How does one explain what makes movies that show bombs blowing up buildings or people mowing down scores of people with their guns OK? How does one explain to a daughter or son that lyrics and movies that degrade women are OK?
Superstar Consultant Guy Zapoleon on Programming Choices in the New World
These are tough times for decision-makers in the media business. Months before the horrors of 9/11, the debate between advocates of free expression vs. social responsibility had reached a fever pitch. In the wake of these shocking events, the debate is about to boil over. As reactions to the recent Clear Channel list of "questionable lyrics" made dramatically clear, the issue of where to draw the line in terms of content has become a touchy subject indeed. In the following commentary, respected mainstream consultant Guy Zapoleon offers his vision of the changing climate at radio. We welcome other opinions on the subject.

What does the tragedy of Sept. 11 signal for the music (and entertainment) industry? A return to a more conservative time for morals and music tastes.

In early August, I was talking to someone about how radio had gone too far in allowing objectionable lyrics and sexual content on the air. Certainly one thing the attacks illustrated is that the violence in today's media is just as big a problem.

Why is the media portrayal of sex and violence bad for our society? Some say it's just harmless fun. Some say it's OK as long as it's adults listening/viewing, or if they explain the content to their children so they'll understand what they're viewing. Well, how does one explain what makes movies that show bombs blowing up buildings or people mowing down scores of people with their guns OK? How does one explain to a daughter or son that lyrics and movies that degrade women are OK?

Sadly, when any of us—and not just children—sees something shocking on the big screen or hears a concept in music repeated, we start to accept it as OK in society. When that happens, we get desensitized to it and it's no longer shocking, prompting film makers, musicians and comics to push the line a little further out.

I was in Hartford listening to our client WTIC when I first heard them announce that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I sat there stunned, then said, "Oh, it's a joke—in very poor taste." Then I realized it was excellent and credible newsman John Elliott delivering the news—it was real! The fact that I'd even think it was a joke made me realize that I accepted this as humor, albeit bad. I'd been desensitized. When I watched the plane colliding with the WTC and the Pentagon, it didn't seem real; it looked like just another disaster movie I'd seen.

Where's the line of what constitutes good taste musically?  I recall an incident that happened when I was PD at KZZP Phoenix, when "I Want Your Sex" by George Michael came out in 1987. Our Columbia record rep dropped it off one afternoon, and both MD Kevin Weatherly and I loved it and rushed to get it on the air. We played it off-air for our afternoon jock and APD Steve Goddard. He said, "You can't play a song on-air that says, I Want Your Sex'!"

Both Kevin and I laughed at Steve as if he was hopelessly out of touch. I said, "We've got to play this, it's a huge hit!" Steve said, "If everyone plays this, then we've just moved the line of good taste. Someone will push it further out from traditional values." We laughed and we played the song, as did everyone in the world, but Steve was right—the line moved. You saw music get much more sexual during the late-'80s as the "Extremes Period" hit. The bizarre thing is that when you look at the songs that we thought were sexually explicit during that period seem tame by today's standards.

Who's responsible? Who's to blame? We in the media are, for not taking a harder stand on sex and violence in music, movies and online. We all collectively control the line! We also have to point the finger at ourselves as consumers for supporting this trend by buying it. If America didn't go to these kinds of movies or buy these CD's, we wouldn't even be talking about this.

So what can we do about it? I think some of it will happen naturally, as we stop being about "me" and start focusing on "us." As America reaches out to help the victims of those horrible tragedies, as we become a more security-conscious society, as we go to war and grieve for the inevitable loss of life that will occur, the focus is going out to others and not inward to ourselves. There is a tremendous outpouring of care and compassion right now, and even when we "go back to normal" and it's "business as usual," we've taken a step backwards in the way we look at the world...and that will change our culture and the entertainment we the media provide for it. Already you've seen violence-oriented movies/TV shows that were on the fall/Christmas release slate scrapped or shelved until they could be reworked.

I was having a conversation with Warner Bros. Nashville's Jim Ed Norman last week, talking about music cycles and how they affected country music. He was talking about how, during the last 10 years, country music had became more about signing manufactured artists and making pop hits than about long-term artists who created meaningful music from the heart. I told Jim Ed that I thought we were on the verge of leaving the "Extremes" and entering the "Doldrums" (for Pop), but it would a great time for more traditional forms of music like country and rock. The last Doldrums cycle began around 1991 during the Gulf War.

Traditional artists like Billy Joel ("We Didn't Start the Fire") and Bette Midler ("From a Distance") made big comebacks. Music moved back to more traditional ballads and songs with more meaningful lyrics. Rhythm Crossover stations and aggressive Rock stations continued to do well as they marked the Extremes, but even they softened. Top 40 suffered since it ran out of pop, and Hot AC exploded as the hot new format. At the same time the Young Country/Hot Country format variation exploded due to a surging interest in more traditional music, and Nashville supplied this format with a big crop of younger country artists.

Sept. 11 marked the beginning of the new Doldrums, and we're now in a period where you'll see taste move more conservative. Clear Channel circulated a list of songs with lyrics that had even slight references to death and destruction (i.e. Dave Matthews' "Crash Into Me"). Songs that celebrate peace, like Cat Stevens' "Peace Train" and John Lennon's "Imagine," made their way back onto Rock and Oldies playlists. A slew of songs that had lyrics that could be dedicated to the victims, the firefighters and policeman were played at every format: some, like Enrique Iglesia's "Hero," remain on contemporary playlists as America goes to war.

Even before Sept. 11, you were seeing a big growth in Contemporary Christian music; now you'll see it become one of the hottest forms of music today, as we become a more "God-centered" nation. You saw something you've never seen before as every TV and cable channel broadcast America: A Tribute to Heroes. That program featured Country, Rhythm, Pop and PoMo artists that will be very successful in the coming months.

Pop Alternative music will begin to feature more meaningful lyrics, and you'll see Hot AC have a great year in 2002. As tastes become more conservative and more traditional forms of music grow in popularity, I believe all of us will realize that the sexual and sexual innuendo in music seems inappropriate. It hasn't happened completely yet, but already in callout and in auditorium music tests, you're seeing recurrents and gold test better, and less current music testing well. The format successes you saw 10 years ago are destined to repeat themselves again very soon.

That doesn't mean Top 40 should panic or take its focus off its base 15-24 demos; it just means radio should adjust to reflect its target audience, as even the youth of America will grow more conservative.

As all the changes go on around us, we will all still be able to make a personal stand when it comes to deciding to play or not play certain songs. We can choose to support music with meaningful, positive messages and choose to not support songs with blatantly sexual or violent lyrics. We can all "move the line" in the right direction, and then hold it!

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