This week, I attended the Public Radio Program Directors convention in Austin. As you might imagine, journalism and politics were prime topics at many of the sessions. Public radio has a long, rich track record for robust news coverage and perspective, all of which has ramped up during the past couple years as the political scene has become a firehose of “breaking news.”
Meanwhile in commercial radio, there are stations focused on news and talk – all of which are designed to discuss pretty much anything – especially politics. But for music stations, not so much. And most consultants and programmers advise air talent on music stations to steer clear of the toxic political environment. When the mere mention of the President inflames high percentages of listeners, it's not productive for most stations and personalities to talk politics.
In today's guest post from Jacobs Media's Seth Resler, we're throwing caution to the wind. Politics is at the center of our conversation. Seth recounts a real radio moment he had this week in Detroit. His observations are telling, hopefully stimulating a conversation at your station.
There are countervailing arguments on both sides of Seth's reasoning, illustrating just how tricky and gnarly this topic has become for music stations. Here's a deep dive into the inner-workings of Seth's brain. – FJ
On the afternoon of Tuesday, August 21st, Paul Manafort, the former manager of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, was convicted on eight of the eighteen criminal charges brought against him by U. S. prosecutors. The news broke in the late afternoon. That evening, I was driving to downtown Detroit.
On my drive, I heard a DJ on a local music radio station do a break about Manafort. The gist was something like this: “Paul Manafort was convicted on eight criminal charges today. That sounds like a bad day, until you consider that he was facing eighteen charges, so maybe it's actually a good day.”
(I'm writing this after the fact, so I confess that this may not be an entirely accurate quote, but you get the general idea. I won't reveal the identity of the DJ or the station in question, but I'll give you a hint: the break was delivered over the intro of an Incubus song.)
As soon as I heard this short break, a number of conflicting thoughts flashed through my mind. Here they are:
- Wow, this DJ just did a break about politics. That's impressive! Outside of conservative talk and public radio, stations have largely ignored the political turmoil in this country, even as every other outlet in the world has been consumed by it. From late night talk shows to football, politics has dominated every aspect of life in the last year and a half – except in music radio. This may be the first time I've heard a music daypart DJ tackle a political topic. It made the station sound refreshingly in-tune with what was happening in the world on this big news day.
- I can never decide if commercial radio's decision to ignore the current political climate on music stations is wise or cowardly. I absolutely understand why these stations avoid it — after all, talking about politics runs the risk of needlessly alienating listeners. Even if your market leans in one political direction or another, it's never going to be anywhere near 100%. You're undoubtedly going to piss off somebody — probably a lot of somebodies.
- Nonetheless, America is facing perhaps the most serious issues I've seen in my lifetime. I've lived through 9/11, the Great Recession, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the impeachment of a president. But what we're going through now feels different to me. This feels like an existential crisis for both political parties and perhaps the nation as a whole, yet many music radio broadcasters are choosing to sit out of the discussion because they're afraid it will cut into their profits. I understand it intellectually, but I don't know if I find it admirable.
- On the other hand, maybe it's precisely because it's so hard to get away from politics these days that music radio stations should ignore it. Maybe listeners want an escape from the ongoing political debate, and it's the role of music stations to provide that.
- Or maybe that's the role of Pandora and Spotify. Maybe radio is surrendering the biggest advantage it has over streaming services — on-air personalities — by not letting them talk about the issues that are on most people's minds.
- Of course, it takes skill and experience to know how to navigate sensitive topics like this successfully, and if we're being brutally honest, for most music radio DJs — even on morning shows — the risks greatly outweigh the rewards. Even if a broadcaster like Howard Stern or Steve Harvey could address these issues in a way that works, it doesn't follow that every other personality in America can, too. Given that overworked program directors are managing lots of DJs — including part-timers — and probably not airchecking them as often as they should, it probably is smart for broadcasters to avoid politics altogether.
- This particular DJ, however, did manage to do a solid break about politics while talking up a song. It was topical but also managed to avoid being partisan. That's a fine line to walk. Well done.
- I wonder if this DJ's program director will agree. I wonder if the PD will ever hear this break. I wonder how often this DJ gets airchecked. I wonder if the audience will hear it this way. Or whether the mere mention of Paul Manafort's name triggered the anger and frustrations felt by so many people on both sides of the political aisle.
- In fact, this break was very topical. It was about a news story that was only a few hours old. That means there was likely a live DJ in the studio — or at worst, the break was voicetracked pretty close to the time that it aired. I appreciate that fact – it makes the station sound relevant and current.
- This break was mildly amusing, but not laugh-out-loud funny. I think to be truly funny, it would have to be edgier, while touching on some raw truth. Does that mean it is impossible to do a political break that is both really funny and non-partisan?
- Speaking of radio broadcasters sitting out of the political debate, musicians also seem to be staying on the sidelines in a way that's historically uncharacteristic. From the Beatles, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan to Rage Against the Machine, Green Day, Public Enemy, and the Dixie Chicks, music and politics have often gone hand in hand. Aside from Eminem, Kid Rock, and Ted Nugent, there seems to be very little politics in music these days. I wonder if that's because the record label machine that churns out pop music has the same profit motivations that radio companies do. And how come today's most outspoken artists are all from Detroit?
- Incubus? Ugh…
Politics? Music radio?
What thoughts go through your head?
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