Racket

Clear Channel keeps the air free of insensitive songs

On September 14, Clear Channel Communications HQ in San Antonio issued what is being termed a "suggestion" to its 1,213 American radio stations, encouraging programmers not to play some 162 songs over their airwaves, along with broader guidelines such as a blanket ban on the entire oeuvre of the politically inflammatory band Rage Against the Machine.

In Houston, Clear Channel operates Mix 96.5, classic rock The Arrow 93.7, KLOL Rock 101, Sunny 99.1, The Buzz 94.5 and the big band/oldies relic Star 790, not to mention talk/news stalwarts KPRC/950 AM and KTRH/740 AM.

On September 18, in the face of an Internet-spawned hue and cry, the company posted a release on its Web site saying that The List was one not of banned songs but rather suggestions. It then put forth Clear Channel's stated belief that "radio is a local medium." "It's up to every radio station program director and general manager to understand their local market, listen to their listeners and guide their station's music selections accordingly," the release said. As such, it was up to each local program director to "take the pulse of his or her market to determine if playlists should be altered, and if so, for how long."

As such, you likely won't be hearing Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'," the Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" and the Boss's "I'm On Fire" on your neighborhood classic-rock station, although Racket did hear "Light My Fire" on 93.7, which -- based on other songs on The List -- seems as though it would be a suitable tune to avoid. Other future orphans include essentially any song that has anything to do with -- no matter how metaphorically -- burning, flying (especially in a plane), jumping and falling. Any tune with apocalyptic overtones ("The Eve of Destruction," "It's the End of the World," "The End") is also recommended against. Why any DJ with half a brain would even ponder playing such material these days makes one wonder how Clear Channel can trust its affiliates to walk and chew gum at the same time, much less autonomously operate radio stations.

But then again, as Mark P. Mays, the company's president and chief operating officer, explained in the press release, the nation's business community "is responding with a sense of hypersensitivity," a reaction easily detectable in several of the songs on The List. Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield," John Parr's "St. Elmo's Fire," Zep's "Stairway to Heaven," the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight" and Boston's "Smokin'" constitute a whole category of songs with rather innocuous content. While one wonders why they were included, one simultaneously rejoices that such overplayed turkeys are finally plucked from the airwaves. (One also wonders about the viability of a classic-rock station without "In the Air…" and "Stairway…" Can such a beast truly be called a classic-rock station without those two mainstays on the playlist? Are we going to let the terrorists take away our right to bang away on the air drums?)

Then there's Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets." Does Clear Channel really believe that Americans hardened by horrific images of jetliners full of terrified innocents smashing into skyscrapers, of bond traders leaping to their deaths, of lower Manhattan's symbols of might crumbling into tons of dust and twisted steel, will be unhinged by hearing a song about a guy whose band is named after a type of plane?

From there The List takes a more sinister tone. In addition to the ban on everything by RATM, peace anthems such as the Youngbloods' "Get Together," Edwin Starr's "War" and John Lennon's "Imagine" were muted. "Imagine," along with Sinatra's "New York, New York" (also on The List) were clearly miscalculations, as New York Clear Channel programmer Bob Buchman told The New York Post. Buchman reportedly deleted The List as soon as he opened it in his e-mail, claiming that these were two of the station's most requested songs.

Admittedly, tens of millions of Americans are not feeling in accord with the dovish sympathies of "Imagine," but should a massive corporation be commenting -- and commenting it is, despite the doublespeak of so-called guidelines -- on the political content of songs? Should Clear Channel be advocating, tacitly or not, any kind of agenda in its "suggestions" to its "autonomous" programmers?

Clear Channel also runs America's largest concert promotion company, SFX. Will it also "suggest" that AC/DC not perform any of the seven songs that it told its radio stations not to consider playing, a list that includes "Dirty Deeds," "Highway to Hell," "TNT" and "Hell's Bells"? What about all the other touring bands on The List? One senses Clear Channel has such power, if one can read between the lines of Ted Nugent's toothless performance in July at an SFX-booked concert at the Woodlands Pavilion (see Racket, July 5).

Clear Channel has forebodingly questioned the merits of playing songs with tenuous Arabic themes like "Rock the Casbah" and "Walk Like an Egyptian," as well as the pro-immigrant Neil Diamond tune "America." (But, strangely, not the Cure's "Killing an Arab.") Most telling of all is their requested avoidance of two songs by Yusuf "Cat Stevens" Islam. All of this is rather ominous given the American government's record on the home front during wartime. Take World War I, for example, a war that we entered with significantly less reason, but with much clearer objectives than we have today. Massive anti-German hysteria gripped America, fed in part by the government. Woodrow Wilson set up the Orwellian Committee on Public Information and appointed George Creel as its head. Before Creel was done, the German hamburger had become liberty steak, frankfurters had morphed into hot dogs, and sauerkraut had been reborn as liberty cabbage (which if nothing else is a great name for a band). The teaching of German was banned in schools. German Christmas carols like "O Tannenbaum" were ripped from songbooks. It wasn't just German words that fared badly; so did German melodies. The music of Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn was banned by general accord.

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