Now more than ever before, there is a delicate balance that music stations must walk when evaluating an artist’s personal behavior and public statements. There are times when playing music from someone whose values are not in line with your organization can create a rift between your station and your supporters. At last week’s Public Radio Content Conference in New Orleans, I had the opportunity to discuss these issues with Matt Martinez, former content chief at KNKX Seattle, The Current Minneapolis’ Program Director Lindsay Kimball, and WFMT Chicago Music Director Oliver Camacho.

We discussed specific examples of moments in our respective markets, that playing an artist, or even a specific song, was problematic. There were several valuable takeaways from this conversation.

Why would a station suspend an artist from their airwaves?

Most cited were situations of sexual misconduct as the primary reason for suspending, or even canceling, a stations airplay. Songs with particularly triggering content within the lyrics were the second most likely reason a song would be suspended.  Most stations in the room shared a hierarchy of decision makers, usually including Music Directors, Assistant Program Directors, Program Directors, and General Managers.  These conversations were strategically transparent within the organization to ensure credibility around making the decision to suspend an artist from airplay.

What is a “Credible Accusation?”

This question did not leave the panel with a clear answer. As it relates to sexual misconduct, the instances of legal action in cases of assault are staggeringly low. This does not give leaders at radio stations much in the way of using the law as a guideline in navigation of these topics.   Quite often, these stories are shared by credible organizations with a high level of journalistic integrity, and this was agreed to by the panel as a benchmark for how seriously a station should investigate taking a course of action.

What actions can a station take?

While there were a few examples of conversations that were addressed on airwaves and online, the resounding advice was to focus on spin counts.  The Program Directors on the panel all agreed that a “cancel culture” approach to these issues only brought forth even more issues for the organizations.  Many of the PDs in the room shared examples of quietly removing songs from rotation, with little to no backlash from their audiences or staff.

The panel came to a clear consensus that we have the power to elevate and give artists a platform, however we don’t have the tools to do the opposite.  So, when these issues come up, everyone agrees that taking a pause is the best first step. This first step does not need to be paired with an official statement, or even explanation, however as publicly supported organizations, we all agreed that a documented plan is a powerful tool.  It helps programmers guide their staff in making tough choices.  It also gives station leadership transparency when and if their audience asks them about these issues. We also agreed that cross referencing your station’s core values and Mission Statement are powerful tools in helping you to navigate these very difficult decisions. Your audience will ultimately hold you accountable, so use your own values as the guiding light in making decisions like this.  If your organization does not have updated core values or a Mission Statement, feel free to reach out to us here at Paragon for any assistance you may need in drafting and adopting such a statement.

These situations are ultimately very nuanced and difficult to navigate, but my final bit of advice would be this:  Is playing one song worth upsetting a member of your community who have been a victim of such a transgression or crime?  There are millions of great songs out there, let’s continue to give our community supported platform to artists who do not trigger our audiences.

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