Radio wasn’t the only medium that responded quickly to the terrorist attacks with a keen sensitivity to the product they produced. Television stations broadcast breaking news and back-to-back press conferences at the expense of regularly scheduled programs, the networks’ fall season was pushed back and movie studios delayed release of several films with terrorist plots or those that depicted scenes of the World Trade Center.
Warner Brothers has indefinitely postponed the Oct. 5 release of its newest Arnold Schwarzenegger flick Collateral Damage, in which Arnie stars as a man avenging the death of his family after an office tower bombing. Columbia Pictures has pulled a coming-attractions trailer for Spider-Man, in which Spidie spins a web between the World Trade Center towers to foil bank robbers. The studio has said they will remove any trace of the buildings in the film’s final cut.
This has to raise a big question mark for audiences. Should we try to erase all memory of the old New York skyline merely to mollify the American public? Let’s try not to upset the nation’s inertia.
On a daily basis our media sources pick and choose what they perceive to be “appropriate” material for their consumers. As much as we may like to believe that this is a free speech issue, companies constantly select material in consideration of their bottom line. Jim Rondeau, program director for KRUZ FM, a station owned by Cumulus Media, explained that radio playlists are constantly analyzed for content that may offend targeted listeners. Following the attacks, KRUZ chose to pull five or six songs from the air, including Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.”
“It was really a much more urgent situation [in the aftermath of the tragedy], but we really made a similar decision to a lot of the ones we make everyday,” he said. “So we used the same gauge we always do, which is knowing who we want to have as our audience every day and would they find this appropriate?” Rondeau said.
Royer insists that decisions to amend playlists at his seven Santa Barbara stations are made at the local rather than corporate level. He, too, chose to pull several songs with questionable lyrics, including the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered,” which contains the verse, “My brain’s been battered, splattered all over Manhattan.”
“I was working in a radio station the day Challenger exploded … it was a day that I remember as a real learning experience,” he said. “Up until that moment I don’t think I had ever really thought about how a lyric could be taken in such a completely different way given the circumstances.”
“No one told me to take songs out of circulation. I did it. And I’ll stand by that decision because I believe it was the right thing,” he said.
Royer claims the Clear Channel list containing 160 songs with “questionable lyrics” was not circulated among all the affiliates; however, it was compiled by Clear Channel employees and was received by many of the company’s program directors. How seriously the list was followed appears to have depended on regional stations. While Royer said that he never received the e-mail, Angela Perelli, the vice president for operations at KYSR FM in Los Angeles, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that her station was not playing any of the 160 listed songs.
Ted Coe, office manager for KCSB FM, expressed concern that while this list was not an official corporate directive, individual program directors may have perceived it as such.
“There are ways in which [Clear Channel] employees know that there are certain lines you shouldn’t cross,” he said. “In the Clear Channel operations there is a certain amount of homogeneity anyway, which is one reason why I am involved in community radio. This [list] sends a message about the obstacles that exist in expressing a certain kind of viewpoint.”
While some of the songs on Clear Channel’s list appear to be of valid concern, many of the picks were completely incomprehensible. The list appeared to contain many politically motivated songs, including the complete works of controversial anti-governmental band Rage Against the Machine, protest songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and songs of peace like John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
“Even though it may not have been official, Dave Marsh, the rock critic, basically said that if someone [at Clear Channel] is playing Rage [Against the Machine] they are probably going to be in serious trouble,” Coe said. “Is someone really going to risk their job to test the network?”
Royer believes much of the media sensationalism that followed the publishing of the Clear Channel list stems from a paranoid fear of large corporations controlling significant shares of the media market in any particular region.
“There are people who don’t like Clear Channel, who don’t like that the company has a lot of radio stations,” he said. “Anything negative is what they like to cut and paste and send to everyone in their address book.”
Coe did not disagree with this sentiment.
“Clear Channel continues to grow. Federal Communication Commission and governmental rules have changed insofar as they have relaxed restrictions on how many radio stations in one market a business can own,” he said. “That definitely has an impact on the body of music and art we are exposed to, that is allowed to be produced, or is funded.”
Where the line between sensitivity and censorship is drawn blurs in the face of a national crisis of such monumental proportions, but there must always be room for dissenting political and artistic expression. Even within a united nation there must always be room for protest.
“There are programmers here who want to protest in the face of what appears to be a monolithic response to this tragedy,” Coe said.
“I think [this incident] is indicative of a much larger problem that goes across every medium, in terms of the highly restrictive way this crisis is being represented,” he said.