On Sunday night, George Cook, the Director of Operations, Program Director and Brand Manager for a pair of rap and R&B radio stations in Dallas, organized a crucial conference call with members of his team. Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part docuseries on Lifetime that alleged that the singer had committed sexual assault and engaged in illegal sexual relationships with multiple underage women, had finished airing the previous evening. “We have two high-profile morning shows, and everyone’s preparing for Monday,” Cook recalls. “How will we deal with the topic?”
Listeners were already sounding off on social media, Cook says, asking “why were we continuing to play his music?” “When we got on the phone, everybody weighed in,” he continues. “Many of us were not aware of some of the deeper, darker details regarding the exploits of R. Kelly. We didn’t want to be in a position where anyone was defending him. We all just came to the agreement that we’re no longer going to support the music. It was not an easy decision, but I think it was the right one.”
Cook’s team announced their new policy on Monday: KKDA, which plays a mixture of contemporary hip-hop and R&B aimed at black listeners age 18 – 34, and KRNB, which plays R&B reaching back through the Nineties aimed at black listeners age 25 – 54, would no longer play Kelly’s music. Derek Harper, Program Director for WAMJ, an R&B station in Atlanta, also tells Rolling Stone that the singer has been removed from rotation this week. These stations joined first-movers like WBLS, New York City’s flagship R&B station, and KJLH, the Stevie Wonder-owned station in Los Angeles, who had stopped playing Kelly before the docuseries aired.
“Many of us were not aware of some of the deeper, darker details regarding the exploits of R. Kelly” – radio program director George Cook
But this group is still very much in the minority. More than a dozen program directors and DJs ignored requests for comment about how they plan to treat Kelly’s music or said they were not authorized to speak publicly about the issue. The three largest radio conglomerates — iHeartMedia, Cumulus Media and Entercom — and Urban One, which has stations in 15 urban markets in the United States and reaches many R&B listeners, have not made public statements about Kelly’s music and did not respond to requests for comment. (Harper’s station is owned by Urban One.)
The few programmers who agreed to speak said that there’s little precedent for this situation in their radio experience: Programmers are typically called on to make hits, not pass judgement on an artist who has yet to be convicted of any crimes. (Though Cook points out that radio has banned music for lyrical content — N.W.A. — and even for artists’ political views: the Dixie Chicks at country radio.) On top of that, Kelly is a lion at urban radio, with 32 top ten hits as an artist and more as a writer-producer-chorus-singer, and he still has a devoted, if shrinking, fanbase that has helped raise his streaming numbers this week.
“There are situations where the artist and even the label the artist is on has been dropped from the radio — they make a promise to a station’s concert and don’t commit to your obligation,” says Mister Cee (real name: Calvin LeBrun), who spent over 20 years in radio, including a long stint at New York City’s WQHT (better known as Hot 97). “But something of this magnitude? I can’t think of something else like this.”
While the situation is abnormal, several members of the urban radio community feel it’s vital that they come up with a coherent response. “This is a critical moment for urban radio,” stresses Harper. “It operates differently than your mainstream [pop] radio or your AC [adult contemporary] — urban radio has always positioned itself as the voice of the community. This is an important time for radio to look [at] itself in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, are we doing what we said our role is?'”
Pressure has been mounting on radio programmers since at least August 2017, when #MuteRKelly founder Oronike Odeleye called for Atlanta stations to remove Kelly from rotation. Around the same time, Skip Dillard, program director for New York’s WBLS, started “getting calls from concerned listeners.” “We have to pay attention to the fact that the majority of the people who are contacting us are saying, ‘We want black radio not to support this artist with these allegations, now that we’ve learned more,'” Dillard explains.”We’ve given it the benefit of the doubt,” he reasoned. “We cannot anymore.” WBLS consequently took Kelly off its playlists more than a year ago.
But not all program directors were convinced at the time. Harper declined to remove Kelly from rotation, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “if and once he’s convicted, then we’d have a different conversation.” “We didn’t want to rush to judgement,” Harper adds now. “At the end of the day, you still are dealing with a person’s livelihood.”
Calls to mute the singer redoubled following the airing of the Lifetime docuseries. The same day that KKDA and KRNB announced their new no-Kelly policy, Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who leads the “non-partisan public policy forum” Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, urged iHeartMedia and Urban One to boycott Kelly’s music during a press conference. “Radio stations and entertainment outlets that continued to play and spotlight and profit off of Kelly’s name, celebrity and music after the revelations came out about his sexual predatorship are just as culpable as him,” Hutchinson tells Rolling Stone.
