Radio Stations Pull Some Songs
New York Times 9-19-01, pg. E3
by Neil Strauss
Clear Channel Communications, the Texas-based company that owns about 1,170 radio stations nationwide, has circulated a list of 150 songs and asked its stations to avoid playing them because of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Some listed songs would be insensitive to play right now, such as the Gap Band's "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" and Soundgarden's "Blow Up the Outside World," but other choices, critics and musicians say, are less explicable because they have little literal connection to the tragedies.
These include "Ticket to Ride" by the Beatles, "On Broadway" by the Drifters and "Bennie and the Jets" by Elton John. Even odder, some songs on the list are patriotic, like Neil Diamond's "America." Others speak of universal optimism, like Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," and others are emotional but hopeful songs that could help people grieve, like "Imagine" by John Lennon, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Simon and Garfunkel, "Peace Train" by Cat Stevens and "A World Without Love" by Peter and Gordon.
The move by Clear Channel, whose collective broadcasts reach more than 110 million listeners in the nation weekly, was voluntary. Many stations said they were disregarding the list, which was distributed internally.
Another Peter and Gordon song, "I Go to Pieces," made the list. "I suppose a song about someone going to pieces could be upsetting if someone took it literally," said Peter Asher of Peter and Gordon after learning that the group's two songs were on the list. "But 'I can't live in a world without love' is a sentiment that's as true in crisis as it is in normal times. It's a totally pro-love sentiment and could only be helpful right now."
A Clear Channel spokeswoman emphasized that the list was not a mandate or order to radio programmers. In a statement, the company said the list came not from the corporate offices but from "a grass-roots effort that was apparently circulated among program directors."
"Imagine," by John Lennon, is on a list of songs deemed inappropriate after last week's attacks.
Others in the Clear Channel network, speaking on condition of anonymity, told a more complicated story. They said that a smaller list of questionable songs was originally generated by the corporate office, but an overzealous regional executive began contributing suggestions and circulating the list via e-mail, where it continued to grow.
Either way, compliance with the list varied from station to station. Angela Perelli, the vice president for operations at KYSR (98.7 FM) in Los Angeles, said the station was not playing any of the listed songs and had previously pulled a couple of the cited songs, "Jumper" by Third Eye Blind and "Fly" by Sugar Ray, on its own accord. On the other hand, Bob Buchmann, the program director and an on-air personality at WAXQ-FM (104.3) in Manhattan, said that some songs on the list ("American Pie" by Don McLean, "Imagine" and others) happened to be among the most-played songs on his station. In the meantime, the station decided not to broadcast some songs even though they did not make the list, such as "When You're Falling," a collaboration between Peter Gabriel and Afro-Celt Sound System that had fictional lyrics too eerily similar to the truth.
In 1942 the United States government issued a list of suggested wartime practices for radio broadcasters. In the interest of national safety, it advised radio programmers to ban weather forecasts, which could help the enemy plan a bombing attack, and to avoid man-on-the-street interviews and listener music requests in case the interviewee or caller was a spy conveying a coded message to the enemy in words or song.
The new list is clearly different. Instead of promoting national safety, its intended aim is to ensure national mental health, though First Amendment supporters may point to it as the first shadowy blacklist in what President Bush says will be a war against terrorism. Radio programmers and producers outside of Clear Channel said that they found the list bewildering. "There are obviously songs on there that people could take the wrong way," said Michael Stark, a freelance producer who works on "The Tom Joyner Morning Show" on the ABC Radio Network. "But there are just as many that could be used to heal and bring context to the tragedy. It seems from the list that they don't want anything that comes close to making waves."
In an odd anomaly on the list, an specific song or songs are mentioned for each artist except one: the politically minded rap-rock group Rage Against the Machine. For this band, the list simply considers "all Rage Against the Machine songs" questionable.
Tom Morello, the guitarist in Rage Against the Machine, said via e-mail that the band's music "is diametrically opposed to the kind of horrible violence committed against innocent people" that occurred in the Sept. 11 attacks, "which we condemn in the strongest possible terms."
"If our songs are 'questionable' in any way," he added, "it is that they encourage people to question the kind of ignorance that breeds intolerance intolerance which can lead to censorship and the extinguishing of our civil liberties, or at its extremes can lead to the kind of violence we witnessed" last week.
Nina Crowley, the executive director of the Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition, a free-speech organization, worried that this was just the beginning of suppression of artistic expression and that politicians and corporations that have been trying to restrict access to popular music may expand and perpetuate this list. "President Bush said to be prepared for a long engagement," she said, "so this could potentially continue to grow, and these songs could be removed from the public ear for a long time. This list has eliminated songs about flying and falling, but when something else happens, do we remove all the songs about trains and whatever else?"