Creative Space

CMT Exec Talks Coronavirus Effects on Music and Country's Steady Evolution

Diana King
"I have a button on my desk that says ‘NO,’ ” says Fram, who finds herself at live shows most nights. "It’s very hard for me to hit." She was photographed March 9 in her office in Nashville.

Nashville-based Leslie Fram also weighs in on country’s airplay gender-parity problem, the Dixie Chicks’ return and the Tennessee tornadoes.

A few hours after Leslie Fram discussed how the COVID-19 outbreak might affect the entertainment industry — and talked about bringing DIY hand sanitizer to victims of the deadly March 3 tornado that devastated Middle Tennessee — the Nashville-based exec found out she had her own brush with the virus. Fram, the senior vp of music strategy at CMT (Country Music Television), was among the network staffers who worked a March 5 Rebuilding Tennessee Telethon where an attendee tested positive for the coronavirus. Now, like most Americans, Fram and her 60-person team are working remotely.

Just before she shifted to her home office (and again over the phone), the Alabama native and radio veteran sat down with THR to talk about keeping one foot in each of two rapidly transforming industries — cable television, where her net averaged 234,000 primetime viewers in 2019, and country music. For Fram, who’s been at CMT since 2011, 2020 means pushing for equal airplay for female artists (including the long-shunned Dixie Chicks), planning their marquee awards show (CMT Music Awards) during a pandemic, helping evolve a genre full of "purists" and navigating the merger of newly combined parent company ViacomCBS.

Coronavirus has already affected the music industry, especially live events. How do you plan for a situation with so many unknowns?

Look at what happened with South by Southwest being canceled. That’s just two weeks, and that’s devastating for Austin. I think it brings $360 million to the economy. We have not even started to understand the ramifications of this. The next few days and the next few weeks are going to be very interesting to see what happens, but obviously we’re having those conversations at Viacom as well for everything we’re doing.

Where do you stand about whether to move forward with the CMT Music Awards on June 3?

That’s very fluid. We’re monitoring this situation closely. We’re continuing to have calls every day as if we’re moving forward — calls about talent, host ideas, nomination research. We’re also having conversations about rescheduling. We’re all sort of taking this month by month.

Has there been an uptick in viewership since so many people have been ordered to stay at home?

Ratings are up. That’s been positive, across the board, with all our channels.  [The week of March 16, CMT ratings rose 11 percent.] I think people need a break from the news. You want to have the news updates, but if you watch it all day it can be somewhat depressing. We’re definitely, in our household, watching more television than normal.

You do music programming, but there’s not a whole lot of music left in music television.

It’s hard because it’s financial. A lot of music doesn’t rate on TV. Awards do, but they’re events.

What are you doing to make sure that the CMT Awards stays fresh and interesting and continues to draw an audience?

All awards shows, including ours, you have to change them up. You have to refresh every year. What can we do different? We feel like we always have a point of view on our show. We always represent women on our show. We have amazing producers, Margaret Comeaux and John Hamlin. We try to have surprises and that element of, “What’s going to happen next?” Those are the conversations, actually, that we are having right now. How can we change it up and make it different and fun?

Is there anyone whom you’ve never had at the CMT Awards that is on your dream list?

Every country artist has done the CMT Music Awards, so I would have to think of an out-of-genre artist. I would love to have Justin Timberlake. He really honors Nashville, he has an office here, he loves Nashville songwriters. So, I would say Justin Timberlake or Ed Sheehan. Or Adele. I think that she has one of the best voices and spirits ever and does things on her own terms. 

As for the genre, Lil Nas X’s "Old Town Road" didn’t quite fit in hiphop or in country — until Billy Ray Cyrus came in and sort of brought him into the fold. What does that say about expanding the scope of what is a country song?

We need to open the aperture. The fans are listening to everything — hip-hop, pop, EDM, country. That is the reality. We are never going to go back. Unfortunately, there are a lot of purists. We are playing Blake Shelton singing with Pitbull, and a lot of people probably hate that. But if Blake is going to do a collab with Pitbull, we know our fans are listening. We can’t keep narrowing and narrowing and narrowing and making everything bland.

The Dixie Chicks were shunned by the country purists after their 2003 comments about George W. Bush. What do you think about their return to recording?

I’ve heard five or six songs off the [upcoming] record, and they immediately remind you why you miss the Dixie Chicks. Their voices matter, and I believe the format has sorely missed them. I know that radio stations are playing the first single, "Gaslighter." We are playing the video. I will do anything and everything for the Dixie Chicks. No one has ever replaced them or ever will. I’m hoping this is the year of the Dixie Chicks back in country.

