Radio Rethinks Playlists In Wake Of Attack

Clear Channel program directors consider sensitivity issues related to more than 150 tracks.

“Things are different now,” a news anchor commented last Tuesday while covering the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

Those words continue to resonate a week later, with sports, travel and entertainment all vastly affected by the East Coast tragedies.

In the music industry, the biggest changes are occurring on the air as radio and music video outlets around the country alter their playlists to reflect the radically different context in which pop music is now heard as compared to when the music was originally written and recorded.

As Bob Buchmann, program director at WAXQ in New York, put it, “The Steve Miller Band’s ‘Jet Airliner’ doesn’t evoke the same feeling it did last Monday.”

Radio and music video stations are rethinking the music they play, removing songs dealing with violence and questioning just about everything else.

Program directors at Clear Channel Communications, the country’s largest owner of radio stations, compiled a list of more than 150 songs that might be considered questionable following the attacks and distributed it to the company’s nearly 1,200 stations. The list includes songs with references to explosions, terrorism, airplanes, skyscrapers, New York, the Middle East and even the day Tuesday.

The songs range from rock anthems such as AC/DC’s “Shot Down in Flames” and Stone Temple Pilots’ “Big Bang Baby” to oldies such as the Gap Band’s “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” and Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party.” Other, less obvious songs on the list include Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Pam Taylor, a spokesperson for Clear Channel, stressed Monday that this list is not a corporate mandate and does not ban the songs from the company’s airwaves.

“It’s something for programmers to consider,” explained Jim Richards, general manager of several Clear Channel stations in San Diego, who helped assemble the list.

While the radio and record industries seem to agree on the necessity for heightened sensitivity following the attacks, several musicians and their representatives are puzzled by the inclusion of songs on the list. Some even thought the list was a joke.

” ‘Smooth Criminal’ is like the funnest song out there,” Alien Ant Farm singer Dryden Mitchell said. “We sing in falsetto. It’s supposedly about murder, but nobody really knows what that song is about, including me. The last thing we are is some serious band. We’re just positive and funny.”

The Michael Jackson cover is among a batch of new metal tracks that includes P.O.D.’s “Boom,” System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!,” Slipknot’s “Left Behind” and “Wait and Bleed,” Mudvayne’s “Death Blooms,” Fuel’s “Bad Day” and everything by Rage Against the Machine.

Adam Raspler, co-manager of 311, whose “Down” is on the list presumably because the song’s title could imply airplanes or buildings coming down, echoed Mitchell’s sentiments. “I realize this is a very sensitive time for many Americans and I’m definitely sympathetic to that,” he said. “I really don’t understand [including] ‘Down.’ The song is a thank-you note to 311′s fans. The chorus says, ‘We’ve changed a lot and then some/ But you know that we have always been down/ If I ever didn’t thank you/ Please just let me do it now.’ 311 have always prided themselves on having a positive message, one that promotes unity and tolerance. I really don’t think there’s anything insensitive or controversial about ‘Down.’ ”

Roy Laughlin, general manager of the Clear Channel-owned KIIS in Los Angeles, said the songs should be looked at as potentially provocative rather than questionable. Laughlin and Taylor said program directors know what music is appropriate for their markets.

“Of course there are songs on there that could be construed as insensitive given the events. But does that mean all stations in all markets are going to think so? Of course not,” Taylor said.

Buchmann said the roster has had no impact on his playlist or that of most classic-rock stations he has talked to. Classic-rock songs on the list include Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind,” Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.”

“The program directors who made the list had good intentions,” Buchmann said, “but we didn’t follow much of it.” In fact, WAXQ has been playing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which is on the list, in heavy rotation since the September 11 attacks.

Radio stations not owned by Clear Channel have also altered their playlists during the past week.

Chicago alternative-rock station WKQX has not played Drowning Pool’s “Bodies,” Saliva’s “Click Click Boom” or Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly” since Tuesday’s attacks. The station’s announcers have also stopped mentioning the title of Jimmy Eat World’s “Bleed American” when they play it.

” ‘Learn to Fly’ doesn’t seem offensive,” Brian Paruch, of WKQX’s programming department, said. “But when you consider the video, which is about breaking into a cockpit, it just didn’t seem right. We had to do a lot of other adjusting after this happened. For instance, we’re not playing funny songs such as ‘Because I Got High’ after serious PSAs [public service announcements].”

