Women on the radio — Or not, as it were.
Written by GeekGirlCon Copywriter Henry Behrens
It was my best friend who pointed it out to me first—there aren’t many women on the radio. She sings along to the songs more than I do and she was complaining that too many were out of her range. When I started to pay attention, it was shocking how long I could listen to certain stations for before I heard a song with a woman on vocals, let alone a lady-only band.
Because I am who I am, the next logical step for me was to crunch some numbers and analyze just how big this disparity between the genders on the radio was. I contacted several Seattle-area radio stations in hopes of getting data directly from them (including Star 101.5 FM, KISS 106.1 FM, Kube 93.3 FM, The End 107.7 FM, and KEXP 90.3 FM), but only heard back from program directors at STAR and The End. Both stations provided a list of their most-played bands and artists from late May and early June. Luckily, KEXP has charts available online that, if I’m correct, show similar information.
For those of you who aren’t from the Seattle area, STAR plays top 40 hits, while The End and KEXP play alternative music. STAR and The End are both privately owned, for-profit radio stations, and KEXP is a nonprofit funded by donations.
I broke these lists of popular artists down by gender, looking at bands made up solely of men, bands made up solely of women, and bands with a mixed composition. I included solo artists in the counts for solely men- or women-based bands, but also broke those numbers out for further analysis. When an artist was listed twice because one of his or her songs featured another artist and therefore counted as a “different” artist, I disregarded that and only counted the primary artist once and did not count the featured artist.
We’ll go from bad to worst, shall we?
STAR, unsurprisingly, took first place among the three, with a grand total of 21% of the station’s top 144 artists for the week of June 1–7. Another 8% of the total was bands that were mixed men and women (although each of those had only one woman out of three- to five-person bands). By far the majority, though, were men-only bands: 71%, or 102 artists played on STAR were made up of only men.
I know you think that looks bad, but wait until we get to the other stations.
87% of that 21% of lady-only bands showcased on STAR are solo artists. Only 46% of the men-only bands on STAR are solo artists. There’s still a large gap between the gender of solo artists on STAR, as well, with only 36% of solo artists in the top 144 artists being women, and 64% being men.
The reason I wasn’t surprised that STAR took first place in this competition (a meager first place, but still first place) is that they play top-40s music. In fact, their second-most played artist from June 1 to June 7 was Taylor Swift—a lady, obviously. The genres of pop music and top-40s are arguably and historically easier for female artists to break into, as seen by Taylor Swift, Lorde, Tov Lo, Adele, and Rachel Platten—some of the 27 female solo artists played by STAR. In STAR’s top 10 for the reported week, seven of the artists were bands made up just of men or male solo artists.
Our second-best radio station here was KEXP, which is a nonprofit alternative rock radio station. KEXP does a lot of themed shows, highlighting everything from Roots music to Latin sounds from around the world, so I went into this analysis with high hopes that maybe some of this attention to variety had seeped into the gender makeup of KEXP’s music. The numbers are more favorable than The End’s, but they still look sad in the general view of things.
KEXP’s list only totaled 90 artists, so it was the smallest sample group I had to go through, but I still think the list was large enough to get some generalizations. Including the generalization that only 15% of the most-played artists played on KEXP are solo female artists or bands made up of just women, compared to the 68% of male-only artists played. The last 17% is made up of mixed-gender bands, but only one of these 15 bands had most women (Novella has five members and four are women), with most having either one or two lady members out of bands ranging from three to seven members.
Happily, KEXP’s second most popular band during this time was the Alabama Shakes, which has a lady on vocals. Their highest-ranked lady-only band was Chastity Belt, at number nine. Slightly better than STAR, KEXP’s top 10 has six men-only bands, two mixed-gender bands, and two women solo artists.
Out of these top 90 artists, only 27 were solo artists. Within that smaller segment, only 30% of KEXP’s most-played solo artists were women, which means only 8 solo women were featured, compared to the 19 men who were given the spotlight. That also means that out of the 14 women-only bands and artists, there’s actually only 6 women-only bands played regularly on KEXP, compared to 42 men-only bands.
Last and, in this count, certainly least is The End, a station that plays alternative rock and, according to Nielsen ratings done through the Arbitron company, is the most popular of the three stations I examined. Unfortunately, it’s also by far the worst in terms of representation of women on the radio.
Out of the 116 artists listed by The End as their most-played from May 25 to June 1 of this year, only 3% were female-only artists. An additional 17% of the bands played had both men and women, with only two of those 20 bands being primarily women-led bands (Tegan and Sara and Florence and the Machine). The highest-ranked band with a woman in it is #14, Of Monsters and Men, and the highest-ranked female-only artist is #30, Banks.
For those keeping track at home, The End played three women solo artists and three women-only bands—so, yes, those are the same individuals: Banks, Lorde, and M.I.A. I didn’t count Tegan and Sara in this category, since their necessary backing band is made up of all men at this time.
The End plays the least amount of solo artists of these three stations, so this sample isn’t really statistically significant. But that doesn’t mean it’s not sobering to see how stark the divide is between men and women artists featured by the station.
When I first reached out to her about getting information on her station’s playlist data, STAR’s music director Alisa Hashimoto said in an email, “A gender analysis is not typically a part of our programming decisions as much as the appeal of each song individually. Male artists have always dominated the pop charts for probably no other reason than simply appeal.”
This reminded me of something I knew as early as age 7 or 8: girls would read books about girls or boys, but boys would only read books about boys. Where did this knowledge come from? Who decided that girls and women should have to be able to empathize and connect with boys’ stories and songs, but boys and men shouldn’t make that same stretch?
Hashimoto went on to say, “Radio playlists are a living, breathing collection of art dictated by cultural taste.”
What I can take from that, unfortunately, is that cultural taste right now heavily skews toward preferring men (by 68% to 80%). Why is that? Why do we assume that men’s voices are immediately more transferable and relatable?
Hashimoto says that gender doesn’t factor into the programming decisions at STAR, and I’m sure it’s the same for KEXP, The End, and other radio stations both in the Seattle area and worldwide. But why doesn’t it? Especially with these clear facts regarding the gender disparity in current radio programming, I would hope that somewhere along the line it’s realized that this is unacceptable.
According to the Radio Advertising Bureau, over 244 million Americans age 12 and older listen to the radio every week. A study in 2011 cited on the same site said that 60% of all “musically active consumers” say that radio is their primary source for new music discovery.
I think it’s more than fair to say that radio is not only a source of music for passive listeners, then, but radio stations have the power to be tastemakers for their listeners.
If radio stations are willing to put more effort into showcasing the talents of female artists, their listeners would be exposed to more female artists. Listeners would realize that a male voice isn’t and shouldn’t be the default and that a woman’s thoughts, stories, and songs are just as valuable. Critics may say that there just aren’t as many talented female artists to play on the radio to even come near a gender balance, but I say you just aren’t looking.
Before this research, I would say I most commonly listen to KEXP, then The End, and then perhaps KISS or whatever else happens to be playing something decent at the time. But now that I’ve stared the numbers in their little numerical faces, I can’t let myself continue down that vein. I, for one, will be switching to more podcasts, Internet radio, and iPod-fueled music on my commutes and, at the very least, will be dropping The End from my go-to stations. That measly 2% of women-only bands just isn’t cutting it.