Harper says his views — and maybe more importantly, the views of his constituents — shifted markedly after watching Surviving R. Kelly, and other programmers expressed similar sentiments. “It definitely had an emotional impact on our audience,” Dillard says. “Many times, articles will go unread, a tweet will go unseen. A three-night series, a couple hours a night, [is] going to hit more people. And normally the entertainment establishment tries to remain objective and stay silent. We saw major figures, including Wendy Williams and John Legend, come out and say, ‘We have a problem with [Kelly’s alleged behavior]; we don’t accept it’.”
“At this stage in R. Kelly’s career, he’s not a marquee artist. Radio can survive without him” – radio program director Derek Harper
Surviving R. Kelly proved to be so affecting that some DJs expressed regret for supporting Kelly in the past. “When he was found not guilty of his charges [in the child pornography trial], I played his music that day on Hot 97,” Lebrun recalls. “All I cared about was that one of our black urban musical giants was found not guilty — I did a celebratory tribute on the air, and I regret doing that. I felt so ashamed last weekend watching the documentary and knowing I was one of the people in this industry who contributed to being celebratory of this man, even though he was involved in stuff he shouldn’t have been involved in.” (Lebrun’s language echoes recent comments from Chance the Rapper and Common.)
“I think many of us were complicit in a way because we didn’t want to disrupt business,” Cook adds. “We put business ahead of people.”
The business of actually removing Kelly’s music from playlists is trivial: Cook excised “a few” titles from KRNB’s playlists; Harper nixed four from WAMJ’s rotation. (Stations haven’t yet decided what to do with music that Kelly wrote or produced for other artists, a discography that includes tracks by Michael Jackson, Toni Braxton, Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah, Maxwell and many more.) Both those stations belong to the Urban Adult Contemporary format, which plays some older music in addition to new releases. Stations like KKDA have an even easier time: Since they focus on a younger demographic and play almost entirely new music, there is effectively no change to their programming.
Of course, the fact that there are so few Kelly songs in rotation on urban radio right now is part of the reason that even a small number of stations are finally willing to risk the blowback from removing him. “At this stage in R. Kelly’s career, he’s not a marquee artist,” Harper acknowledges. “Radio can survive without him.” “It’s harder to take someone off who has current hits,” agrees Dillard.
That’s not to say some listeners haven’t been upset anyway. “There’s a faction that are R. Kelly fans and they remain in disbelief,” Cook says. “They want to see more due process. They feel you’re censoring R. Kelly, and what about other artists? That may be true to a certain point. But I don’t think you can separate the man from the music knowing what we know now, whether it’s new information or information that’s been reaffirmed.” As to the “other artists” question, Cook says any similar scenarios would have to be evaluated on a “case-by-case basis.”
Hutchinson rejected the idea that removing Kelly’s music from a radio playlist was the same as censoring the singer. “No one is telling Kelly he can’t write, perform, record and sell his music — that would be censorship,” Hutchinson says. Instead, he is advocating for a boycott.
Some are not sure that’s the right solution either. Kevin Fleming, who programs KTFK and edits the Urban Buzz, a newsletter for urban radio professionals, worries that banning Kelly’s music is “only dealing with the symptoms and not dealing with the real problem.” “I’m not saying that what he did is acceptable,” Fleming adds. “I understand the position that radio’s in and the position they should take. But I wonder if that’s really the answer — not hearing Kelly doesn’t erase what has happened.” He encourages program directors to start a dialogue with their constituents: “Open the airwaves up to your listenership, talk about this, really dive into it, and go beyond what happened with Kelly. Talk about what’s going on in the community.”
It’s notable that WBLS, KKDA, KRNB and KJLH are all independently owned radio stations. That means “we can make these decisions quickly,” Cook says. “That may not be the case in other corporate environments. I have friends at other companies that may not be in a position to speak on the topic.”
But Harper believes other stations will come to a decision soon, even if they just quietly stop playing Kelly’s songs. According to one longtime program director and show host who requested anonymity, that’s already happening: “There are people who have ceased playing his music but they’re either not saying anything or they work for a corporation where they’re not allowed to say anything.”
“We have to respond to this,” Harper adds. “If we don’t, it messes with the entire model of what we built this format on.”