CMT started the Equal Play initiative to showcase more female voices in country. Why is the industry still so male-dominated?

Even in the '90s, when people thought it was the heyday with Shania Twain, Reba McIntire and Faith Hill, women were only 30 percent of the playlist. Now we’re down to 10 or 11 percent. Some female artists were leaving the format, Taylor Swift or whomever, and there wasn’t enough inventory to replenish them. Labels weren’t signing enough female artists. Publishers weren’t signing female songwriters. It’s this horrible ripple effect.

In 2013, we started a franchise called Next Women of Country because a lot of these new female artists weren’t getting exposure. There were some that were maybe too country for country radio, like Brandy Clark, who we wanted to have a platform to play their videos and expose their content. Then we realized they couldn’t get on a tour unless they had a song on the radio, so we started a tour so they would have a stage to play on. A lot of female anchors headlined those tours: Jennifer Nettles, Sarah Evans, Martina McBride. This year it’s Tanya Tucker taking out a multitude of new female artists. 

We’re excited about the Equal Play Initiative and a lot of people have felt really positive about it, from the artist community to brands. We commissioned our own research with Coleman Insights. There were a lot of positive results. It showed that the fans are gender-agnostic. They just want to hear good music. When asked, “Do you want to hear female artists?” it was like, “Absolutely we want to hear more female artists.”

Women haven’t been on an equal playing field. I’m not just talking about emerging artists. Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert don’t get a pass either. If you look at the airplay spins of Carrie Underwood, they are half of several of her male counterparts who are superstars. A lot of Miranda Lambert songs don’t go to number one. So that’s what Equal Play is. We started Equal Play in all of our video hours. It’s about putting female voices back in the mix.

So what’s next?

This is the year of action, as far as CMT is concerned. It’s about bringing all the gatekeepers together and working together. If we could all move a little bit this year, then we’ll see different results at the end of 2020. We have been looking at the same miserable results year after year.

How has your job changed in your near-decade with the network?

When I was in radio, we always looked at sales, and we went to a lot of shows. A lot of it was gut as well. At CMT, we look at what’s streaming. We look at Shazam. We still go to shows and see people live — from baby acts at the Basement East, which thank God is going to be rebuilt after the tornado, to Bridgestone Arena. The day-to-day now is meeting with labels, meeting with publishers and managers. We do a lot of album launches with artist teams. There are meetings about the CMT Music Awards, meetings about our other music franchises. So, if I look at my day, sometimes there is no white space. It’s like meetings from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. We try to have fun field trips with my team. We’ll all go see a show together or we’ll go to a publishing company and see several new artists. It’s important to have that bonding time.

How do you see CMT evolving?

Our digital team has launched quite a few music-centric franchises that are amazing that my team is booking. One is called Another Round. It’s sort of a Blue Bird meets Unplugged, which is great for artists and songwriters. On the Road, which is a 10-minute, docu-style, behind-the-scenes look at a tour, which is beautiful. We have already shot Miranda Lambert. Night Out Nashville, which really shows people that don’t live in Nashville what happens on a weekly basis here — I’d like to see us do more of that. We’re going to start doing more content days with our Listen Up emerging artists and our Next Women of Country. I would love to see Equal Play evolve into really working with brands and gatekeepers to help female artists so that we don’t have to have this conversation anymore. We're starting to look at more music programming for CMT.  I think we’ll announce a few more this year.

Tell me a little bit about CMT’s tornado recovery efforts.

Within 24 hours, we worked with the NBC affiliate and the Red Cross on the telethon. Artists came together quickly, but I’m not sure people understand the billions of dollars it’s going to take to rebuild. I’ve been doing music a long time and I have never experienced a community like this where it’s roll up your sleeves and help your neighbor. And that’s what we want to do, we want to roll up our sleeves and see what we can do.

With the ViacomCBS merger, what’s been the most noticeable change?

We heavily supported the Grammys, which air on CBS. I think if they can support what we do and we can support what they do, we’re one big happy family. The next six months should be really interesting. [ViacomCBS CEO] Bob Bakish is a big country fan. He comes to all our shows and wants to stand in line to get his tickets. We’re, like, "No, you’re Bob Bakish."

As for the Grammys, how is the leadership tumult at the Recording Academy affecting the industry?

I’ve been a part of the Academy for over 20 years. They do so much advocacy that maybe they’re not given credit for. Do there need to be changes? Yes. I’m hoping for a quick resolution. I don’t want to take away from any artist, producer or engineer who’s won a Grammy. It is the highest level of honor.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.