In what could be a sign of a break in country radio’s unified front, the currently forbidden superstar Morgan Wallen is back on the airwaves on at least one station that had put him on hold, WMYL-FM in Knoxville. The station may have more reason than most to return him to its playlist — Knoxville is Wallen’s hometown — but it does raise the question of how long the country radio industry will continue to speak with one voice in keeping music’s most successful recording artist of the moment off the air.
The industry tip sheet Radio Ink reports that WMYL put Wallen back on after a survey of listeners conducted on the station’s Facebook page found that 92% of those responding wanted to hear the singer again immediately. WMYL said it had more than 35,000 respondents to the poll.
If anything, it’s only surprising that the approval rating for playing Wallen again wasn’t closer to 100%, given the unscientific nature of online surveys, and a Wallen fan base that has been quite vocal about saying that the singer’s N-word controversy shouldn’t stand in the way of his career continuing to gain traction.
The question remains how many other stations might run similar listener polls as a means of justifying reinstating Wallen sooner rather than later.
The WMYL station owner, Ron Meredith, issued a statement when the poll went online that indicated keeping Wallen off the air constituted, to him, being “in the censorship business.”
“We were disappointed by the behavior in the video,” said Meredith. “But we were also uncomfortable with sitting in judgment. If you’ve lived long enough, you probably have said at one point or another you were glad video and social media wasn’t everywhere when you were young and did stupid things. While nobody liked the behavior, we are a radio station – not in the censorship business. We changed the music on our station last year so it focuses now only on what East Tennessee country fans like. So, this situation is like being between a rock and a hard place. We felt uncomfortable with all the different institutions making decisions for country listeners. We didn’t want to do that at 96.7 Merle.”
(Radio Ink said Meredith did not respond to requests for comments after Wallen went back on the air.)
So far, the response has otherwise been surprisingly strong and firm among country radio stations — except for a handful of rogue independents — that Wallen was in need of at least a teachable-moment time-out. His music has been barred by the iHeartMedia, Cumulus, Beasly and Entercom chains, among others, since the day after TMZ aired video of the star using the slur on Feb. 2. None, at the time or in the month since, gave any indication of how long Wallen’s banishment should last.
There seems to have been a crack in the solidarity of major DSPs, too, who had acted against Wallen in the wake of the scandal. He was removed at the time from the front pages and playlists of virtually all on-demand streaming service, if not from being searchable.
Last week, under the headline “Spotify Partially Lifts Its Morgan Wallen Playlist Ban,” Digital Music News reported that Wallen had been put back on one of the streaming app’s most popular country playlists, Country Coffeehouse, which has nearly 600,000 followers. The site also noted that the service had launched “an exclusive ‘enhanced’ version” of Wallen’s “Dangerous: The Double Album” in the days after the controversy broke a month ago.
There has been little public discussion in the country music industry of how long Wallen’s unofficial suspension should last. His public video apology on Feb. 10 led many to believe he was headed in the right direction, though few in the business have been willing to talk openly about it. In the days immediately following the news of the N-word incident, most industry leaders surveyed by Variety were estimating that it would take six months to a year or longer for Wallen’s career to fully get back on track, depending on his further actions.
His label, Big Loud, made the ambiguous announcement that it was “suspending” him from the roster indefinitely, but there has been no suspension of the estimated seven-figure sums his music is bringing in every week regardless of his media or radio profile. “Dangerous: The Double Album” was just revealed as having its seventh straight week at No. 1, a streak unmatched in recent years by anyone but Drake.
Meanwhile, though, the effect of the blackout on promoting Wallen extended to the announcement of the Academy of Country Music Awards last week, where the star’s name was nowhere to be found, as he’d earlier been declared disqualified for the ACMs.