After being banned from the airwaves by major radio chains for the better part of four months, Morgan Wallen has quietly slipped back onto the air at most country stations in the last few weeks, even as he remains persona non grata at awards shows and other high-profile events.
“There was no fanfare at all when people started adding it back in,” says one high-level radio exec. “It’s been completely subdued and unnoticed. It’s like a soft opening.”
Wallen songs have registered as reappearing on stations owned by iHeartMedia, Cumulus Media, Cox Media, TownSquare Media and other major chains, with the word being that the top execs at these companies are now allowing stations to make their own decisions about whether it feels appropriate to put Wallen back on the air in their markets.
The position the chains are taking is being described as telling affiliates to “make your own decision. If you’re comfortable with putting his music on the radio and think the guy has been on the sidelines long enough, that’s your call.”
That seems to very much be an unofficial position for now, though: All the chains contacted by Variety about Wallen’s status either did not immediately respond to a request for comment or indicated they had no update on his status.
Few, if any, stations that are reintroducing him onto playlists are remarking about it on the air, lest they either offend those who don’t want Wallen to get off too easy or — the more likely rationale, in most cases — rile up fans who might not have even noticed he’d been gone.
“Nobody is saying, ‘Guess what’s coming up next, a guy you haven’t heard in six months!'” says a radio insider. “It’s a thing that people are going to do quietly and not want to make a lot of noise about. It’s like, have him blend back into the mosaic of the thing and not make a big deal about it.” This stands in contrast to the behind-the-scenes discussions, in which, the insider notes, Wallen’s ongoing status is “the most over-discussed topic in the history of country music.”
The shift may be quiet, but it’s widespread. Country Insider reported Thursday that in the last week, 121 of Mediabase’s 160 reporting country stations reported playing a Wallen song at least once, while noting that some of those spins may have been on a syndicated show and not been indicative of a local programming decision.
That doesn’t mean that he’s about to immediately conquer the airplay charts again. Country Insider says he was the format’s 41st most-played artist for June 2-8, which is a long way from his recent outright ban but also a far shot from having any of his singles reenter the top 10.
Mediabase data examined by Variety shows a wide disparity in the number of spins individual stations are giving Wallen. There are several listed that have not played a Wallen record even once so far in June, including setingveral stations owned by Audacy, which appears to be a holdout in not letting the singer back on its stations yet. (Audacy, formerly Entercom, declined to comment.) There are also some iHeart and Cumulus outlets that have zero spins listed for Wallen for the month to date. Others are seen as re-embracing Wallen, albeit few of them in any huge way. Cumulus’ Dallas station, KSCS, played Wallen 49 times in the first 10 days of the month, after giving him 40 spins in May and zero in March and April. On the other hand, Cumulus outlets in Des Moines, Fresno, Stockton and Boise still haven’t played Wallen at all yet.
Plays at iHeartMedia stations this month range from 37 at St. Louis’ KSD-FM and 30 at Jacksonville’s WQUK down to zero at a station in Grand rapids. Overall, the vast majority of stations across all ownership groups look to have played Wallen between 10-30 times in the first nine days of the month — a one-to-three-plays-a-day rate that officially qualifies as dipping a toe back in.
The country superstar — who has the year’s biggest album in any genre with “Dangerous: The Double Album” — had disappeared from the nation’s airwaves almost entirely and instantaneously after TMZ aired video of him using the N-word in a drunken exchange among friends.
Sources indicate that the itch to reinstate Wallen had been there at radio for quite some time — and a handful of independent stations or rogue chain outlets were already playing him again by May — but no chain wanted to be first to say his time-out was over. Ultimately, because Cumulus had acted first in barring him on the night that the scandal broke via TMZ, others were keeping an eye on what that chain did. When it became evident that Cumulus has relented on the chain-wide ban, others followed suit in leaving it to local outlets to decide.
The laissez faire attitude that radio chains are adopting stands in contrast to the blackout on Wallen that’s being imposed by awards shows. While iHeartMedia is said to be allowing him on the radio again — the company was among those that did not immediately respond to requests for comment — Wallen was excluded as a nominee from the iHeartRadio Music Awards held three weeks ago. And virtually every other music awards show in which he would be up for contention has made a statement about him being partially or wholly disqualified. The CMT Music Awards, held Wednesday night, had announced that Wallen would be disqualified from participating, just as the Academy of Country Music Awards had. The Billboard Music Awards allowed him to be nominated but put an asterisk next to his nods, to confer that it was done begrudgingly. The Country Music Association recently announced that, for its November awards, recordings on which Wallen collaborated with others would be eligible, but he would be disqualified for any individual honors.
