Should Music Stations Avoid Politics?

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 and coached. 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 us 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 we talk politics on a music station is, it depends. If we’re on a team show, what’s our role on the show? If we’re on a solo show and still do bits, can we pull them off in a way that’s funny but still lighthearted and non-partisan enough that neither side is that offended? How does our 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 many 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. When I had my own daily prep service, I handled political topics by keeping the meat of the content middle of the road and then giving 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 would 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 worked but I know I never had anyone cancel because they felt I leaned too far one way or the other.

When Trump came on the political scene in 2016 he presented an interesting challenge for radio stations, especially in deeply red states, because he doesn’t just have voters he has fans. Typically you can 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 avoid 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.

Last week’s debate was certainly a MAJOR topic of discussion with Biden’s performance troubling Democratic pundits and even his own supporters. Yet, the fear of alienating either side kept most on-air personalities on music stations from talking about it. I think that’s a mistake. If something is dominating the conversation within our station’s target audience, we should at the very least touch on it and use it as a jumping off point to have a broader conversation about something that is less polarizing.

Obviously, the final decision on whether to ever talk politics 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 they can protect their 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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