WKQX also temporarily stopped spinning one of its most requested songs, Sugarcult’s “Stuck in America,” but started again after the band changed a line in the song from “Everyone’s talking about blowing up the neighborhood” to “Everyone’s talking about waking up the neighborhood.”

” ‘Stuck in America’ is not a political song,” Sugarcult said in a statement. “It is about being an adolescent from a small town, wanting to leave for a bigger city but feeling trapped in suburban life. It is simply a song about youthful boredom and rebellion. We are proud Americans and are overwhelmed with sorrow by the events that have taken place.”

WNNX, an alternative-rock station in Atlanta, has also ceased playing “Bodies,” and program director Chris Williams said he couldn’t imagine a time when it feels right to put it back on the air. “It’s just too much,” said Williams, who has seen the list and called most of the choices “silly.”

“Bodies” mostly repeats the chorus, “Let the bodies hit the floor,” but also includes the verse, “Skin against skin, blood and bone/ You’re all by yourself, but you’re not alone/ You wanted in, now you’re here/ Driven by hate, consumed by fear.”

” ‘Bodies’ was never about violence,” said Steve Karas, vice president of publicity for Wind-Up Records, Drowning Pool’s label. “It was rather a call for togetherness. As a New York-based company we are very sensitive, as we have all been affected by the tragedy. But that doesn’t change the simple fact that from the beginning this song was always about the simple call for kids to mosh.”

Drowning Pool’s debut single received 654 fewer spins from September 11 to September 18 than it did the previous week, according to Broadcast Data Systems, the company that tracks radio airplay for Billboard. Second to “Bodies” in decreased play on rock radio formats was Staind’s “It’s Been Awhile,” down 266 spins from the week before.

On all formats, “It’s Been Awhile” was played 1,748 fewer times the week following the terrorist attacks. Afroman’s “Because I Got High” took the biggest hit, down 2,180 spins.

Because most radio stations changed to news programming on September 11, total spins were down more than 100,000 last week from the week before. Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” was the biggest gainer, up 4,267 from the less than 100 spins the week before. Whitney Houston’s “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was not played the week before, received 1,653 spins.

Programming on MTV and VH1 has also changed since the tragedies, with more news coverage taking up airtime and several videos being pulled from regular rotation, according to executives at the channels.

MTV’s playlist has been largely determined by viewer e-mails and calls requesting songs of comfort, the network said. Somber videos including Coldplay’s “Yellow,” Sting’s “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free,” Mariah Carey’s “Hero,” Five For Fighting’s “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” and a live version of Wyclef Jean’s “Gone Till November” have received repeated play on MTV since the attacks.

“In an effort to provide the kind of comfort that only music can give and, at the same time, be sensitive to content and images in videos that after September 11 had new, unintended meaning, both channels created playlists that contained messages of hope, peace, strength and healing,” MTV Networks said in a statement.

VH1 has ceased playing Staind’s “Fade,” Dido’s “Thank You,” U2′s “Elevation,” Gorillaz’s “Clint Eastwood” and Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open” because the clips contain explosions or buildings crumbling. Afro Celt Sound System’s “When You’re Falling” and Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris,” which both feature people falling, have also been pulled.

“Violence, explosions, death, collapsing buildings or even airplane themes were looked at,” said Rick Krim, executive vice president of talent and programming for VH1. “Anything that we felt would be insensitive. For the immediate aftermath, we decided better to be safe than sorry.”

The channel has added a live clip of Sting’s “Fragile” — with a dedication by the singer to the victims of the attacks — and has shown montages of news footage set to Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and Live’s “Overcome.”

VH1 will consider re-adding the pulled videos on a case-by-case basis, Krim said. “We will re-evaluate all of them week to week,” he said. “I’m sure some will go back on soon, maybe with some minor edits. Others may take a while, or may never be aired again.”

Laughlin said he and other radio program directors are reassessing the need for heightened sensitivity daily. “That’s one of the advantages of radio,” he said. “We can make changes at any moment.”

(This story was updated at 5:17 P.M. ET on Thursday, September 20, 2001.)