But at radio, says one exec — who, like everyone contacted for this story, would not speak for attribution — “with reasonable signals coming from his world that he’s dealing with his challenges, it just felt like our point was made.”
Key to the lifting of the ban, some sources say, is that Wallen’s team has continues to send out smoke signals that the singer is dealing with his issues, both at a racial sensitivity level and on a substance abuse basis.
His label, Big Loud, which had said at the outset of the controversy that it was “suspending” Wallen — without responding to queries about what that ambiguous term meant — has done its own quiet reinstatement, as the embattled singer now appears on the official roster again on the company website.
When Big Loud will feel free to actively promote a new Wallen single at country radio remains an open question, with few expecting that to happen right away. Right now, all his radio play is for “recurrent” singles. By that measure, he’s doing well: Country Insider points out that his 2020 No. 1 single “Chasin’ You” was “the only recurrent among Mediabase’s Top 10 greatest spin gainers” last week, with 982 plays nationally.
Some radio insiders contend that Wallen’s absence from the air has not been a big deal for the format, with many listeners barely aware of the national controversy or not taking note that his songs weren’t in the mix anymore. But pockets of Wallen fans, at least, had hammered local stations with their ire about his absence, arguing that radio was giving in to “cancel culture.” A fear remained among some that radio’s blackout was one more small move in sending some listeners to streaming services, where Wallen has continued to rack up some of the best figures of the year.
On the Rolling Stone album chart, “Dangerous: The Double Album” currently sits at No. 3, a remarkable endurance for an album that has been out for 22 weeks. It has not left the top 10 since debuting in January. Five months into its run, with little to no media exposure to speak of, it is still racking up 40.3 million song spins a week. “Dangerous” was No. 1 for its first 10 weeks of release, a feat that hadn’t occurred since Whitney Houston’s sophomore album in 1987.
That those records were being set even as Wallen was mired in scandal suggests that most fans were eager to brush his trangressions under the carpet, even as he issued a statement urging his followers not to defend him. The gulf there between his treatment by the media and his ongoing veneration among fans — some of whom bought billboards in Nashville to protest his exclusion from the CMT Awards this week — would indicate many reckonings yet to come for a genre that continues to attract attention for its historic racial exclusivity.
Many country orgs have been eager to proactively address racial issues and get out ahead of what some see as a prolonged black eye for the genre if Wallen makes a full comeback and becomes the public face of country music again. The Academy of Country Music made a statement of sorts by making Mickey Guyton the co-host of its prime-time ACM Awards in April, Wednesday night, the CMT Awards paid lengthy tribute to pioneer Linda Martell, who disappeared off the map after having hits and becoming the first Black woman to play the Grand Ole Opry in 1969 — with plenty of candid testimonial given to the fact that prospects for Black women had not changed much in the last 50 years. The format does have a number of Black male artists making inroads, something they’d much rather be playing up than having to deal with the public implications of Wallen being fully re-embraced by an audience that, in part, believes he’s the one who’s gotten the raw deal.
The best-case scenario some see is that when Wallen does publicly reemerge as a viable artist and not just a “recurrent,” it’s as a newly enlightened, vocal activist for changes that need to be made to welcome Blacks and other people of color into the format, as artists and fans, as likely or unlikely as that may be. There’s been little indication of where he’s at since his video apology in February and a subsequent open letter in April in which he said he was making amends and would not be doing any summer shows.
TMZ recently interviewed a Nashville NAACP spokesperson who said that Wallen’s camp had spurned their requests for a meeting, although Wallen said in February that he was already meeting with Black leaders. One of Wallen’s new mentors may be former “marketing innovator” JJ Jones, who posted a photo of himself with Wallen in April, saying he had reached out to the singer at mutual friend Kid Rock’s behest. Jones described Wallen as a “person who is truly remorseful over people he (h)as hurt” and someone who had chosen “to accept responsibility and take accountability for his actions.”