – 3 of 23
  • 2007 – 4 of 25
  • 2008 – 7 of 26 (Taylor Swift & Carrie Underwood account for 6 of the 7)
  • 2009 – 6 of 30 (Swift & Underwood account for 2 of 6)
  • 2010 – 7 of 29 (4 solo women: Reba, Underwood x2 & Miranda Lambert)
  • 2011 – 9 of 34 (3 solo women: Reba, Swift & Lambert)
  • 2012 – 6 of 35 (Bro country begins to emerge at end of year with success of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise”; 4 solo women: Carrie x2, Swift & Lambert; Billboard Country Airplay chart created & implemented)
  • 2013 – 6 of 31 (Zero solo women)
  • 2014 – 4 of 35 (Peak of bro country begins; Taylor Swift officially leaves country music; zero solo women)
  • 2015 – 3 of 39 (One solo woman: Kelsea Ballerini)
  • 2016 – 8 of 40 (Bro country done; 4 solo women: Underwood x2 & Ballerini x2)
  • 2017 – 5 of 34 (2 solo women: Lauren Alaina & Carly Pearce)

Notes 

  • Figuring out the decline and crash of rock radio was tricky. Ultimately I decided to determine it based on data complied by FiveThirtyEight that took a deep look at classic rock radio. If you click on the link above, you’ll see a graph that shows Classic Rock songs plays by release year. In 1995 the amount takes a big drop and never really recovers, finally crashing to basically nothing in 2003. It has very few blips in the graph after this year (most likely Nickelback songs). So based on this data, this seemed to indicate the decline and crash of rock radio.
  • The Billboard Hot Country Songs chart was the main chart used for this timeline up until the creation of the airplay chart, which is indicated in the timeline above.
  • Outside of solo women artists, an act/group/feature had to have a woman be a major part of the song/group for it to be counted. So groups like Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town do count towards the counts, along with features like Ashley Monroe on Blake Shelton’s “Lonely Tonight.”
  • If you want to learn more about the 1996 Telecommunications Act, I linked it’s Wiki in the timeline. Zack of Swamp Opera also wrote a great piece covering it I recommend checking out.

Theory Observations

  • Theory #1: Country radio & audiences punished women for not following major trends. Verdict: True
    • Every time a major trend began, women artists were hurt in someway. In both major trends I list above, women really didn’t go with it because they were male-dominated trends. Plus you know not exploiting tragedy for profit and not wanting to be objects on tailgates.
    • There’s only one instance of a woman act reaching #1 with a trend song: it’s ironically the Dixie Chicks’ last #1 song “Traveling Solider.”
    • Over the course of three years of Patriot Country, women acts reached #1 only 7 of 61 possible times. Only 11.5% of the time, even worse than bro country.
    • Women really never recovered after this trend if you look closely at the numbers. If you take away Reba, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert, the numbers remain extremely low. These four artists are the only reason the numbers show a “recovery” in the late 2000s.
    • After bro country begins, zero solo women reach #1 for two years. Kelsea Ballerini breaks the drought in 2015 with a song that is arguably sympathetic of bro country. It’s until 2016 that a solo woman tops the chart with a song that definitively doesn’t appeal to trends.
    • Only two solo women top the charts in 2016, twice each: Underwood and Ballerini. Lambert and Reba have been completely abandoned by radio, while Swift has left the genre (you have to think this played a factor in her leaving).
    • In 2017 both solo women, Lauren Alaina and Carly Pearce, who topped the chart got On The Verge deals with iHeart. For those unfamiliar, it’s an artificial bump that labels gerrymander for behind the scenes with iHeart.
  • Theory #2: The 1996 Telecommunications Act hurt women at country radio. Verdict: Highly Plausible 
    • While the number of women to reach #1 declined the year after the act was installed, in 1998 women had their best year in the modern era. They comprised 50% of the #1 country songs that year and 10 of 13 were solo women.
    • 1999 saw women topping the charts over 40% of the time, 2000 saw over 30% and 2001 saw around 27%. Then a sharp decline begins with the coinciding of Patriot country.
    • But something else also happened that was significant over these years and truly started to show their effects in 2002. According to Zack’s research at Swamp Opera, in 2002 “only 10 companies controlled 65% share of the radio audience.” Radio was also more restrictive of playlists in the fallout of 9/11.
    • So you could come to the conclusion that this hurt women at radio, but these numbers don’t definitively conclude it either. It would require extensive research of playlists during this time period and interviewing radio programmers from this time period too.
  • Theory #3: The male-dominated audience of rock radio flocking to country radio in the wake of rock radio’s collapse hurt women. Verdict: True
    • While I say true, I have to add a caveat: I think it compliments the trends theory, rather than be a major cause itself. The reason I say this is because these trends were male-dominated, so naturally they appeal to male-dominated audiences. With rock radio audiences firmly entrenching themselves in country music by 2004, it aligns perfectly with the decline of women reaching #1 on the chart.

