There is a chill in the air in the broadcasting industry. Besides the rise of some nasty voices in our community, it is not known what changes might occur with the Federal Communications Commission, an independent organization of the U.S. government that regulates communications by television, radio, cable, satellite and wire throughout the country. The main purpose of the organization is to oversee the various communications acts enacted by Congress. They also hold enforcement powers to fine broadcasters for violations and deny licenses, if they find proof when citizens raise a petition to deny. In the instance of television and radio, with a finite number of channels available, their power to deny a license is a concern for station owners. While fewer than 1% of licenses are currently denied, the specter of change has many worried.
This past week, singer-songwriter Christine Lavin released a song called “When It All Goes Wrong, We’ll Turn this Ship Around.” Inspired by, or perhaps “angered” by the upcoming Trump presidency, Christine wrote this song that reminds us that we are not merely passengers on a voyage, we can turn things around. The song never mentions Trump by name but draws in many of the issues that have give rise to concern.
After she finished writing the song, she recorded a quick live video, but not in a studio. “I recorded this on the train, much to the chagrin of the right wing gun owner sitting across the aisle from me” Christine reported. “To make it even worse, he helped me get my guitar down, then sat and stewed when he overheard the lyrics. That’s why I sang so softly. Hope you can hear them. Didn’t want to get into a fist fight.”
The impromptu video quickly received thousands of hits, and Christine went into a studio to record a more worthy version. She offered the song to folk radio hosts, but not everyone felt they could play it on their show. “I think the song is poignant” noted Michael Stock, a radio host on WLRN radio in Miami, Florida, “but I would have a problem playing this song on my radio show. It seems disrespectful to those listeners (I am in Florida) who did vote for Trump. If you were here defending it sure, but I think I would get complaints.”
While it may seem odd to some that Michael expressed concern, especially when you consider that folk audiences these days are predominantly liberal, I feel that unfortunately he has some legitimate reasons to be concerned. Folk music radio can be especially vulnerable in these changing times. Public and non-commercial radio has changed over the years, and listener and underwriter support is crucial. Many stations have changed formats, and folk music radio shows can become easy targets. The result? Loss of a radio show and an outlet for voices like Christine’s.
With many of the folk radio hosts, myself included, serving as unpaid volunteers, we can be especially susceptible to listener complaints. While not everyone will agree with subject matter of any song, and a handful of complaints should always be expected, there is a fear of organized efforts to boycott and worse. Licenses are granted “in the public interest” and campaigns that try to prove otherwise can hurt. The FCC is obligated to investigate any listener complaint. Many of the radio stations that offer folk music are owned by universities, who cannot afford any potential fines or court cases to fight for a contested license renewal. In academic circles, the universities have issues of their own beyond the radio station, not knowing how a Trump presidency will impact enrollment as well as funding. Listener complaints about content can be additional burdens that the station owner does not wish to deal with.
“It is important that every DJ know his or her audience, in the general sense” noted Rich Warren in a recent post on the Folk DJ list-serv. Rich is the host and producer of the nationally syndicated folk radio series The Midnight Special. The show originates from WFMT in Chicago, where it airs in a slightly different form. “I learned my lesson when we first started the national edition in 1997” Rich recalled,”when I played a politically charged song that lost us two stations in Florida, and those listeners also complained to our underwriters, causing the loss of an underwriter. Our Chicago audience did not complain.”
Years ago, I was chatting with the late Oscar Brand. Oscar was never paid for his 75 years as a broadcaster. He remained a volunteer as he felt that it made it harder for a station to “fire” him and gave him the freedom to select his own songs. He told me that “when you have to censor yourself, it is a sign of dangerous times.”
Rich Warren agreed. “Self-censorship is just as dangerous as potentially offending some listeners. I prefer to subvert those who disagree rather than blatantly offend them. We have a responsibility to disseminate a variety of views. Right wing radio never worries about offending liberals. There are certainly more right wing stations than liberal stations. NPR bends itself into contortions trying to appear unbiased, while practicing false equivalency. It almost makes me nauseous.”
While the individual radio host might feel that they have the rights of the First Amendment on their side, that right is actually given to the owner of the station license – the owners and management. The radio host is sharing their airtime. The viewpoints expressed in a song or a hosts comments will not necessarily reflect theirs. “The rare times when I play something particularly inflammatory,” Rich Warren remarked, “I preface it with a disclaimer.”
In 2017, radio’s days might seem to be in danger. The Internet, social media and YouTube are highly effective at sharing new topical songs such as Christine’s. In some ways, folk radio preaches to the choir whereas social media can be more effective at reaching new audiences. As a radio host, I don’t find that discouraging. Folk radio represents and serves a special community, and that will always be important. We cannot let fear change our media and remove an important outlet for sharing thoughts.
Artists cannot be threatened either. Topical songwriting remains an important part of our folk music community. Many artists worry about losing audience members due to the content of their music. It is a struggle, but in the end folk music represents the voice of a community. I hope more people like Christine Lavin will write and record what Tom Paxton has called “short shelf life” songs. These songs are important to let audiences know they are not alone.
Christine also reminded me to “remember what Woody Guthrie said: “The job of the folksinger is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. If anyone is disturbed, we’re just doing our job!” I am in total agreement, and I hope as a host of a radio show, that my peers and I will be able to continue offering songs without the fear of losing our shows. Everyone needs to be alert in this challenging times.