Dixie Chicks and Country Radio

The old gatekeeping functions are breaking down.
Laying aside their political differences with country music programmers, the
Dixie Chicks have shown that the gatekeeping function of country radio no longer
makes or breaks top-line talent.

Now that the Grammys are over and the Dixie Chicks are crowing–or should it be cackling–a little-observed lesson is hidden in their sweep of the music awards.

At one time country radio was essential to country artists. Small “breakout” stations tested audience response to new songs. If a song broke through in these stations, large market stations were more likely to pick it up and play it. This process built audience and improved sales.

But country programmers also exhibited a restrictive function. Most recently this has resulted in keeping some established artists off the air. George Jones and Merle Haggard have both commented on their lack of airplay.

The practice is not new, and certainly not limited to the Dixie Chicks. When I worked at KOOO-FM in Omaha many years ago I picked up a Johnny Cash album with the song “Singin’ in Vietnam Talkin’ Blues.” Written over the title on the album cover was a warning from the program director. “Do not play. If you play this you will be fired.”

In the highly polarized environment of the Vietnam era, songs about the war had to be overtly pro-war or they were considered anti-war and were not played on country stations. No less an artist than Johnny Cash was subject to this gatekeeping lockout.

A bit later Loretta Lynn came out with a song of liberation for women called “The Pill.” It was a defiant message about independence symbolized by the availability of contraception. It said women had been treated differently, with less power than men, especially in relationships, because they bore children. It’s a great song, possibly one of those social markers that come along in pop culture every so often.

When the song was released, KOOO-FM, along with many other stations, refused to play it as well. However, by that time I had moved to a talk radio station in town, KLNG Radio, and had the honor of playing “The Pill” for the first time in that market.

Because we were all news and talk, I doubt we added much to the song’s acceptance among women in that market. But it was fun to be first to play the song, and it did become a hit for Ms. Lynn without full support of country radio.

The Dixie Chicks have demonstrated that radio doesn’t have the same hold it once did. There are too many other venues and too many ways for a song, or an album to get a hearing. Moreover, the Chicks have gotten new life from the recalcitrant programmers.

Country programmers are up against some pretty challenging circumstances. The country audience has declined the past few years. Programmers probably felt playing the Chicks risked even more loss. But the Chicks have revealed that the gatekeeping function of the past is eroded and, among other things, they have shined light on the shifting power dynamics of life in a multimedia world.

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