Conclusions

  • The major male-dominated trends of Patriot Country and Bro Country crushed women at country radio.
  • The male-dominated audience of rock radio infiltrating country audience’s tipped the balance of country’s audience and hurt women too.
  • The 1996 Telecommunications Act could have played a role in hurting women at country radio. But it’s not definitive.
  • Everybody in the country music community needs to leave radio in the dust. It’s a useless relic of the past that no longer serves a purpose towards the audience and certainly not towards women artists.

4 thoughts on “Three Theories & A Timeline That Examines The Lack of Women on Country Radio

  1. Zackary Kephart October 2, 2018 / 1:33 pm

    I was hoping to compile more research before commenting, but alas …

    Anyway, thanks for furthering this research. The act definitely affected the Dixie Chicks greatly, but my theory about it hurting women in country in general was really only a theory that I proposed to you in conversation. I truthfully didn’t know either!

    At any rate, I’m surprised most of the female artists’ “best” moments come from the late ’90s, as that’s generally seen as the burnout period for the era when even Garth and Shania were beginning to slow down (well, the era itself was slowing down, but they wouldn’t really slow down until the early 2000’s). I have to admit, there’s a lot of data here that doesn’t seem it should add up. It’s mind boggling, haha.

    Thanks for the shoutout though! I have to wonder if studying data beyond the charts would help to solve some of the lingering questions, and that’s the kind of research I was hoping to gather. What I mean is, studying women in country in general through country music history and how they’ve been portrayed to audiences. That’d be tough. Thanks for this though. I’ve really enjoyed the data-driven pieces!

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    • Josh October 2, 2018 / 2:24 pm

      Thanks! I would love to study more on the audience portrayal too. But as you say it’s hard. It’s a highly subjective thing and hard to measure. One piece of data I would like to find I think could help better explain the data is the recurrent airplay from the mid 90s to the mid 2000s. To me growing up it seemed like there was a lot more recurrent airplay and it seemed like women were the beneficiary of it based on my own memory/anecdotal experiences. I remember always hearing songs from Reba, Martina and Shania that were hits from years ago all the time on the radio. It could also explain Eric Church’s comment in that article I saw you shared on Twitter about how radio was women-dominated when he came onto the scene. It caught me off guard, as it doesn’t line up with the data at all. So it’s a possibility that recurrent airplay along with women’s portrayal in the industry at the time gave the perception to audiences that women were dominating and led to an overcorrection in making the tone of the industry more male-oriented.

      If this is the case, then there should be a backlash to the male-domination. Yet I don’t feel like that’s going to happen because the industry shows no signs of meaningful change and it also feels like women that were once apart of the country audience have been turned off from the genre from good thanks to the trends I mention above. Men who are inclined to support and listen to women artists are also going to be turned off from radio. In addition it’s likely they won’t be reflected in the data because most men are too shy to show their support for women publicly, which is another needed culture change. The other challenge is many top male acts are making themselves more women-appealing. Many artists near the top of The Ultimate Pulse are putting out romantic songs that appeal to women like Dan + Shay, Florida Georgia Line and Brett Young. So women artists are forced to compete with these acts for the attention of the women audience remaining. As proven by scientific studies, the more you hear a song the more likely you’ll like it. And obviously those male acts are heard more by people that women artists.

      So I can understand why so many in the industry think that if they just put more women on the radio or make 50% of radio playlists women, it’ll magically solve everything. It won’t though because this is a cultural and audience issue within the genre that will take subtle approach in fixing. Exposure to more women artists won’t be enough. It’s just one step of many that will need to be taken and I don’t think many wanting to solve this problem realize it.

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      • Zackary Kephart October 3, 2018 / 8:40 am

        Yeah, oddly enough I believe it was Taste of Country of all outlets that first picked up on the “nice guy” movement in country as they called it (romantic songs).

        All of what you said is great. Honestly it’s just like you say, we need more artists willing to say “fuck it” to radio and develop a new plan like Taylor Swift did over a decade ago. Radio is relevant now, sure, but it won’t be soon (I have data for this actually in my thesis).

        I think the recurrent data thing would be tough. Like I’ve told you in private, country music history essentially stops around 2000 … MAYBE 2005 depending on the book. I actually found some fantastic articles in books on radio, but they all seem to stop around 2000 or so and aren’t really detailed for those time frames either. It’s mind boggling and frustrating.

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        • Josh October 3, 2018 / 12:06 pm

          Yeah that’s one thing that country music definitely needs improvement in. There simply isn’t enough research and data available to the public that will allow us to better examine the whole picture. The data that does exist is all hidden behind walls and corporate protection. Obviously they don’t want their data to be replicated, but also not open to criticism too. Unfortunately country isn’t popular enough right now either to get people outside the genre to conduct research. The major labels all conduct research, but only for internal eyes.

          Like we’ve discussed, the best thing that can happen is artists shedding radio and coming up with new ways to promote their music. Once the antiquated systems and rules are shred, things like data should become much more open as time passes, which will allow the public to get a better look at things. Until then we’re stuck with the closed-garden approach of old gatekeepers.

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