Country Radio Quickly Removing Morgan Wallen From Playlists After Racial Slur

Wallen's music has been yanked by SiriusXM, Pandora and CMT as well as the iHeartRadio, Cumulus and Entercom chains. DSPs have rendered him nearly invisible — part of a series of stunning setbacks for someone who started 2021 as music's hottest recording artist.
By Chris Willman

Wallen's music has been yanked by SiriusXM, Pandora and CMT as well as the iHeartRadio, Cumulus and Entercom chains. DSPs have rendered him nearly invisible — part of a series of stunning setbacks for someone who started 2021 as music's hottest recording artist.

UPDATED: The hottest star in music so far in 2021, Morgan Wallen, has suddenly gone very cold. His music has been pulled from the top radio chains, including Cumulus Media, iHeartRadio and Entercom, the cable network CMT, the satellite service SiriusXM and the streaming service Pandora, as well as being removed from any visible spots on DSPs like Spotify and Apple Music.

These removals from his prime media platforms may constitute even bigger blows than his contract being “suspended… indefinitely” by his Nashville-based label, Big Loud, with the support of distributor Republic Records, It all comes at the very height of his blockbuster success, which appears to be instantaneously crashing down after he was captured on video using a racial slur.

First to pull the plug was Cumulus, which is especially powerful in the country radio sphere. Late Tuesday night, the company sent out a directive to the program directors of all of its 400-plus stations with the header “MORGAN WALLEN — EXTREMELY IMPORTANT.” The message read: “Team, unfortunately country music star Morgan Wallen was captured on video Sunday evening using a racial slur. Effective immediately we request that all of Morgan Wallen’s music be removed from our playlists without exception. More to follow.”

The directive was signed by Brian Philips, EVP of programming for the chain, and John Dimick, the company’s head of programming operations. Notably, no mention was made of the ban being temporary or of waiting for more details to emerge about the incident, which Wallen had already acknowledged and issued an apology for.

Popular on Variety

Cumulus’ late-night move to turn off the Wallen spigot was followed by similar directives Wednesday morning from iHeartMedia, which controls the greatest number of terrestrial stations in the nation, and virtually every other major broadcast, cable or satellite outlet that regularly played his hits.

Digital service providers were in a trickier position, not being able to summarily remove his music from being sold or streamed on demand. But several did move to make him virtually invisible on their platforms without a search. By late Tuesday night, Wallen’s image and tracks did not appear anywhere on the home page of Apple Music Country, and his songs were no longer anywhere to be seen in Spotify’s list of 50 top Hot Country songs. These moves came not very long on the heels of Wallen being championed as the most successful out-of-the-box streaming country artist ever.

And the banishment has been startlingly quick considering the fact that his “Dangerous: The Double Album” release is soon to have a fourth week at the top of the album charts, which will set a record for consecutive weeks at No. 1 not seen by a country artist since Garth Brooks in the late ’90s. What happens when his album has its fifth week on the chart, though, is anybody’s guess.

Wallen issued a statement Tuesday night after TMZ first reported the incident, saying, “I’m embarrassed and sorry. I used an unacceptable and inappropriate racial slur that I wish I could take back. There are no excuses to use this type of language, ever. I want to sincerely apologize for using the word. I promise to do better.”

The video, posted on TMZ Tuesday night and reportedly recorded by Wallen’s neighbors, shows him yelling profanities after a night out in Nashville, including the N-word.

Said one leading figure in country radio who did not want to comment for attribution Tuesday night: “Morgan Wallen appears in virtually every half-hour of music across 4000 stations across America right now. How’d you like to get that message at midnight, that you have to take him out of the music blocks you already set up for Wednesday? If anybody has other songs they’ve been wanting to hear in the morning, they may get to hear them tomorrow.”

While some fans pointed out that Wallen appeared to be using the term as a “term of endearment” among friends and not as invective, the zero tolerance policy for the word is unlikely to get him any reprieves any time soon among major media companies, regardless of how fans might react when many of them awaken to the news that a hero of theirs is in disgrace Wednesday morning.

Wallen has a history of having used the N-word on social media, quoting rap lyrics. Back in 2012, when he would have been 18, the then-unknown sent out a tweet that is a lyric by rapper Meek Mill: “I burn bread i aint talkin toast n—-.” (That tweet was deleted from Wallen’s account Wednesday morning.)

The Wallen scandal comes at a particularly inopportune time for country music — not that there ever would have been an opportune one — as many involved with the genre have recently been involved in publicly discussing a racial reckoning they feel is needed in country, trying to boost the profiles of Black artists who have existed mostly on the margins in an effort to show that the music is making small steps toward real diversity. Wallen’s utterance, as the face of the genre right now, is likely to stand as a huge setback in those efforts and reinforce stereotypes… which even some stars of the format are saying are true stereotypes.

