Amid national conversations about racial injustice, radio stations are struggling to respond appropriately in their programming. What goes and what stays?
On June 9th, Cumulus Media read out on its 424 radio stations a list of black victims of police brutality, including Breona Taylor, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and George Floyd. Cumulus’s tribute was supposed to air only on its urban-formatted stations. But it switched gears at the last minute and read the names on all formats — including 17 classic-rock stations and 70 country stations, both of whose audiences are overwhelmingly white.
It was a rare moment. Of the hundreds of terrestrial classic rock stations in the U.S., most rotations feature only a tiny number of black artists — Jimi Hendrix, War, and Living Colour, for instance, sitting next to more frequent spins of Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones, and Queen — and many of these stations’ playlists are created by white programmers catering to an audience that’s white, male, and more than 45 years old. There’s no radio industry group currently in place to address social issues — so aside from one-off tributes like Cumulus’s and similar ones from iHeartMedia and SiriusXM, radio has not gone beyond surface statements. As companies across the entertainment industry make strides to combat racism and prejudice, classic radio, which is rife with racially skewed music, remains stuck in an awkward place.
“I can see the challenges in communicating a message where a majority of your listeners don’t happen to have a predisposition to be part of the cause, because they haven’t understood that they were part of the problem for so long,” says Gregg Steele Heppner, who until 2016 was a VP of programming at SiriusXM. Fred Jacobs, president and founder of radio consultancy Jacobs Media, points out that while many businesses are being forced to confront their content and internal practices, there are still “many more companies that have avoided and evaded these issues altogether.”
As a producer in syndicated classic rock radio for more than a dozen years, I contacted fellow employees at classic stations across the country: Multiple programmers, on-air DJs, and spokespeople at major-market terrestrial stations declined to comment; others spoke anonymously, due to fears around job safety, about their frustrations around the radio industry’s silence, lack of diversity in upper management, and unwillingness to do more to advance racial equality. While songs like N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” have seen huge spikes on streaming recently, for instance, radio has not changed programming to reflect those trends in consumption.
It also hasn’t blacklisted any problematic songs. In 2001, three days after 9/11, Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia) sent a memo to 1,000 radio stations with a list of more than 150 songs, including AC/DC’s “Shoot to Thrill” and “Shot Down in Flames,” that it deemed “lyrically questionable” and insensitive to play following the terrorist attacks. Radio employees in 2020 tell me they have not heard any such suggestions being circulated from corporate tiers around #BlackLivesMatter — though some syndicated programs are deciding by themselves to pull the racially-charged songs “Black Betty,” “Brown Sugar,” and “Walk on the Wild Side” from playlists.
“Pop music tends to smuggle in a lot of contraband lyrically. Words that would cause outrage if spoken often get a pass or go unnoticed when sung.” — record producer Ian Brennan
Record producer Ian Brennan says The Rolling Stones’ well-known track “Brown Sugar” glorifies slavery, rape, torture and pedophilia. Brennan, who’s written several books about racism and inequity, says: “The call is not for censorship or ‘record burning,’ but greater consciousness and sensitivity. I am opposed to ‘cancel culture.’ This particular case is far from nitpicking or searching into the furthest corners of someone’s history for any misstep. ‘Brown Sugar’ is not some obscure B-side. The concern is that they continue to perform and profit — and not just perform it, but feature it as the penultimate or final number on their most recent worldwide tour, a tour that shattered the all-time concert industry record for monetary gross at a single show.”
“Pop music tends to smuggle in a lot of contraband lyrically,” Brennan continues. “Words that would cause outrage if spoken often get a pass or go unnoticed when sung. Almost undoubtedly, the majority of their audience would claim to be ‘liberal’ and ‘not racist,’ but 60,000 people singing along to those words is not an entirely innocent act. That it is tolerated or dismissed is yet another smaller, but nonetheless meaningful example of systemic racism.”
Laina Dawes, author of the 2012 book What Are You Doing Here: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, says that despite Mick Jagger’s various explanations for his lyrics, the song is a problem because the lyrics, which are specific to racial and sexual stereotypes about black women, are particularly harmful at a time of violence directed toward black bodies. But on the other hand, removing it from rotation would be “too little, too late.”
“Sure, you can remove the songs from the classic rock playlists, but what is that going to do?” Dawes says. “The damage has already been done. We have to stop being so reactionary by pulling everything off the shelves, and start thinking critically about why they were never pulled in the first place. What radio can do is pull racist DJ’s off the air, which they won’t do, so removing these a few songs doesn’t mean much.”
So what actions should radio companies take? Part of the issue is that many stations have niche audiences and opinionated programmers, but have to defer to corporate parents for decision-making. Smaller indie stations tend to be better at fast, decisive change; for instance, Tyler Lenane, CEO & co-founder of California-based indie platform Gimme Radio, says Gimme believes “not only in solidarity but in action” so it quickly donated all proceeds from Gimme Metal and Gimme Country in the first two weeks of June to Campaign Zero, an organization dedicated to police reform. Large radio companies including iHeart, Sirius, and Cumulus did not respond or turned down request for comment. (Though, this morning, iHeart did announce that 15 stations will adopt a new news network focused on the black community.)
As the groundswell to end systemic racism grows, it’s worth noting that there’s one powerful, immediate action radio could take, and that it’s written right into the mission: In order for a station to keep its FCC license, it’s required to provide “public interest” programming in some regard. So why not face that responsibility head-on?
“Generally radio stations bury public interest content in a Sunday morning time slot, [but] this is a time to explore meaningful and impactful conversation in response to cultural and political movements,” says Steele Heppner, a media consultant and content advisor at Tactical Strategists. “Radio has the opportunity to take steps in the right direction. Community leaders can have a discussion with the programming people and the audience and have them tell you whether that should be part of the solution or not. Have a dialogue. I’m hoping that up the line, they’re having those kinds of conversations about what they can do — what will best be their best way to address it.”
Steele Heppner continues: “Face it, we’re privileged white people, and we shouldn’t try to hide from that. That truly could be part of the problem. For us to not look to find the solution makes us seem complicit.”
Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning music producer who has produced three other Grammy-nominated albums. He is the author of four books and has worked with the likes of filmmaker John Waters, Merle Haggard, and Green Day, among others. His work with international artists such as the Zomba Prison Project, Tanzania Albinism Collective, and Khmer Rouge Survivors, has been featured on the front page of the New York Times and on an Emmy-winning 60 Minutes segment with Anderson Cooper reporting. Since 1993 he has taught violence prevention and conflict resolution around the world for such prestigious organizations as the Smithsonian, New York’s New School, Berklee College of Music, the University of London, the University of California–Berkeley, and the National Accademia of Science (Rome).