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The secret to country music radio ratings in the Twin Cities (and everywhere else): Play men.

REUTERS/Harrison McClary
Blake Shelton performing during the Country Music Association Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2012.

In a classic example of killing the messenger, several big-name country music stars have been ripping into a guy named Keith Hill for  confirming what people in the business already know.

A little over a week ago Hill, an otherwise obscure radio consultant, one of those gurus wheeled in to tell radio station programmers what to do, in this case “play more country songs sung by men,” and what not to do, “don’t play so many songs by women,” gave an interview to Russ Penuell at t​he industry website Country Aircheck.

Buried far down from the lede, Penuell wrote, “Finally, Hill cautions against playing too many females. And playing them back to back, he says, is a no-­no.”

Here is what Hill told Penuell in the piece: “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out. The reason is mainstream country radio generates more quarter hours from female listeners at the rate of 70 to 75 percent, and women like male artists. I’m basing that not only on music tests from over the years, but more than 300 client radio stations. The expectation is we’re principally a male format with a smaller female component.”                                          

The ideal ratio for a successful country music station, he went on to say, is approximately 85 percent men and 15 percent women, if you want to appeal to the 70 percent/­75 percent female audience.

Once that got around the country music community, and we have a sizable one here in Minnesota, with K102FM pulling one of the biggest listenerships in the market, you had people like Miranda Lambert saying, “This is the biggest bunch of bull[bleep] I’ve ever heard.” Singer Sara Evans said, “I’m appalled,” and Laura Bell Bundy quipped, “That guy is not going to get laid.” Others accused Hill of swinish sexism.

In an interview with CBS News, Martina McBride said, it’s “‘really dangerous’“ to make that kind of blanket statement, and called it a “self-fulfilling prophecy. “You have record companies that don’t invest in female artists or sign female artists as much, thinking that they’re not going to get a return on their investment or get played on the radio. You have songwriters who aren’t writing songs for females as much, because they “don’t get played on the radio.”

The thing is, Hill’s primary offense seems to have been using his out-loud voice to confirm something that every artist, station manager and listener knows instinctively, if not empirically. Namely that country music, or “modern country” if you prefer, with its ceaseless parade of chiseled dudes in T-shirts, four-­day stubble, tight jeans and big hats, is designed for women because, research tells them, women by and large don’t won’t want too many chicks blocking the view.

Averting the direct question of whether Hill was right, Gregg Swedberg, senior vice president for programming at K102­FM, says, “Whether he’s right or not, it was a stupid thing to say. Because he over­simplifies the process so tremendously.

“As you know we spend stupid amounts of money to figure out what people want to hear. We do a lot of research and what we do is play back what they like. To try to put some dumb percentage on it … well, it was dumb of him to say it, because if he’s serious, it’s a dumb way to do business.”

Swedberg adds, “What he completely failed to point out is that we play what we’re given. Right now I’ve got 10 new CDs on my desk. Nine of them are men, one is by a woman.”

There of course is the root of the scenario/strategy Hill was articulating. Namely, that the giant country music industry, which heavily promotes the artists it calculates can deliver the most bucks for the bang, has long since concurred that in country, men rule.

Or, spun from a different perspective, country music’s sweet spot for profit, with radio airplay goosing CD sales, lies with women who prefer the sound of male voices. If you’ve got a problem with Hill’s 85­/15 breakdown, take it up with Nashville and the town’s symbiotic partner, the commercial radio industry.

Country music of course is hardly the only music or entertainment format tailored for a specific demographic. Heavy metal, for example, is an act aimed at the shrieking hearts of white, blue-collar males. Hollywood’s well-remunerated obsession with comic book action heroes begins with a huge teenage male fan base. On TV the calculations are even more obvious. Lifetime? W​omen.​ Fox News? Crotchety old white guys.​ Most primetime network entertainment? Soccer moms.

But country music, with more than 2,100 stations playing one variety of country or another, ​is by far the most popular single radio format out there, so therefore of heightened relevance if issues like stark gender disparity hold interest to you. (There are roughly 1,800 religion­-oriented stations and 1,600 offering some version of news-talk.)

Down in Nashville, Cathy Lemmon runs a company called the A​rtist Development Network.​ In the early ’90s she pulled up stakes in California and settled in Music City, determined to take her shot at singing glory. When the singing thing didn’t work out,  she got into the business end, where she admits, “I personally prefer to hear guy singers. I don’t know why. But I do.”                  

