Words & Deeds

Local radio stations treating Dixie Chicks like bird flu

Turn the dial to any of Boise's popular FM country stations, and you won't hear a peep from the Dixie Chicks.

In one sense, this is historic: When else was the nation's top-selling country album shunned by radio? In another, it's maddening: How dare these Red State conservatives censor the free-spirited Chicks in Idaho?

Hold your horses, Doonesbury. Stations across the nation are ignoring the Chicks' new CD, "Taking the Long Way."

Entertainment Weekly staffer Chris Willman, author of the book "Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music," describes the Chicks as "just poison right now."

"Any country station that plays the Dixie Chicks now is just going to get a lot of negative calls," Willman says.

Boise's "Kissin' 92" uses a listener advisory panel. Among nearly 300 e-mailers, the vote was 12 to 1 against playing new Dixie Chicks music, program director Rich Summers says.

The Chicks first angered country fans in 2003 when singer Natalie Maines told a London audience that she was "ashamed" to be from the same state as President Bush. Protests and boycotts ensued.

Considering Dubya's approval numbers as of late, one might think that fans were willing to forgive and forget. But recent band interviews poured fresh salt in old wounds.

Fiddler/mandolinist Martie Maguire told Time magazine, "I'd rather have a smaller following of really cool people who get it ... than people who have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith. We don't want those kinds of fans."

Nowadays, avoiding the Dixie Chicks is a business decision.

"We don't talk negatively about the Dixie Chicks on the air," Summers says. "We just don't play the Dixie Chicks, because our audience tells me they don't want to hear it."

"My Country 104.3" has received similar feedback, albeit from fewer e-mailers. Nurturing a January format flip from oldies to country, the station has little to gain by playing Dixie Chicks songs.

"Especially if you're the new guys on the block, why risk it?" says Jeff Cochran, regional vice-president of programming for Clear Channel. "... We're trying to read the fan base of country."

But if those fans are rejecting the Chicks, then who bought 972,000 copies of the new CD?

"The people that I've personally sold it to seem like North Enders," observes Record Exchange manager John O'Neil. "... No country fans."

"Taking the Long Way" was his store's top seller its first week out. It's been No. 2 since.

At Amazon.com, customers buying "Taking the Long Way" also purchased new CDs from Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Paul Simon.

Willman thinks the Dixie Chicks' split with country radio — and new status as "darling of the NPR crowd" — was partly planned. Why else would the first single have been the defiant "Not Ready To Make Nice"?

"Basically, I do think it's calculated," Willman says. "I don't know if it's calculated with every member of the group, but ... there's a strategy there to sort of, I think, bait country radio into hating them even more, and then capitalize on that."

In the end, it's all just a headache for DJs and programmers catering to sometimes polarized listeners. Summers calls it "the single most screwed up deal of music that I can remember for a long time."

Two vans at "Kissin' 92" still have a Dixie Chicks photo on their sides, a reminder that not so long ago, these women were considered industry saviors.

"We don't cover them up like we're ashamed of it, but we do get comments on it," Summers says. " 'I can't believe you still have those bitches on your vans!' I'm like, 'I know, I know! But I don't have 5 grand for new van wraps!' "