We are often unaware of how many decisions each day are goaded out of us by advertisers. It’s odd to think that our minds are not our own, shackled to commercials and billboards, invading our personal space in our kitchens and driveways. When you reach for those Lucky Charms in the morning you’re really reaching for the fortune and good luck that some advertiser has sold you. Technology companies and other innovative companies advertise regularly, proving that they are always on the precipice of ground breaking technologies, they are out there working hard for us, their sycophants, their fans and dedicated users. We rationalize these advertisements as a way for us to find out about the latest in important technological advancement. But a phone you can pour champagne on or a car that won’t let you play the radio without the seat belt fastened is hardly important technological advancement.
Our safe haven from the world is music. Music playing softly in the background can whisk you away to another place. Music playing so loud that it drowns out your life and puts you center stage at your own personal rock and roll concert can swap your sour mood for the better. Most of us get our music fix from various streaming services over the internet. There is a select group of us who buy, collect, and listen to vinyl. But it is rare these days to listen to the FM radio. Maybe the radio is on at work, or in your car, but it is rarer than not, especially for the younger generation to listen only to the radio for their music needs. There are commercials on the radio that interrupt the music, but then again, there are commercials on Spotify and Pandora too. These advertisements don’t necessarily hurt the radio listener’s experience, but playlists specifically geared towards selling products can and do.
The stations that play “classic rock” in your city or town have, for the most, dedicated set lists that help advertisers understand who their core audience is. This allows them to sell advertising space appropriate to the age group and social class. Often local radio stations purchase a “feed” of music that is not unlike the way you would stream. These “feeds” are being played by hundreds if not thousands of stations simultaneously across the country. These “feeds” are just another way to help advertisers promote products directly to a group of individuals that they know will be listening to this specific “feed”. This is not new and in fact radio started to decline as the artistry of the playlist declined for the almighty dollar, and station programmers slowly became less of innovators and more managers.
This commercial radio style was set up in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s as a way to “Superserve” a specific group of white men from the ages of 12 to 36. This specific group was being targeted by advertisers around the country. These white men from this specific age group during this time were said to have the most disposable income. Large corporations started purchasing radio stations across the country, especially ones that already had a good following, as a way to promote products and become a middle man for all the cash flow. Station managers were handed playlists instead of developing playlists themselves. These playlists were designed like sleek packages to entice the listener and to buy products. Led Zepplin, Bad Company, Aerosmith, AC/DC were considered music that white men between those specific ages listened to the most. Most of the artists themselves on those playlists were white as well. Artist like Parliament Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder, and other black artists were labeled as disco or R and B and chased from the pop station airwaves, usually relegated to “Urban” stations that had mostly black listeners.
During the “Disco Sucks” campaign of the late 70’s the classic “white” rock consortium was solidified and what we consider classic rock, then, and to this day, was controlled by playlists put together by huge corporations conspiring to gain greater revenues by further separating and segregating the listening audience in order to sell specific products. Advertisers were apprehensive to spend too much money targeting a group of people that they considered “too poor” and the music that “urban” stations played were defined as “too Black”. The Bee Gees were listed as a pop rock group during this time period, not as disco, and are still played to this day on “classic rock” stations, while Parliament Funkadelic is sonically more of a rock group than the Bee Gees and less of a disco group, but they are hardly, if ever, played on any classic rock stations. After years of segregation from advertising executives they are still listed outside of classic rock. The Parliament Funkadelic are rarely played on any radio station that caters specifically to a white audience, The Bee Gees are still being played regularly. It was more difficult for white audiences at that time to hear Parliament because they were considered and labeled by the advertising corporations as a “Black” group and thus were glued to Disco stations or “Urban” stations with smaller audiences. This is just one of many examples of groups that didn’t make white radio, but had huge hits elsewhere in the nation with incredible songs. We like to think of a DJ sitting in a booth, spinning what’s considered the best music of its time, but that format died with nationwide programming as more and more advertising dollars changed the way radio was being run and listened to.
Where did this odd racial segregation in music and radio come from? Lee Abrams has a lot to do with it. He was one of the first radio executives to come up with this audience specific format, using music to separate groups of individuals to uniquely format advertising for large corporations. Not surprisingly, the playlists of these mega radio stations across the country in the late 70’s that promoted classic rock and disco sucks don’t look much different than the same ones we have now. They maintained the format because those same individuals still unknowingly tune in to the same stations, although the advertisements may have changed to reflect their current ages. Bill Stephney, who was instrumental in getting the seminal rap group Public Enemy off the ground, one time called Lee Abrams the “greatest cultural criminal of the 20th century”. Lee Abrams doesn’t deserve that moniker exactly but may be due some credit, as he was only 18 years old when he came up with this format that is still used today. He became famous in the industry at a very young age. His format was used in white and black radio.
As radio’s popularity reached its apex in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, hip hop started to become more prevalent across the country. Programmer after programmer refused to add hip hop songs to their playlists calling it “too black”. Again, another genre of music was being segregated due to the color of the performer’s skin. N.W.A was starting to sell hundreds of thousands of records on the west coast but couldn’t get much air play. To the surprise of most advertising executives and radio programmers one of the biggest consumers were white suburban teenage boys and girls. The “urban” music had finally reached the suburbs. Many records executives used these facts to try and gain more airplay for their hip hop acts. Most were fervently refused, even though the facts stated that the core and target audience was listening to hip hop. The acts that did make radio were not necessarily seen by the hip hop community as legitimate, but the nation was so hungry for hip hop that Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer became household names. Meanwhile, seminal groups like A Tribe Called Quest were still relegated to “urban” stations. In ATCQ’s second album, “The Low End Theory”, Q-Tip croons, “Rap is not pop if you call it that than stop.”
If radio playlists were based on what was most popular during the 1980s we would have had more hip hop control the airwaves. There were very few radio stations that were considered mainstream that played a heavy rotation of hip hop. Most of the mainstream stations considered rap too black. Commercial radio and MTV success has relied so heavy on pop music in the last 20 years that these outlets have completely given up on all artistry and innovation. Radio had once been all artistry and innovation, but its own popularity ruined it. Maybe we should thank Lee Abrams for saving hip hop in a way. If radio stations truly played what is most popular in the 80’s and 90’s hip hop would have been blasting from almost every station. Maybe hip hop could have become so popular that it became pop music. And maybe that would have ruined it. Pop radio had a chance to stay relevant, but executives chose to listen to what history said instead of what the future was screaming.
Anthony N. White is a writer currently living in Rochester, NY.
He can be heckled on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat @Ruthieshusband