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Why do Classic Rock stations play so few African-American artists?
by: Douglas E. Hill

Classic rock is a music format I enjoy, even though it is not a radio format that we play on KUCI. Classic rock stations typically play some of the best rock-and-roll that I grew up with in the 1970s on AM-radio, as well as the best from FM-radio that I started listening to in college. Stations such as Arrow-93 and KLOS 95.5 here in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area play classic rock, and KLSX once played it. I've long enjoyed listening to these stations as I drive around the L.A. area and elsewhere.

But I've noticed something troubling. Other than Jimi Hendrix, there are no African-American artists these stations play.

This criticism does not apply to those stations playing an oldies rock-and-roll format. Local stations such as K-Earth 101 and Kola 99.9 include many Motown hits and other songs by African-American artists. Because rock-and-roll has always involved the mixing of American musical forms, especially rhythm-and-blues from primarily black sources and country -and western from primarily white sources, it seems contrary to the spirit of rock-and-roll to leave out so much of the music from one of these groups. Yet, this is precisely what classic-rock stations do.

So while The Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Temptations, and Stevie Wonder all made such great music that they are now members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, why are only Hendrix and his band deemed to be classic rock artists? Could it be because of racism?

It's easy to say that classic rock station managers (or DJ's or whoever decides what music they will play) are either racist or think their listeners are. Thinking this way seriously underestimates these radio station decision-makers and their audience, who surely know that without the music of African-Americans, there would be no such thing as rock-and-roll. Perhaps I do not want to admit that this could be true about my fellow listeners or the programmers of this music that I love. And if it were true, why would they play an artist such as Hendrix as often as they do? And why would they play white artists such as Bruce Springsteen who have black band members? The real explanation must be more complicated than this.

1) There are very few African-American classic rock artists?
A defensive station programmer reading this article might argue that although he would love to play more classic rock by African-American artists, there just isn't any. But this simply is not true. I challenge anyone to explain why songs like those listed below, that I have never heard played on classic rock stations, should not belong in the classic rock pantheon.

* Stevie Wonder
"Superstitious"
"Higher Ground"
"Living for the City"

* The Temptations
"Psychedelic Shack"
"Cloud Nine"
"Ball of Confusion"

* Sly and the Family Stone
"Everyday People"
"Hot Fun in the Summertime"
"Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin"

This list refutes any claims that there just is not enough classic rock by African American artists. “Oldies” stations play all these artists. And why can a station that plays Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd play the Beatles and not play their contemporaries such as Stevie Wonder or Sly and the Family Stone?

One possibility is that while many of these artists recorded some great music, it cannot be construed as classic rock. For example, consider Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour." If this song does not touch your heart, I'm concerned about you. This song is more romantic than anything I've ever heard played as classic rock; therefore, it may not belong on a classic rock station. Too bad. But why should recording songs as sweet as this and his "I Just Called To Say I Love You," or the Temptation's "My Girl" keep their more rocking songs from being heard on classic rock radio, also?

As to the specific case of the Beatles, my KUCI colleague Däch argues that their music can be classified as "pre-acid", which is played on oldies stations, and post-acid, which is played on classic rock stations, and that Motown is a sound specific to the oldies format. While the classic rock stations do concentrate on the Beatles later work, they do not ignore their earlier work. And Däch's classification could be applied to the Temptations as well. So why then do classic rock stations play "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" but not "Cloud Nine"?

2) The Anti-Disco backlash?

In the 1970s, disco dance music became increasingly popular. It peaked in popularity with the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever and its accompanying soundtrack. This was fun music with a beat you could dance to. But while it became increasingly popular among some, others grew tired of it. This irritation was expressed most famously on July 12, 1979 in Chicago, when the Disco Sucks demonstration was held between double-header baseball games at old Comiskey Park, and forced the White Sox to forfeit the second game. Somehow after this, rock music got sorted into disco and anti-disco, and many African-American artists, especially many of the fine funk bands of the 1970s (e.g. the Ohio Players), got sorted into the disco category. The artists played on classic rock stations are those that got sorted into the anti-disco category.

White disco acts, such as the Bee Gees, are also ignored by the classic-rock format. This further supports my argument that racism is not the reason that stations playing this format ignore all this great rocking music.

This backlash was an interesting social phenomenon and I would like to know more about it. But the Disco Sucks demonstration was 23 years ago, Saturday Night Fever was 25 years ago, and it is time for this backlash to end! Let us recognize the rightful place of these musicians in rock music.

3) Mere unimaginative programming?

Perhaps the fact that deserving music does not get played can be summed up by a single word: format. This article has discussed the classic rock and oldies formats and found something lacking in the former. But oldies stations often ignore some of the more progressive rock that make many of us sometimes want to hear classic rock. Perhaps these formats are simply too unimaginative. Perhaps program managers just march in lock-step with one another—they have found a formula that profitably connects with an audience. If so, there may not be much hope to change this.

Despite my criticism here, let me defend the idea of a radio station having a format. It is nice to be able to tune into a station, have some idea of what to expect, and thus be able to know that they will probably be playing something I like. But there is so much great music that listeners would like that programmers are ignoring.

Given all of this, perhaps the answer is for each of us to use the tuner on our radios. There is a lot of great music out there, and no one station can play it all. Perhaps we need to be our own music programmers, switching among the many stations as well as buying and playing recordings. But I'd like to suggest to any radio programmers reading this that they might build more listener loyalty with more imaginative programming.

There are encouraging signs. While classic rock stations may ignore almost all of the great African-American rockers, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame does not, and has inducted many of these great musicians. And from what I can tell, modern rock stations seem to happily play such modern rockers as Lenny Kravitz.


Acknowledgements: First, thanks to KUCI marketing director Rob Roy for encouraging me to write this article, Barbara DeMarco Barrett of “Writers on Writing” for editing it, and KUCI hosts Däch, Alex Cortez, and Serena Sharp for their helpful comments.

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