Opinion: Not playing Michael Jackson's music is not a judgement of his innocence or guilt

  • Opinion
  • 07/03/2019

By Leon Wratt

OPINION: It has certainly been an interesting 24 hours and it is remarkable that the interview I did yesterday with Peter Williams on Magic Talk ended up being reported on by the New York Times.

It shows the passion and interest in the current and future popularity of Michael Jackson is very much alive and kicking, as it was many years ago when the same debate was raging around the criminal accusations and subsequent trial.   

I have been a radio programmer for more than 25 years and these are always challenging situations, as our listeners are so passionate about their favourite artists - which we embrace.

Radio's response then was the same as it is now. For a long time we couldn't play Michael Jackson songs without the audience reacting negatively but, over time and his subsequent death, we learned through music research that the audience were ready to hear his tracks on the radio again - so they went back on the playlist. 

With Leaving Neverland about to air our job is to anticipate what the audience sentiment will be. If we programme our stations in a way that is not to the audience's liking, we run the risk they will switch off and, of course, we want to do everything we can to avoid this. 

There is no outright ban of Michael Jackson music nor is it a moral judgement of his innocence or guilt.  

The decision was made about three weeks ago - and yes, of course we were anticipating the reaction to the documentary.  

But the truth is, Michael Jackson has not been a high rotating artist for some time - we had three tracks on our playlists across two brands.  It is as simple as we don't anticipate our Breeze or More FM audiences will want to hear Black or White, Man in the Mirror or The Way You Make Me Feel as they drive into work or school with their kids in the car on a Monday morning.

The radio industry in New Zealand appears to have adopted the same position.  

The BBC in the UK has also said it makes playlist decisions with the audience in mind. 

Will we continue to listen carefully to sentiment and our audiences' preferences and make judgement calls based on that?  Yes we will - and nothing is ever permanent. As I said yesterday, we will always be guided by our audience.

We love our listeners and we love hearing their views - as a company we embrace the fact that the radio medium can still evoke this level of emotion.  

The goal is to make sure we interpret that and respond to it in the right way.

Leon Wratt is the Group Content Director at MediaWorks.