Should Music Stations Avoid Politics? By Andy Meadows

My entire career in radio I’ve been told to stay away from politics on any music format radio station and for the most part I’ve agreed with that, adhered to it and preached that same philosophy to most of the air talent I’ve managed. Makes sense, we’ve all been told that politics is one of the two subjects we should avoid in our everyday conversations with friends, family and strangers. So, shouldn’t the same apply to on air? Wouldn’t it be smart to avoid alienating the percentage of the station’s audience who don't agree with you politically? 

On the other hand though, I’ve never been comfortable with blanket statements. The truth is the decision on whether to avoid politics completely is a lot more nuanced and complicated to determine. The true answer to the question, should you talk politics on a music station is, it depends. If you’re on a team show, what’s your role on the show? If you’re on a solo show and still do bits, can you pull them off in a way that’s funny but still lighthearted and non-partisan enough that neither side is that offended? How does your core audience lean politically and how open are they to opposing viewpoints? 

Over the past few years tensions have run so high that some music stations have avoided talking about major news events simply out of fear that even mentioning them could be construed as being biased or partisan. I understand their concern but that’s going a bit far and taking a whole lot of potential content topics off the table entirely. The way I handle it in the daily prep I prepare is to try and keep the meat of the content middle of the road and then give a few out options, one that leans left and one that leans right so the local air personality can decide which one fits their audience. Or I try and come up with something that pokes fun at the situation instead of the players involved. I’m not sure exactly how well that’s working but I know I haven’t had anyone cancel yet because they felt I leaned too far one way or the other. 

Trump presented an interesting challenge for radio stations, especially in deeply red states, because he doesn’t just have voters he has fans. Typically you could poke fun of virtually anyone in power, or most celebrities, as long as it wasn’t too mean spirited. But, Trump supporters take slights against him very personally. I'm assuming that's because they feel like they are getting bombarded with them from everywhere, especially the late night TV shows. So, a good general rule on country stations, or virtually any format in a red state that doesn’t lean young, is to steer clear of the Trump jokes. But, it will be interesting to see how the political climate changes on both sides of the aisle in a post-Trump America. 

Obviously, the final decision will need to be made by each station’s management team and the air talent will have to follow whatever directive they give. I’m simply urging those managers to think hard about exactly where to draw that line so you can protect your brand while still allowing air talent to have some creative freedom. Comment below with your thoughts or email them to me at andy@radiostationconsultant.com.

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2 comments

  • Steve King
    Steve King Lincoln, NE
    During the the last election (2016), my morning show learned the hard way. I was PD of a station in the Northwest, which is a VERY liberal part of the USA. I have always held that my job is to help direct the morning show, I also believe that you should not stifle the talent and their ability maneuver where their audience expects them to be. As we recall, that last election had VERY vitriolic candidates and words exchanged between the 2 candidates and their camps...both Clinton and Trump had "fans" in that election. Well, the show I was working with decided they wanted to take a side in the election, which was with Clinton. I mean, to them, it made sense: we were in the Northwest, a young market with a college, all their friends were on board with Clinton; so to them, why wouldn't that be the position to take?. I cautioned against it, as I was watching the way this election was playing out. People on social media arguing, blocking (so-called) friends on Facebook, families These weren't classic family squabbles, or agree to disagree. That election destroyed relationships. What lead me to caution the show about taking a side was what happened before they made their choice. I used the example that when they read the news and it was completely non-partisan. It was about what time the first debate would take place. Alphabetically, Clinton comes before Trump and when the story was read, (they) and I were blown up with hate calls from Trump supporters saying we were picking favorites by putting Hillary first. So, they flipped it an made Trump first, again, they were blown up with calls from Hillary supporters, saying were misogynistic making her second to Trump. That was great lesson in how you cannot cover politics and ever be seen as impartial, even if you ARE trying to be impartial. It was a couple of weeks later that they made it clear to me that they were taking a side. They were upset about how large of an audience Trump drew in this liberal town. I was then that they announced their support for Clinton and they believed the audience wanted her to win. I warned them, that they were playing with fire and a massive hit the ratings {one had a contract coming up for renewal after the book was over). If their choice to go against my advice went sideways, no one was getting bonuses, the future of the show would be in jeopardy and I would be forced to impose my ideas to "right the ship". I was working on a perceptual during that part of the book, where I could parse age groups, zip and audience political leanings. Even I was shocked to find how far off the show was and how the station would be in the ditch if they kept down this path. Older audience members were Clinton partisans and the younger side of our audience were Trump partisans. Our Hot Zips were clearly RED. I thought their choice would have been a blip on the radar, where we had a dip. After seeing the research I had to share it with them and they let up a on their on-air political banter. As expected, they had the worst book of their tenure at the station. There were no bonuses and we had to revamp the show completely. Thankfully, the damage wasn't so severe that they were able to pop a Top 2 book the next time. Now that could be a based on politics, bad diary placement, or general audience apathy. Regardless, I have told my music stations to completely stay away from politics, regardless of the story, aside from urgent or immediate info. Truth is, you cannot win with politics on music stations....EVER

