“Surviving R. Kelly” docuseries puts black radio stations in a bind

Outrage over R. Kelly’s sexual misconduct grows

In a move similar to what Detroit’s WMGC-FM (Bounce 105.1) did with Kanye West after his comments on slavery last spring, a pair of radio stations in Dallas and one in Atlanta have announced it would no longer play any music performed by R. Kelly on their airwaves in wake of last week’s controversial Lifetime documentary on the famous R&B singer.

But unlike the Detroit station, who returned West’s music to rotation after only a few days in what was likely a publicity stunt, this time it’s going to stick.

Two Dallas radio stations – KRNB-FM and KKDA-FM announced it has removed R. Kelly’s music from its playlists. They were joined by WAMJ-FM in Atlanta and two other stations: WBLS-FM in New York City and KJLH-FM in Los Angeles (owned by Stevie Wonder) both removing his music well before the documentary aired. Tom Joyner announced in an on-air radio interview with MeToo founder Tanara Burke last year he would no longer play R. Kelly’s music on his syndicated show, also based in Dallas.

As classified by Nielsen’s BDS, KRNB is a Urban Adult Contemporary station; KKDA-FM has an Urban Contemporary format. Both are owned by Service Broadcasting Corp., one of the few independently-owned stations left in radio.

The controversial documentary featured numerous women who claimed they were sexually assaulted and abused by the Chicago-born singer, whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly. The Chicago Sun-Times’ Jim DeRogatis investigated the claims of sexual abuse for the paper back in 2000, and continued for years. In 2008, Kelly was acquitted on child pornography charges after allegedly having sex with a 14-year old on tape in a decision stunning many observers.

Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly reached 18 million total viewers over three nights with numerous airings over Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network.  Last Thursday, the docuseries drew a 0.9 rating in the adult 18-49 demo, beating programming on ABC and Fox and is likely to finish as the top entertainment show among African-Americans for the week. The docuseries also drew considerable social media response; #SurvivngRKelly and related hashtags dominated social media on Thursday and Friday nights.

For the Dallas stations, it was a clear cut decision. Claudia Jordan, a former model, TV star (Deal or No Deal, Real Housewives of Atlanta) and co-host of The Rickey Smiley Show told the audience on her KRNB morning show she co-hosts with Rudy Rush the reason why the station decided to stop playing Kelly’s music as documented by Complex: “Up against the background of what we know…. Where there were girls actually locked up in rooms and urinating in buckets and held against their will, even if they were over 18, (Kelly’s music) just has a different meaning now. I just feel like, in good conscience, we just can’t continue to support this guy. Sadly there are a lot of people out there and what they do in their work—they are talented people—but they have demons. And I feel like as a woman that is an advocate for other women.… We cannot support this man anymore. I’ve been a victim of abuse from a man, and it wasn’t as extreme as this. But reading all the comments, we have to at some point take a stance.”

Over at sister station KKDA on her morning show, former Chicago radio personality Dee Dee McGuire said: “I’m glad that radio is taking that stance. Radio has always played a major role in the black community… That goes back to the civil rights movement. We have to take care of our own. If the courts won’t take care of [Kelly] in terms of punishing him, then we’ll stop playing his music as punishment.”

On Monday, former “Deal Or No Deal” model Claudia Jordan announced on her Dallas morning radio show she co-hosts with Rudy Rush that her station would no longer play R. Kelly’s music.

While the five radio stations mentioned ended their association with Kelly, it helps to note these are independently-owned. Most radio stations serving the African-American community are owned by conglomerates Cumulus, Urban One (formerly Radio One), Entercom, and iHeartMedia. As this blog noted last spring, consolidation in radio over the last two decades have led to more and more playlist decisions taken out of the hands of local station mangers and into those of national programmers.

In Chicago, iHeartMedia owns Urban AC WVAZ-FM (V103) and Urban Contemporary WGCI-FM; Entercom owns Classic Hip-Hop WBMX-FM (104.3 Jams) and Denver-based Crawford Broadcasting owns Urban Contemporary WPWX-FM (Power 92) and Urban AC WSRB-FM (Soul 106.3) – all have played some variation of Kelly’s music; in fact, WGCI was instrumental in the rise of R. Kelly in the first place. So far, none of these stations has publicity commented on Kelly or announced any plans to pull his music. However, one Chicago radio personality (Angi Taylor of Kiss 103.5) appeared at an anti-R Kelly protest Wednesday night at his West Loop recording studio. WKSC is a sister station to both WGCI and V103.

Both WGCI and Power 92 have been targeted in the past from community activists over music content. Several organizations have urged iHeart and UrbanOne to remove Kelly’s songs from their playlists.

Since the documentary aired, the Cook County State’s Attorney is urging anyone who was abused by Kelly to come focused, as Atlanta-area prosecutors have done likewise as he is accused of holding women against his will in a cult in Georgia. And already, there is an after-effect: ABC’s new sitcom Schooled pulled an R. Kelly song from Wednesday’s premiere episode. And the Chicago Tribune’s and Chicago Sun-Times’ editorial boards have weighed in, with the latter urging Kelly should be “muted”, as in #MuteRKelly” trending on Twitter.

Whether this latest controversy over Kelly affects his radio airplay remains to be seen. Even though the number of stations bailing out on Kelly is growing, keep in mind there is a significant amount of people who still support the disgraced R&B superstar, especially in his native Chicago as the saga has deeply divided the area’s African-American community. Local radio programmers know this as the controversy surrounding Kelly isn’t going to end anytime soon and any decision to drop Kelly from the airwaves won’t be an easy one.

(Editor’s note: An earlier draft of this story incorrectly stated R. Kelly’s full name.)