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Women have been underplayed on Canadian radio for last decade, new study shows

It’s something that’s been reported in the U.S. for years: “Women are still missing in the music industry,” a study looking at Billboard charts and Grammy nominations told us in 2020, as well as the two years previous. But now a landmark intersectional study of Canadian radio play can confirm quantitatively what’s been happening at home: Women have been underplayed on Canadian radio for at least the last decade.

The report, released on June 3 and titled “Share the Air: Representation on Canadian Radio (2013-2023),” was done by University of Ottawa assistant professor Watson through her SongData project in collaboration with Eugénie Tessier, in partnership with the National Arts Centre (NAC) and Women in Music Canada. It is the fourth study that Watson has done on Canadian radio, and the first that compares representation across six mainstream radio formats: Country, Alternative Rock, Active Rock, Top 40, Mainstream Adult Contemporary and Hot Adult Contemporary. The study also looks at a selection of French-language stations.

Focusing on the top 150 songs played on Canadian radio between 2013 and 2023, the study shows that songs by women are “underprogrammed on each format.” The lowest percentages were seen on Country, Alternative Rock and Active Rock programs, while the pop-forward formats of Top 40, Mainstream Adult Contemporary and Hot Adult Contemporary showed more women and trans artists being programmed, though they still only accounted for one-third of radio play.

The study began with a broad question: why are women, gender diverse and racialized artists underrepresented at festivals and awards across the country? 

“At the NAC it’s not difficult to program women, and with diversity centred,” said Heather Gibson, executive producer of popular music and variety at the NAC, during the June 3 press conference for the study at the Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto. “There’s no shortage of amazing artists. So what happens to these artists as they move through their career trajectory, that somehow they go from well over half the artists on our stages, in early and mid-career, to invisible in numbers on the largest stages?”

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What became obvious, she explained, was that “we’re using a system of data that has its roots in radio play, charts and spins. However much or little that data weighed in our choices, it was one of the defining factors of mainstream success on nearly all accounts.”

Gibson got in touch with Watson, and Women in Music Canada executive director Robyn Stewart, and “Share the Air” began to take shape.

“As conversations about inequity within the industry have increased over the last few years, we’ve seen many articles and studies address the absence of women and trans artists across festival stages and award nominations in the Canadian music industry,” Watson explained during the press conference. “We know already that representation across these systems is dire. But radio, one of the oldest and most established pathways to distribution and exposure within the industry, has received limited attention within these discussions.”

Canadian radio by the numbers

Between 2013 and 2023, zero trans artists were recorded in the top 150 songs played on Canadian radio on Country and Alternative Rock formats. Women represented 12.8 per cent of the songs on Country, and eight per cent on Alternative Rock, while men were programmed 78.9 per cent of the time on Country radio, and 70.2 per cent on Alternative Rock. Mixed gender bands represented 8.3 per cent of programming on Country, and 22.8 per cent on Alternative Rock. Canadian artists played on Country formats during those years include Jess Moskaluke, Dean Brody, Dallas Smith, Tenille Townes and Meghan Patrick, while names you’ll see on the top 150 list on Alternative Rock formats include the Beaches, City and Colour, Arkells, Ruby Waters, Charlotte Cardin and Feist. The study also found, though, that there is a “continued prioritizing of international artists,” despite federally regulated Canadian content requirements.

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Looking at Top 40 and Mainstream Adult Contemporary formats, trans artists represented 0.6 per cent of the former and 0.2 per cent of the latter. Top 40 saw women represent 27.1 per cent of programming and 28.2 on Mainstream Adult Contemporary, while men represented 53.5 in the former and 56.6 in the latter. Mixed gender bands were played 18.8 per cent of the time in the studied rotation for Top 40, and 14.8 for Mainstream Adult Contemporary. Canadian artists played on the Top 40 format during those years include Tate McRae, Rêve, the Weeknd, Drake and Lu Kala, while names you’ll see on the top 150 list on the Mainstream Adult Contemporary format include the Weeknd, Michael Bublé, Alessia Cara and Shawn Mendes.

Across Country, Alternative Rock and Active Rock formats from 2013-2023, racialized women represent 0.7 per cent of artists played. Across the marginally more diverse formats of Top 40, Mainstream Adult Contemporary and Hot Adult Contemporary, racialized women averaged 6.5 per cent across all three formats.

While the SongData study looked at data across 2013 to 2023, it also looked at weekly reports of all songs played in 2023, broken down by time of day and how much airtime was accounted for — and it showed stronger progress in the radio formats of Top 40, Mainstream Adult Contemporary and Hot Adult Contemporary.

In the run of a day, the ratio of songs by men to women was one to one on Top 40 in 2023, and 1.5 to one for Mainstream Adult Contemporary. On the flip side, the ratio of men to women was five to one on Country radio for songs played in 2023, with only two songs being played by a woman per hour. The ratio of songs by men to women was 12 to one on Alternative Rock radio — and on Active Rock radio, the ratio of men to women played was 47 to one.

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Even when women were better represented, according to the study their songs weren’t amongst the most-played each year, which means they’re underrepresented in the year-end charts. The data also concluded that “trans artists are invisibilized within Canadian radio programming.” There are no songs by trans artists in the top 150 songs played until 2019, and after that there are only three songs by trans artists that received enough rotation to be on the lists.

The study also revealed that there is a “near absence” of songs by Indigenous artists, while there is general racial inequity across all six radio formats.

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