50/50 vision: Kingston’s Pure Country 99 playing equal split of female and male artists

Kingston radio station Pure Country 99 is playing a 50/50 split of female and male artists this week, to start a conversation about female representation in country radio. (Pure Country 99 / Twitter)

A Kingston country station is making a pledge to support female country singers, amid an international conversation about radio programming and empowering women.

It started with a sarcastic tweet from an American journalist commenting on what he heard on country radio in Los Angeles.

“They were playing a new song by Gabby Barrett, and then, without any pause or interruption at all, they went into a Kelsea Ballerini song. Can’t they get fined for that?” Variety features editor Chris Willman mused.

I turned on the 105.1 country station in L.A. just now, and they were playing the new song by Gabby Barrett, and then, without any pause or interruption at all, they went into a Kelsea Ballerini song. Can’t they get fined for that?

— Chris Willman (@ChrisWillman) January 15, 2020

It was an off-handed comment about a so-called “unwritten rule” in country music: audiences won’t listen to two songs in a row sung by women.

Saginaw, Michigan radio station 98-KCQ replied in a now-deleted tweet to say they don’t have the courage to play two women back-to-back.

“Pop audiences are more welcoming and forgiving of their female singers,” the account for 98-KCQ said in response to an incredulous listener.

Pop audiences are more welcoming and forgiving of their female singers. I kinda like that. The Country audience not so much. They accepted Taylor because their daughters loved her.

— 98 KCQ (@98fmKCQ) January 16, 2020

But the tweet caught the attention of a Grammy-winning country singer. Kacey Musgraves replied to the station with a tweet of her own.

And yet, they can play 18 dudes who sound exactly the same back to back. Makes total sense.

— K A C E Y M U S G R A V E S (@KaceyMusgraves) January 16, 2020

A conversation about female representation on country radio was ignited and Kingston’s Pure Country 99 is wading in.

“I think it’s just more something that’s been passed down over the years,” Pure Country 99 Program Director Brittany Thompson told CFRA Live with Matt Harris. “The basic human tendency is to like and go toward what you most recognize. If we’re putting more males, as an industry, in the forefront, then we’re going to see people respond to them better.”

So, Thompson and her station want to turn that around.

“Why don’t we take a risk and put the females there? If you want to call that a risk,” she said.

Thompson said she doesn’t normally program her station with the gender of each singer front-of-mind. She views the songs as individual pieces and she puts the best ones forward. But she admits even she worried about what audiences will think if “too many” women are played consecutively.

“I think there’s still that little voice in the back of your head that says, ‘Females don’t test well and be a little more mindful to keep them a little further apart.’ There’s probably something in the back of your mind telling you, ‘Don’t do this. This is a terrible business decision based on the research that we’ve had up to this point.’”

This week, Pure Country 99 is sticking to a 50/50 pledge. Half of all songs on the station will feature women on vocals, while men will make up the other half.

Thompson said the music is there, but it’s not always going to be the kind of music typical radio programmers prefer.

“It was a tiny bit of a stretch to say we could go full 50/50, not because there wasn’t the quality of music but, if you’re programming based on testing, there were fewer songs that test well to choose from,”  Thompson said. “So, that’s where you have to kind of say, 'Am I going to put all of my faith into this testing’ or am I going to say, ‘This testing is looking this way because we as a society and an industry have allowed the males to dominate the top-of-mind awareness when it comes to country’?”

Thompson said this 50/50 pledge is a grassroots initiative from her station in Kingston, with the goal of starting a broader conversation.

“We did this to make people look at their playlists and, when they’re making decisions on a weekly basis, to keep that in mind,” she said. “If we all start, at the end of this week, giving equal consideration and then picking the best song based on the quality of the song, I think, over time, it’s going to start to balance out. If you’re putting music out there and you’re treating it like it’s the best music that you want to expose you listeners to, people will respond.”

That’s why, she said, they’re not pointing out the change on their own station.

“We mentioned it briefly on Monday and after that it was business as usual,” she said. “We’re not saying, ‘and coming up, we have a female!’”

Instead, they’re reaching out in other ways, like on social media, traditional media, and in person, holding signs at intersections that say “Honk to support women in Country Radio!”

“We wanted to reach people just to, at the end of the week, walk away and say, ‘Okay, I trust that we can start here and, if we do it collectively, it just becomes the norm.”

Starting tomorrow, our station is committing one week to completely EQUAL airplay, for male & female artists, 6am-6pm. Our mission is to show women that the problem is not with them & that listeners want to hear them. We need YOUR support‼️

— Kingston’s Pure Country (@PureCountry99) January 20, 2020

�������� https://t.co/MzmmRXvplO

— Brittany Thompson (@bdthompson25) January 22, 2020

Getting signatures to support more women on country radio! #ygk pic.twitter.com/eL8gDiwco1

— Kingston’s Pure Country (@PureCountry99) January 21, 2020
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