Would You Like Your Salad Dressing on the Side?

Nashville Gets in Reflective Mood After Radio Consultant Stirs Up a Hornets' Nest

(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)

Country radio consultant Keith Hill stirred up a proverbial hornets’ nest this week when he told a Nashville-based industry trade publication, “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out.”

That was incendiary enough, but he also equated country music artists with ingredients in a salad.

“Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad,” Hill told Country Aircheck. “The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”

As you might expect, a lot of people took offense, particularly Martina McBride and Jennifer Nettles.

But consider the source: Hill is a radio consultant. He gets paid by radio stations to help determine programming strategies, including their playlists. His job is simply to boost ratings because higher ratings mean more money for the stations. It’s really not as much about art as it is commerce.

After the Country Aircheck story appeared, CMT.com writer Alison Bonaguro was quick to contact Hill, who elaborated on several key aspects of his job and radio programming, in general.

“My job is to trick people to listen longer,” he told her. “You know how I do that? I never give them onion, onion, onion. I never give them carrot, carrot, carrot. I never give them a half hour of lettuce, lettuce, lettuce. And guess what? I never give them tomato, tomato, either. It’s just a strategically-measured mixing.”

Aside from his job description and professional techniques, he hit upon a basic reality of operating a financially-successful radio station.

“If all the sudden, the whole world woke up and wanted syrupy ballads, we’d take all the tempo (songs) off the air,” he told CMT.com. “If they wanted jug bands and folk (music) by new artists, that’s what radio stations would play.”

In an interview with The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper, Country Aircheck founder Lon Helton said the lack of women receiving airplay isn’t because of sexism but rather that radio stations determine their playlists largely based on research involving the response of female listeners.

“When they vote about the music they want to hear on the radio, when asked when they hear the hooks, they seem to prefer the music from male artists,” Helton said. “It is a fine difference to say whether they prefer men or women, but overwhelming they vote for songs by men.”

Helton, who has a lengthy career as a national air personality and programmer, knows more about country radio than anyone I’ve ever met, and I’m sure what he says about the current research is true.

However, the lingering problem artists and record labels have with radio consultants often comes down to the perceived validity of that research. Which artists are the listeners being exposed to in these group research sessions? Are the listeners only getting a 15 or 20-second hook of the song? Are they individually judging the music based on the snippets they hear over a telephone?

Perhaps above all, are the music directors at the stations given the power to bend or break the rules if they have a gut feeling that a record is a hit for their local market?

In questioning Hill’s conclusion about female artists not working well within the country format, McBride offered a rather chilling scenario to The Tennessean.

“I feel like the more these ideas and philosophies are allowed to perpetuate, the harder it is to keep them from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to labels investing in female acts, writers writing great songs for females and radio giving them a fair shot,” she said.

Female artists are receiving airplay but clearly not to the extent enjoyed by male acts. Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood — undeniably the two hottest female stars who haven’t abandoned country for pop radio — didn’t even land on Billboard’s 2014 year-end list of the Top 10 country airplay artists. In fact, Lady Antebellum — placing at No. 6 behind Cole Swindell, Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, Florida Georgia Line and the No. 1 artist, Luke Bryan — were the only act featuring a female that made the list.

In another interview in The Tennessean, CMT president Brian Philips said the country music industry should concentrate on finding and developing great female artists, rather than creating arbitrary rules, such as not playing two women back-to-back on radio stations.

“Anytime you take an art form and draw narrow lines around it, you are always wrong,” Philips said. “You never look smart in the long run by saying female artists don’t test.”

As always, if there’s a uniquely talented artist — regardless of gender — who has a great song that connects with radio listeners, there’s always a strong chance for success.

“It is an industry trying to come to terms with living in a moment and trying to mark it off by saying, ’This doesn’t work.’ It is a mysterious art form,” Philips told the newspaper. “One day somebody shows up and the universe gets turned upside down and everything you thought was true is no longer true. That is the miracle of Nashville.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.