The Man Who Thinks Women In Country Music Are “Tomatoes” Is At It Again

illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Apparently it’s the three-year anniversary of radio consultant Keith Hill calling women the “tomatoes of our salad,” who should just be sprinkled in to rotation but not served as the delicious lettuce base. How do I know? Because he posted a blog about it, doubling down on his instructions to (predominately male) country radio programmers. When Hill first said this, women made up only 19% of the songs played on country radio. Today, it’s 10.4%.
Now, Hill recommends women only be programmed as 15% of the playlist, because otherwise country radio listeners, who are by a vast majority female, will “without conscious thought...fatigue faster and automatically respond by listening less.” What’s his data set for this information? His real-world experience, of course. Seriously, he offers up zero research, data, or verifiable proof that any of his information is true.
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Hill goes on to rally for hiring more women as general managers and program directors in country radio, hitting the mark with his advice that they may better understand the point of view and interests of more than half the format’s listeners, and then missing it by extolling female DJs with a better understanding of “mom stuff.” Heads up to Hill: not all women want to be moms, even the ones who listen to country. Then he makes you facepalm again, by closing with the argument that he’s just trying to help radio stations make money, the implication being that if you play women, listeners will tune out and you’ll make less money.
What Hill and his “real-world experience” leave out here is that we don’t really know what the women who listen to country music want to hear, in part because of the call-out research conducted by individual stations to determine what is a hit. The industry is trapped in a cycle where male artists are more successful on radio, allegedly because they are what the audience wants to hear. So record labels spend more money developing, marketing, and touring male artists because it’s what radio audiences want. And radio spends more time testing male artists because labels spend their marketing budgets pushing them. Women end up boxed out of the industry altogether because, other than a few Carrie Underwoods and Maren Morrises, no one wants to fund their rise to superstardom because they’ve already been told the ROI is poor. If you’ve got to spend money to make money, why would you spend money on something you’ve already been told won’t make money?
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The problem with that is: if we keep not researching how audiences respond to new female artists, or sounds that are different from the norm from established female artists (Miranda Lambert, we’re looking in your direction), then we don’t actually know what the audience wants to hear. The radio numbers end up holding women back from promotion on streaming services, land them on less lucrative tours, and give them less opportunity to do marketing deals with corporate sponsors — and that’s a real loss of money in the country music industry, where Nielsen found that women artists are more “marketable” to women audiences, meaning they’re more likely to buy their products. At 51% of the population, our spending power is a massive 30% of the world’s wealth, and country music is taking a pass on it.
Additionally, and completely ignored in Hill’s piece, up and coming female artists are constantly told how unwelcome they are in country radio by programmers and station management who sexually harass them. Rolling Stone’s Marisa R. Moss did a deep dive investigation and uncovered appalling stories about the industry’s history of treating women artists as sex objects to be used as they please in exchange for a few spins on the air. Moss tweeted at Hill to ask him if he’d examined any link between the abuse and the lack of female airplay. He insists the two are not linked, calling them “separate and distinct things.” Rising country star Margo Price clapped back, tweeting: “This guy is the biggest piece of scum ever to walk the face of the earth.”
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When musicologist and country music scholar Jada E. Watson stepped into the conversation to ask Hill to provide some hard data to back up his assertions, and to explain how the connection between harassment and under representation for women are connected as cultural sexism in country music, Hill decided to simply stick to his 15% recommendation and tell a group of women how he feels “sucker punched” by anyone claiming there’s a connection between the two.
The Women of Music Action Network of Nashville also joined in, dissecting the flaws in Hill’s advice they hit upon a key idea: When it comes to programming content, you cultivate the audience you want. Women who want to hear other women sing country music already know not to turn to country radio, where they are not supported.
Women are not tomatoes, or any part of the salad. They're a talented force to be reckoned with, whose voices deserve to be heard. If country radio doesn't want to play them, the audience who do want to hear what the women of country music want to say will just go elsewhere to find them. Given the dire future of terrestrial radio predicted by New York University’s Steinhart Music Business Program, one would think radio might want to look outside of their regular salad eaters when crafting a mix.
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