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Shunned by country radio, female artists in Nashville are looking to break through
Judy Woodruff: One of the biggest winners and better stories at this year's Grammy Awards was Kacey Musgraves, a country artist who took home best Album of the Year.
But the reality for many women in country music is very different, especially when it comes to getting on the radio.
Jeffrey Brown, who profiled Kacey Musgraves last month, has a report on Nashville's gender imbalance and what's being done to address it.
It's part of our regular series on arts and culture, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: This is the sound of Monday nights at The Listening Room, known in Nashville as a writers round, where singer-songwriters learn to hone their craft before a live audience.
But this one is different and rare, an all-women female showcase in a city dominated by male voices. Turn to a country station today, and this is what you're most likely to hear.
Jeffrey Brown: In fact, in 2017, just around 10 percent of billboard's top 60 country songs were by women, a number that's actually fallen in recent years.
And it was that persistent disparity that led producer Todd Cassetty to found this all-female showcase, called Song Suffragettes.
Todd Cassetty: We thought, if we create a female-only weekly show where a lot of these women can come, play their songs, try them out, see what the responses are, meet like-minded creatives, they would benefit, and hopefully the community as a whole would benefit.
Jeffrey Brown: Kalie Shorr is one of them. Originally from Maine, in 2012, she graduated high school early, so she could move to Nashville to pursue her dream.
Kalie Shorr: My first concert ever was the Dixie Chicks with Michelle Branch opening, and I was 9. And I just remember looking at them and being like, that's what I want to do.
Jeffrey Brown: In 2015, Shorr had a hit single in "Fight Like a Girl," a song discovered here at The Listening Room and played on the SiriusXM station The Highway. It was an anthem for an issue she's become outspoken about: the lack of opportunities for young women in country music.
But, ironically, that experience only served to highlight how bad the problem was.
Kalie Shorr: It was doing all this stuff and getting all this traction, had, millions of streams, and it sold really, really well. And I walked into a couple of major labels and had them look me in the eye and say, we can't sign another girl right now. We already have one.
Jeffrey Brown: We can't sign -- we already have one?
Kalie Shorr: Yes. And it sounds unbelievable. And I literally had someone say like, oh, well, we'd sign if you were a guy, like literal, concrete stuff people will say around town.
And they're comfortable saying it, because it's just kind of part of it now.
Jeffrey Brown: For many in Nashville, the lack of women's voices on the air came to a head in 2015. That's when a country radio consultant named Keith Hill told a trade newsletter that, to maximize radio listenership, women should be like tomatoes in a larger salad of male artists, never played back to back and never more than about 20 percent of the mix.
Those comments confirmed what many had long suspected, that the lack of women on country radio was by design.
Todd Cassetty : It's kind of historically kind of an accepted practice that, if you play more women, listeners will turn the channel, and your ratings will go down, which will affect your revenue.
Jeffrey Brown: But you're saying it's it's perceived economics. You don't buy it?
Todd Cassetty : There's no research, there's no hard research to prove this.
Jeffrey Brown: The backlash to the remarks became known as Tomatogate, and galvanized women across the industry to speak out about their experiences of sexism.
Woman: It's long been reported that women in music can't sell merch the way that men can.
Jeffrey Brown: Including at this monthly forum called Change the Conversation.
Each month, songwriters, performers, producers, industry veterans and newcomers, mostly women, but men too, gather to share stories.
Woman: I have two words on merchandise: Taylor Swift.
Beverly Keel helped found the group. She's a journalist and professor of recording at Middle Tennessee State University.
Beverly Keel: I wrote a column in The Tennessean about it and said, look, you know, the problem's at country radio, because they're not playing women. And then you have a chilling effect, because country radio is still the driver in country music.
So, if country radio doesn't play women, labels don't sign women. female songwriters aren't going to get signed as much you won't see as many female producers, and so on.
Jeffrey Brown: I mean, is it sexism? Is it economics? Perceived economics? What?
Beverly Keel: I think it is long-held beliefs. I think that it's sexism. There's institutional sexism. We can't believe we're having this conversation in 2019.
R.J. Curtis: I think it's just as frustrating to radio as it is to anybody else.
Jeffrey Brown: That's R.J. Curtis, incoming head of the Country Radio Broadcasters, a nonprofit group that helps promote the music.
R.J. Curtis: Look, it's a multilayered situation, and it's (EXPLETIVE DELETED) up all over.
Jeffrey Brown: He's been attending the Change the Conversation meetings, and wants people to recognize that this problem isn't just with radio, but with the entire industry pipeline, from talent scouts to publishers to labels.
R.J. Curtis: If you looked at the rosters of most major labels in town here, I think you would find that the ratio is about a 4-1 male to female in terms of artists on that roster. So there's just fewer of them coming at radio for airplay consideration.
Jeffrey Brown: If you're a woman who's concerned about this, and they're hearing you say, well, it's the ecosystem, that would be frustrating.
R.J. Curtis: Oh, very frustrating. And...
Jeffrey Brown: Right? Because then it's like, everybody's to blame, nobody is to blame.
R.J. Curtis: Yes. I can see their frustration. I definitely hear that.
Jeffrey Brown: We reached out to multiple country radio stations for comment, but none responded. And whether radio is the driver of this marketplace, or just another victim of decisions made at other levels, many here say it's past time for solutions.
Beverly Keel: I don't know what happened. I don't know what caused it. I don't know who caused it. And we don't want to just put the blame on country radio. And Change the Conversation is not interested in finding blame or pointing fingers. We just want to find a solution.
Jeffrey Brown: One answer: new streaming platforms, social media and touring to connect directly with audiences, circumventing radio.
Radio Disney Country is a relatively young, mostly streaming station based in Los Angeles that's found an audience by playing mostly women in its mix. And prominent artists such Margo Price and Kacey Musgraves, who just won four Grammys, including Album of the Year, are succeeding despite a lack of airplay.
Meanwhile, in Nashville, forums like Change the Conversation and Song Suffragettes are bringing women together to help one another.
Kalie Shorr: I think, in the past five, six years that I have been in town, I saw this attitude shift, even within myself, where it was like, she's not your competition. She's trying to do the same thing you're doing, and that's great because, Patsy and Loretta were best friends, and Dolly and Emmylou and all that.
Like, women can support each other. And I think they're more successful when they are.
Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Nashville.