Public broadcast radio plays a vital role in the development of a genre’s cultural space, and significantly impacts broader industry decision-making practices. Radio influence how labels and publishers sign, produce and promote artists, and impacts the trajectory of the careers of artists (who depend on airplay exposure for other career opportunities). More critically, radio airplay often leads to chart success, and these charts are used as criteria for determining artists’ eligibility for industry accolades and/or events. While using charts as a criteria for determining a genre’s leading artists might seem to be a logical business decision, it is an increasingly problematic metric for industries built on a foundation of systemic racism and gender inequality.
Gender representation has been at the fore of public debate about inequality within the popular music industry at large, and country music specifically. Within country music culture, this discussion has historically overlooked the absence of artists of colour participating in the industry, and in so doing advocates the inclusion of white women with little mention of Black, Indigenous, Women of colour or LGBTQ artists who write, record and produce country music. This is true of early SongData work, which focused solely on gender representation on popularity charts and airplay reports. As SongData’s work has progressed over the last year, largely through studies that evolved into a RadioData project, this research has developed an intersectional approach to exploring the inequalities within the genre, exploring the ways in which industry practices have maintained and perpetuated a narrative of whiteness.
As much country music research has shown, the genre’s industry was developed in the 1920s on a musical colour line – one that segregated music not by musical style, but by race and geography. The categories chosen a century ago, “hillbilly” and “race”, may no longer be used today (replaced with “country” and “soul” or “R&B”), but they have reinforced the white racial framing of the genre throughout its history through the development of country radio, the recording industry and of the industry’s popularity charts, as well as the algorithms that underpin streaming services. This racial frame has also been perpetuated through continual discussion about “authenticity” that serves to create barriers for artists that are Black, Indigenous, Musicians of Color who are put in a position of defending their place in the genre.
Growing out of the preliminary research findings of the two SongData projects, RadioData projects have centred on exploring issues of equity, diversity and inclusion on the weekly and yearend reports generated by country format radio. This work was born out of conversations with the advocacy group WOMAN Nashville, and led to the publication of three reports on the declining representation of female artists on the format with the group. In these reports, we documented a 66% decline in the number of songs by women within the Top 150 songs on the yearend reports between 2000 and 2018, coupled with a drastic decline in spins for those songs – to a low of 8.9% of spins for their songs by 2018. This report was followed up with a study of the time of day of airplay, which addressed the distribution of spins for songs by women across the five dayparts. These projects led to a partnership with CMT’s EqualPlay Campaign, an initiative that advocates for inclusive programming on country radio. Released in February 2020, the EqualPlay report focused on radio programming in 2019, and demonstrated the cyclic relationship between radio programming, chart activity, streaming algorithms and nominations for CMA awards within the industry.
Projects currently under development include studies of Top 40, R&B, Rock and Adult Contemporary formats, as well as individual station playlists. Of particular interest are issues related to inclusion and diversity on Canadian radio formats, and how stations comply with Canadian Content regulations.
For more information on these projects, see Press coverage.
RadioData projects have been made possible by the SSHRC Insight Development Grant (2018-2020) and a professional development grant from the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ottawa (2020). This work would not have been possible without the support of WOMAN Nashville, who were consultants on the 3 of the first reports evaluating radio airplay. It has also been supported by CMT’s EqualPlay campaign.
Reports on Country Format Radio
Watson, Jada. 2020. “Six Months of EqualPlay: An Update.” SongData Reports; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 26 July 2020.
Watson, Jada. 2020. “Inequality on Country Radio: 2019 in Review.” SongData Reports; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 17 February. Prepared in partnership with CMT’s Equal Play Campaign. Associated Briefs: (1) Mediabase, Country Airplay Report Brief, (2) Billboard Country Airplay Charts Brief, (3) Billboard Country Streaming Brief, (4) Billboard Country Digital Song Sales Brief, (5) Billboard Hot Country Songs Brief.
Watson, Jada. 2019. “Gender Representation on Country Format Radio: A Study of Spins Across Dayparts.” SongData Reports; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 6 December. Prepared in consultation with WOMAN Nashville. Report Brief available.
Watson, Jada. 2019. “Gender Representation on Canadian Country Format Radio: A Study of Published Reports from 2005-2018.” SongData Reports; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 6 September. Report Brief available.
Watson, Jada. 2019. “Gender Representation on Billboard’s Country Airplay Chart: A Study of Weekly Charts from January 2018 to July 2019.” SongData Reports; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 2 August. Prepared in consultation with WOMAN Nashville.
Watson, Jada. 2019. “Gender Representation on Country Format Radio: A Study of Published Reports from 2000-2018.” SongData Reports; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 26 April. Prepared in consultation with WOMAN Nashville. Report Brief available.
Briefs on Country Music Awards (considers eligibility criteria)
Watson, Jada. 2020. “Inclusion and Diversity in the ACM Award History: A Study of Nominees and Winners, 2000-2019.” SongData Reports, May 2020.
Watson, Jada. 2019. “Gender Representation of CMA Awards: A Study of Nominees and Winners, 2000-2019.” SongData Reports, 12 November 2020.
Watson, Jada. 2020. “Country Radio Has Ignored Female Artists for Years. And we have the data to prove it.” NBC News Think, 17 February.
Jada Watson. “Programming Inequality: Gender Representation on Canadian Country Radio (2005-2019).” Paper to be presented at the annual conference of the International Society for Music Information Retrieval; Montreal, QC, October 2020. View the paper, poster and video.
Invited Public Talks
“‘The stars might lie, but the numbers never do’: What Big Data Tells Us About Inequalities in Genre Cultures.” Invited speaker at Change the Conversation. Sponsored by Driven Communications; BMI (Nashville, TN), October 17, 2019.
Citations in Industry Reports
Recording Academy Task Force. 2019. Final Report of the Recording Academy Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion. Grammy.com, 12 December.
Citations in Legal Briefs
2018 Quadrennial Regulatory Review — Review of the Commission’s Broadcast Ownership Rules and Other Rules Adopted Pursuant to Section 202 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Joint Comment of musicFirst Coalition and Future of Music Coalition, MB Docket No. 18-349 (Apr. 29, 2019).
“Women of Country: Country Music Radio Has a Problem – What’s at Stake?” episode in Southword series, produced by Red Clay Media, 17 February 2020.