music and politics on radio

Scott Fybush
Sun Sep 19 21:31:23 EDT 2004

Dan Billings said:

>I was not doing that.  I was just commenting on the coverage of that one 
>issue.  My point was that many of those who were outraged by the Chicks 
>being banned would not be upset if Beanie Man was banned.

I think there's a very clear distinction there, though. If I understand 
right (and I openly admit not having heard a single Beanie Man song), the 
song lyrics themselves were advocating violence against gays. To my mind, 
that's a rather big leap from the issue Donna raises, which is what 
performers are advocating for outside the scope of their art - the Chicks 
speaking out from the stage in England, or Nuge's pro-hunting activism. I 
think that can be separated from each artist's music in a way that Beanie 
Man's viewpoint can't.

And since I haven't weighed in yet on Donna's original question, my 
instinct as a programmer would be to err on the side of extreme caution 
when thinking about mixing politics and music radio. Unless I'm getting 
huge negatives directly from MY audience about a particular performer (and 
I continue to believe that much of the "backlash" against the Chicks 
originated not with country listeners but with talk show listeners being 
directed to call country stations and complain), I think the best policy 
for most music radio stations is to keep the politics and the music 
separate. If the object of today's commercial music radio stations is to 
reach the broadest audience possible, why risk turning off any portion of 
my potential listenership just to suit my own political whims? I know P1 
country listeners who are lefty Democrats (and Jews, to boot), and I know 
modern rock fans who are archconservative Republicans. The music is the 
music, the politics are the politics, and I suspect 99% of the listener 
base would rather they be kept separate, thank you very much. What's more, 
you never know how much of your audience is offended by the mixing of 
politics and music but chooses to just turn the dial rather than calling to 
complain. (In my case, I find the flagwaving of Darryl Worley appalling, 
but I've never called up my local country station to say so; if "Have You 
Forgotten" comes on, I just turn elsewhere and don't come back to that 
button on the radio for a while. And speaking of that Darryl Worley song, 
I'm vaguely surprised that nobody's tried to use the lines it contains 
about "you say we'll get the ones behind Bin Laden, have you forgotten?" to 
make a political case in the other direction...)

(An anecdote about the dangers of mixing anything other than music into a 
music format: my mother-in-law, who is Jewish, is visiting from Indiana 
this weekend, and we got to talking about radio there. She was complaining 
that one of the local "lite FM" stations now plays a handful of 
contemporary Christian tunes as part of its music mix every morning. While 
I appreciate the competitive pressure that led the station to do that - 
there's a noncomm FM in town that's playing very "lite FM" sounding 
contemporary Christian music with formatics that barely differ from the 
secular commercial stations, and it's getting good ratings in this very 
conservative, almost entirely Christian city - you have to wonder what 
would happen if my mother-in-law or one of the other members of the city's 
small Jewish community were to get a diary in the mail...)

How does all this differ from Donna's example of the very politicized WBCN 
of the 1960s and early seventies? For one thing, the WBCN of that era 
wasn't a 70 million dollar corporate subsidiary. It was truly an 
"underground" station (even when it was 52 floors up in the Pru penthouse), 
and its image was built as much on the politics that it shared with its 
(extremely niche) audience as on the music it played. Today, that sort of 
niche is untenable in big-bucks commercial radio.


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