Tweeted Maren Morris: “It actually IS representative of our town because this isn’t his first ‘scuffle’ and he just demolished a huge streaming record last month regardless. We all know it wasn’t his first time using that word. We keep them rich and protected at all costs with no recourse.”

Still, others were insisting this was a blip, not emblematic. “The news out of Nashville tonight does not represent country music,” tweeted Kelsea Ballerini.

One of the few Black singers with a major presence in contemporary country music, Mickey Guyton, was quick to tweet that this was far from wholly unexpected, though. “The hate runs deep. Smfh,” quoting TMZ’s story. She then followed up her post with: “This is not his first time using that ‘unacceptable’ racial slur and we all known that. So what exactly are y’all going to do about it. Crickets won’t work this time.”

How popular was Wallen’s music, going into Tuesday night? Besides having far and away the biggest selling and streaming album in any genre since “Dangerous: The Double Album” made its blockbuster debut three weeks ago, Wallen currently also has five out of the top 20 tracks on the Rolling Stone songs chart. With the roll that it’s been on, Wallen’s album may continue to stream in significant numbers, but it won’t be with the assistance of TV appearances or massive radio play any time in the immediate future. Wallen is also unlikely to enjoy an appearance on April’s Academy of Music Awards, June’s CMT Awards or any of the other television exposure that might have been expected.

Is it possible some country fans will revolt at Wallen being removed from the airwaves, demanding that he be put back on?

“Any listener that doesn’t take extreme offense at the character of these remarks is not a listener we need to entertain,” said one figure in the industry, who said that texts being shared Tuesday night did not indicate a hesitance to take action. “Program directors are like, ‘Oh my god — this guy.’ No one is saying, ‘Are you sure you want to do that? He’s really popular.’ It’s more like, ‘It’s going to be tough to make those changes immediately, but we’ll do it.’ You can’t be pro-N-word. It’s the inarguable word.” Can he make enough amends to be ushered back soon into the good graces of country media? “That’s for him to figure out. He’s gotten out of jams before, but this is gonna be tough.”

Foremost among the previous “jams” Wallen had gotten out of: In October 2020, he was seen making out with fans while partying maskless in Alabama, which cost him a “Saturday Night Live” performance he was scheduled to make the following weekend. But “SNL” rebooked him for December after he made an apology, and the show made light of it in a sketch in which he appeared with Jason Bateman as his older doppelganger.

Morgan Wallen with Jason Bateman on “Saturday Night Live” in December 2020

Some questioned whether Wallen had learned any lessons about the COVID crisis or avoid controversy from his “SNL” cancellation when, in November, he posted on social media that it was time to start holding large-scale concerts again. On his Instagram account, he put up a photo of Joe Biden supporters celebrating the results of the election by massing in Washington, D.C. and wrote, “Time to start booking shows… The hypocrisy is unreal.” He further added, “If you don’t agree with me, fine. We can still be friends. But I have a family, band and crew that need to be provided for and taken care of. If it’s OK for us to party in the streets with no ‘social distancing’ then we can book shows right now.”

Talking about being initially canceled from “SNL” in October, Wallen went on Bobby Bones’ national radio show and, while still expressing penitence about the Alabama incident, said he was reluctant to let anyone “control the way that I live my life. I understand both sides of it a little bit. I know that I got young kids that look up to me and all those kinds of things, too. I want to be mindful of things. I’m not going to let people control the way that I live my life, but I also want to be mindful. Honestly, I have a son now and I don’t know that I’d be proud to show him those videos, you know. I got to think about some things a little bit differently.”

Wallen’s apology tour dates back at least as far as May 2020, when he was charged by Nashville police with public intoxication and disorderly conduct, having being arrested outside Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk & Rock ‘N’ Roll Steakhouse for an altercation he said he was “pretty fuzzy” about. “I think I’ve built kind of a reputation for being a little bit rowdy and maybe even rambunctious at times. Usually, it’s fun-loving,” he explained at the time.

Even those who stand to profit most from Wallen’s success have been forced to concede he’s run out of strikes, whether that’s for the short or long run.

Jason Isbell, who stands to benefit greatly from “Dangerous: The Double Album” royalties after Wallen covered his song “Cover Me Up” for the project, did not hold back in saying he felt it was time for country to move on. “Wallen’s behavior is disgusting and horrifying,” Isbell tweeted. “I think this is an opportunity for the country music industry to give that spot to somebody who deserves it, and there are lots of Black artists who deserve it.”