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Female musicians underrepresented on Canadian radio playlists: study

TORONTO — A new report on Canada's radio airwaves says songs performed by women have been underplayed on commercial music stations for at least the past decade.
A new report on Canada's radio airwaves says that music performed by women is still vastly underrepresented on commercial music stations. The Beaches perform at the Juno awards, in Halifax, Sunday, March 24, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

TORONTO — A new report on Canada's radio airwaves says songs performed by women have been underplayed on commercial music stations for at least the past decade.

The 11-year study released Monday as part of Canadian Music Week crunched data from some of the most popular radio formats and found that songs by women – especially women of colour – were played far less than songs by men.

While those findings won't surprise many in the music industry who've been outspoken for years about the lack of gender representation, the numbers offered a tangible insight into the state of a key component in the success of many performers.

“Radio is the only system within the industry that collects and reports their data in such a transparent way," explained musicologist Jada Watson as she presented the study to a Toronto conference room attended primarily by women from the music industry.

"Not only does the tracking of airplay generate industry charts, but because radio is governed by the Broadcasting Act, their data (reports) distribution by time of day, song type, and ... Canadian content regulations."

"Share the Air: A Study of Gender Representation on Canadian Radio (2013-2023)" looked at the top 150 most played radio tracks of each year starting in 2013, plus all tunes played in 2023 on some of the most popular radio formats including Top 40, country and rock music.

Watson conducted the study through her SongData research program, in partnership with Ottawa's National Arts Centre and advocacy group Women in Music Canada.

She found that while there was a "bump in programming" for songs by women across all radio formats last year, the study said it's too soon to tell whether that's only a temporary improvement.

Women were least represented on rock stations, particularly the harder-edged active rock format where they got just 1.9 per cent of airplay on average in 2023, or one song every four-to-five-hour programming block.

The study found that alternative rock stations played an average of one song by a woman per hour last year, while country radio played two songs per hour.

On country, alternative rock and active rock stations, women of colour represented 0.7 per cent of artists played across the study.

Across three pop-oriented formats — Top 40, mainstream adult contemporary and hot adult contemporary — songs by women comprised one-third of the music. Most of them were white women with women of colour representing 6.5 per cent of artists played.

In total, nearly 14,000 acts and solo artists were represented in the study.

The researchers said they focused on radio stations for several reasons. Historically, they say, songs with greater support from radio also have a greater chance at broader commercial success, helping to launch mainstream careers.

Without solid radio play around a single's release, it's easier for songs to slip out of rotation and not be considered part of the Canadian hits canon and broader musical culture, the study noted.

Songs by Canadian women were "not prioritized" in programming, the report said, and were played less than songs by international female performers.

The consequence is that Canadian women who rose to the Top 20 charts would often stall out before climbing into the Top 5 because those coveted chart spots usually went to American women, Watson said.

One of the few exceptions happened last year on alternative rock radio when "Blame Brett" by all-female Toronto rock band the Beaches rose to No. 1 on the Mediabase alternative radio chart.

"It’s great, I love seeing the Beaches at the top of the chart," said Watson.

"But they’re the only Canadian (female) act that gets up there and stays up there to that capacity."

Women of colour were "vastly under-programmed" across all formats, while artists classified as transgender, non-binary, two-spirit or genderqueer were "nearly absent overall," with only a few international artists and no Canadians in the three pop formats.

The same findings were reflected in two portfolios of French language stations included in the study, said Watson, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa.

Watson suggested radio stations could implement several practices to improve representation.

For instance, when programming their playlists, stations might consider playing more songs by women in daytime hours, particularly during rush hour travel, since listenership is significantly higher.

"How often songs are played, when they’re played (and) the sequence in which they are played, all of this (has) a role in building a soundtrack for the listener experience," she said.

Watson added that she doesn't believe the best solution is necessarily a quota system or an unnuanced government-led policy, such as pushing for gender parity on the radio, since it could risk shutting out trans and non-binary musicians.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2024.

David Friend, The Canadian Press