    During the the last election (2016), my morning show learned the hard way. I was PD of a station in the Northwest, which is a VERY liberal part of the USA. I have always held that my job is to help direct the morning show, I also believe that you should not stifle the talent and their ability maneuver where their audience expects them to be.

    As we recall, that last election had VERY vitriolic candidates and words exchanged between the 2 candidates and their camps...both Clinton and Trump had "fans" in that election. Well, the show I was working with decided they wanted to take a side in the election, which was with Clinton. I mean, to them, it made sense: we were in the Northwest, a young market with a college, all their friends were on board with Clinton; so to them, why wouldn't that be the position to take?.

    I cautioned against it, as I was watching the way this election was playing out. People on social media arguing, blocking (so-called) friends on Facebook, families These weren't classic family squabbles, or agree to disagree. That election destroyed relationships.

    What lead me to caution the show about taking a side was what happened before they made their choice. I used the example that when they read the news and it was completely non-partisan. It was about what time the first debate would take place. Alphabetically, Clinton comes before Trump and when the story was read, (they) and I were blown up with hate calls from Trump supporters saying we were picking favorites by putting Hillary first. So, they flipped it an made Trump first, again, they were blown up with calls from Hillary supporters, saying were misogynistic making her second to Trump.

    That was great lesson in how you cannot cover politics and ever be seen as impartial, even if you ARE trying to be impartial.

    It was a couple of weeks later that they made it clear to me that they were taking a side. They were upset about how large of an audience Trump drew in this liberal town. I was then that they announced their support for Clinton and they believed the audience wanted her to win. I warned them, that they were playing with fire and a massive hit the ratings {one had a contract coming up for renewal after the book was over). If their choice to go against my advice went sideways, no one was getting bonuses, the future of the show would be in jeopardy and I would be forced to impose my ideas to "right the ship".

    I was working on a perceptual during that part of the book, where I could parse age groups, zip and audience political leanings. Even I was shocked to find how far off the show was and how the station would be in the ditch if they kept down this path. Older audience members were Clinton partisans and the younger side of our audience were Trump partisans. Our Hot Zips were clearly RED. I thought their choice would have been a blip on the radar, where we had a dip. After seeing the research I had to share it with them and they let up a on their on-air political banter.

    As expected, they had the worst book of their tenure at the station. There were no bonuses and we had to revamp the show completely. Thankfully, the damage wasn't so severe that they were able to pop a Top 2 book the next time.

    Now that could be a based on politics, bad diary placement, or general audience apathy. Regardless, I have told my music stations to completely stay away from politics, regardless of the story, aside from urgent or immediate info. Truth is, you cannot win with politics on music stations....EVER

  • Keith Lyons
    Keith Lyons KBNP Radio - Portland
    In Radio - whether music or talk format, I have always taken the stance: I DON'T INVITE PEOPLE INTO MY HOME TO BE INSULTED. I DON'T EXPECT MY RADIO PROGRAMMING - MUSIC OR TALK - TO BE INSULTING TO OUR AUDIENCE. Yes - "Shock Jock" format draws listeners for the titillation of what some smart mouthed talent thinks is funny or provocative. But we are in business to make money...and most advertisers I would suggest are not favorable to offensive conduct. Certainly in the "overly PC-World" - and it only takes one badly placed utterance to create the furor form a segment of listeners, or advertisers. When in doubt - Don't!

    In Radio - whether music or talk format, I have always taken the stance:
    I DON'T INVITE PEOPLE INTO MY HOME TO BE INSULTED.
    I DON'T EXPECT MY RADIO PROGRAMMING - MUSIC OR TALK - TO BE INSULTING TO OUR AUDIENCE.
    Yes - "Shock Jock" format draws listeners for the titillation of what some smart mouthed talent thinks is funny or provocative. But we are in business to make money...and most advertisers I would suggest are not favorable to offensive conduct. Certainly in the "overly PC-World" - and it only takes one badly placed utterance to create the furor form a segment of listeners, or advertisers.
    When in doubt - Don't!

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