Commercial radio stations over the last week yanked tracks by country music superstar Morgan Wallen after his use of a racist slur went viral. Cumulus has ordered an end to radio hosts circulating election conspiracy theories that fueled the Jan. 6 riot led by extremists. WSMN firing Dianna Ploss over the summer is one of many instances of stations booting hosts for racist behavior. And, the radio industry has watched as more than a dozen noncommercial licensees have grappled the last few years with accusations by former and current staff of abuse by leadership and veteran hosts.
To their credit, many stations today are trying to do the right thing by making it clear they want to be inclusive. But making things better means also being transparent about how radio stations have contributed to the condition the nation finds itself in.
Commercial radio’s sordid relationship with the racial line is no secret. Take, for example, WFUV this week documenting the history of what was known as Black radio. Let’s be clear though. Black radio then was a term that defined the industry that had to emerge for Black performers who were banned by larger radio stations that played white artists. What’s now the urban format was, not too many decades ago, called Black radio. Even as late as the 1990s, radio doing a pop format marginalized or entirely avoided Black artists and art forms, such as early hip-hop. More pervasively, as Danyel Smith points out, Americans’ perceptions of “crossover” music and performances were shaped by white acceptance of Black performers.
And let’s not even get into commercial talk radio, whose most prominent name, Rush Limbaugh, unleashed the floodgates of bigoted hucksterism that still influences local call-in shows.
For all its notions of mission, noncommercial radio has plenty of its own skeletons. Consider the many stations in the 1970s to 1990s that shelved longtime broadcasts of a traditionally Black art form, jazz, in favor of super-serving affluent white audiences. In this quest, stations wrung out virtually all color from their sound; it was bad enough that Chenjerai Kumanyika called out “public radio voice” in 2015. Considering the generations-long quest to cleanse public radio of its personality and culture, is it really any surprise prestige brands like WNYC became the poster children for terrible bosses and discrimination complaints? Stations to this day still struggle to create more equitable relationships with staff of color and make inroads in Black communities.
Obviously, radio is not at fault for all that ails the country. Yet we can’t have it both ways, demanding attention for positive work, but assigning blame elsewhere when radio contributes or has contributed negatively to public life by reinforcing prejudice. Radio has historically had the greatest reach of any media. At a time when accepting responsibility is becoming more common, we have a rare opportunity to be part of tendency that clears the air at last.
Still, there’s a contingent that says radio’s failures are in the past and people need to get over it. True vision in leadership, however, means acknowledging and apologizing for how business was done before, and striving to be more honest in correcting our errors. It also means openly talking about it, and sharing with audiences the steps you’re taking now to be an organization positioned to foster an equitable future. Scores of industries now understand this is a moment to atone and spark new relationships with our listeners.