Ironically, part of her business is advancing the careers of the steady stream of aspiring singers and songwriters pouring into Nashville every year, where “65 percent to 70 percent are women.”                                        

“Twenty five years ago,” she says, “there were a lot more women. Now, here in Nashville, I very rarely hear a woman singer on the radio. I bet it’s nine ­to ­one men to women. Over the last 10­  there’s been a real drought.”                                   

You do have to wonder where all those gals are going to find work or any kind of exposure if radio numbers are what they are. “There are low­-wattage mom and pop stations that might play more women. But it’s not happening on the Clear Channels [or iHeartRadio as it has been renamed]. Those stations have to play what the major labels tell them to play,” Lemmon says.                                                        

Calls to BUZ’N­FM, K102’s CBS­-owned competitor here in the Twin Cities, were not returned. But its website offers fans a chance​ to request their favorite song from a list of 31 current artists. Twenty-eight are male. Two are Carrie Underwood, one of the handful of female stars given regular airplay.                                                     

So, once we’ve set aside the outrage over the hapless consultant, Keith Hill, what are we left with as a reason for this rather remarkable divide in the most popular music genre on radio?

It would seem that it is pretty much what you’ve already suspected. It’s where the money is.      

Country music, with roots deep down in traditional American values, has, by layering on showbiz glitz, product references,​and glamour, consciously and aggressively calibrated itself into a hyper-­commercialized amalgam of traditional American values. It’s a gloss to applied set of values rooted in another era. The tradition­-minded aspect being key, arguably, to maintaining the ardent devotion of women, always a vital demographic group for advertisers.                                        

By contrast, Swedberg, who also oversees local Top 40 pop station KDWB, puts the musician gender breakdown there at, “65 percent/­35 percent female to male. There are a lot of Top 40 women singers out there right now. It was closer to 50/50 a few years ago.”                                                        

He says, “It’s absolutely true that country music fans are more tradition-­minded.” He suspects it’s also true that country fans are among the last of the MP3/personal music curator/adopters. Country fans are people who continue to prefer the sense of community that comes with a radio station.                   

The more provocative question is whether a resistance to female singers by female listeners is also part of long­standing red-dirt American tradition.                                                           

Says Swedberg, “You play songs that you get from the labels, and sometimes you push for songs that you really like. Like,​’Girl Crush’ [​a sultry ballad barely recognizable as country from the group Little Big Town, with a lead vocal from Karen Fairchild]. I loved that song and pushed it as hard as I could.                   

“’Girl Crush’ eventually had success. But when we test songs and you get the list back from listeners and all the female songs are down at the bottom, well, you can’t buck the system if you want to stay in business.                                                         

“Sometimes,” he says, “women are tougher on other women than they are on men.”

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Mark Ohm on 06/10/2015 - 04:22 pm.

    The Fox link goes to the Country Aircheck site

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/11/2015 - 08:01 am.

    Just to be different

    Keep in mind that I’m an elderly, white male – NOT the demographic that radio stations (or country music as a genre) is trying to reach. Beyond that, two other points: first, I stopped listening to the radio 30 years ago; second, I’m technologically obsolete. I don’t own a smart phone or a pair of earbuds. Most of my music collection, an eclectic one, is from CDs, or has been purchased from Apple’s iTunes store. I don’t care about streaming services like Spotify. I’m not hostile to them, either. I just don’t need to hear recorded music as background noise through the course of the day and evening.

    I listen to music on road trips (I can play my iPod through the car’s sound system), and at home when I want to play along. I have quite a bit of country music because, as a long-time amateur (and not very good) guitar player, I find that the cliché that most country songs are “three chords and the truth” is very often right on target, and I can play along with most songs, even though I don’t read music or understand much about music theory.

    All of which is a far-too-elaborate preface to the fact that I listen to quite a bit of country music, most of which I’ve acquired by browsing iTunes and picking songs I like, rather than listening to the radio. The second point is that, again, I’m an elderly white male, and while the target audience for country may well prefer stubble-draped males with ridiculous cowboy hats (I have a Stetson myself, but I don’t wear it much in Minnesota), 90% of my country music collection is sung by females, or by groups with a female lead singer.

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