Share the Air: Music by women continues to be underplayed

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Robyn Stewart, Heather Gibson, Jada Watson and Eugénie Tessier.

Landmark study shows significant gender inequity on Canadian radio over the last decade with only marginal improvement on pop-oriented formats

Women are almost invisible on some radio formats in Canada, according to an extensive study by Dr. Jada Watson through her research program SongData. Share the Air: A Study of Gender Representation on Canadian Radio (2013-2023) was prepared in collaboration with Eugénie Tessier and in partnership with the National Arts Centre and Women in Music Canada.

Taking an intersectional approach to radio data analysis, Dr. Watson evaluated representation amongst the top 150 songs played on Canadian commercial radio between 2013 and 2023 and of all songs played in 2023. Results indicate that songs by women – especially those by women of colour – are underrepresented in each format studied: country, alternative rock, active rock, Top 40, mainstream adult contemporary, hot adult contemporary, and on two specially curated portfolios of French-language stations of both mainstream and hot adult contemporary formats.

Alternative Rock stations play on average only one song by women per hour, while Active Rock stations play just one per four- or five-hour block. Country stations: only two per hour. The three pop-oriented genres show greater representation, but songs by women still capture just one third of overall programming.

The study also considers representation via Canadian Content designation, finding that songs by Canadian women are not prioritised in programming on Canadian radio and are programmed less than songs by international female artists. Programming of songs by women of colour are often impacted the most through as the study finds, as their songs are vastly under programmed across all formats. Trans, non-binary, genderqueer and 2-Spirit artists (referred to as Trans* artists in the study) are nearly absent overall, with only a few international artists receiving minimal support through programming on Top 40, mainstream adult contemporary, and hot adult contemporary playlists.

“The results of SongData’s study, which focused on the last decade of radio, are unequivocal: songs by women are underplayed on Canadian radio and those by women of colour and Trans* artists are on some formats entirely unplayed. This is most disconcerting for me in Country and Rock radio – formats with deep roots in Black musical culture and traditions. We see in these findings only a marginal bump in programming for songs by women in 2023 on Canadian radio – nothing to reverse the systemic inequity in the industry in any significant way. These findings are echoed within the programming of the two portfolios of French language stations that we curated specifically for this study, which reveal the same prioritising of songs by white male artists at all levels of analysis. Women’s voices – especially Canadian women’s voices – are lost in the programming pipeline. It’s time for change. It’s time to share the air.”

– Jada Watson, Principal Investigator of SongData and Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Ottawa

Songs that receive radio support have historically had a greater chance for commercial success in the industry’s mainstream and, as a result, artists careers have long often been determined by whether they were supported by radio.

“Radio plays a critical role in the music industry. It has a significant impact on determining mainstream success that includes artists programmed to headline festivals and at large venues across the country. The fact that gender inequity and lack of diversity persist at this level, almost 30 years after the Lilith Fair, is alarming. Women and diverse artists are doing incredible work in music, and we are calling on Canadian radio broadcasters to play their part in elevating and fostering gender equity on the air.”

– Heather Gibson, Executive Producer of Popular Music and Variety, National Arts Centre

While the findings shared in this report reveal significant inequity within the Canadian music industry ecosystem, they are not surprising to those devoting their careers to music.

“We must shift from conversation to concrete action towards equity. Without pro-active measures like those put in place for Canadian content, the industry will continue to favour songs created and performed by men. This will continue to have a negative impact on women’s careers, notably on their representation in nominations for Juno Awards, the Canadian Country Music Awards, the ADISQ Gala, and representation on festivals and tours (especially as headliners), among other industry recognitions. Change needs to be done at multiple levels of the artist development and promotion pipeline. It is only through working together on this change that we will see movement to finally enjoying a truly more diverse, equitable and inclusive industry for all.”

– Robyn Stewart, Executive Director and CEO, Women in Music Canada

Read the Executive Summary of A Study of Gender on Canadian Radio (2013-2023).

The study was generously supported by Creative BC and the Province of British Columbia, Ontario Creates, and Feisty Creative.

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