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My identity was formed with pizza

I asked you on social media how you typically listen to the radio, and the response was overwhelmingly at home. This honestly surprised me, as I thought most folks would tune into the radio in their cars (if I listen, it’s typically there).

Amy Coddington laid bare in her book how, basically from the 1980s through the early 2010s when streaming started gaining popularity, radio controlled everything about your musical tastes.

What you like. What you don’t like. What you think about different genres.

And likely, if you were listening to the radio at this time, you had some opinions about rap.

And likely…

You didn’t make those opinions. You were told those opinions in a (creepily, I think) subliminal way.

Have you listened to the episode yet????? It’s bananas how much power radio advertisers have over my identity.

What music I like, defines what conversations I have with people, which defines who I hang out with, which defines what I may choose to do in life, all of which defines my identity.

It was pretty incredible reading about all this (get Amy’s book for free here). One of the stories that stuck out to me that I reference in the episode but we don’t go into detail about, is pizza.

Advertisers in the 80s and 90s wanted to distance themselves from Black America. They believed the most profitable demographic were white women in their late 20s/early 30s, and every dollar was tied to getting in front of that demographic. (I’ll note there is a secondary demographic of white men, which a lot of rock and country stations targeted, but those stations were less likely to be involved in the conversation about rap and hip hop than pop stations. We touch on them briefly, but don’t spend much time there given the nature of this conversation.)

So if a radio station wanted a sponsor, they had to play music that would attract advertisers that had opinions on what that demographic wanted to listen to. This actually had very little tie-in to what the listeners wanted. The stations had to play what the advertisers thought the listeners wanted.

Wild, right? 

If you weren’t playing music geared towards white women in their 20s/30s, you weren’t of super great interest to advertisers… so your station wouldn’t get funding. So black stations had a major problem getting enough money to survive and play music for black listeners.

Here’s where the pizza comes in. Because these racist assumptions that Black people had no money to spend (on literally anything), companies would tell studio managers some pretty strange things, including: “Blacks don’t eat pizza.”

“Black people don’t eat mayonnaise.”

“Black people don’t eat beef.”

These are all real quotes from real people told to Black-oriented stations, according to the National Association of Black-Owned Broadcasters.

Then, even brands that would acknowledge that black people were worth advertising to, had other biases getting in the way. If a brand was known to advertise to Black listeners, they were afraid that ad would “taint” their reputation with white audiences. Amy says in her book: “One marketing expert stated that Japanese car companies worried that featuring a Black driver in their ads would ‘diminish the value of the car because [white audiences were] not seeing themselves behind the wheel.’”

This is all a little heavy, I know, so here is a picture of Amy being adorable. Yes, I know she's a fancy serious Ph.D and professor, as her friend I can call her adorable.

Amy makes a comment that radio is a powerful “social adherent,” which means that no matter where (home or car!) you listen, a lot of culture is communicated with a lot of people. We can all go to weddings, and Bohemian Rhapsody comes on, and everyone loses their minds and starts singing along.

We know all those words, likely because of radio.

And while we were fed a lot of things about rap in the 80s and 90s, hip hop and rap have reached incredible levels of popularity. They are both now part of the fabric of America, but they went through a lot to get there.

They also got a little twisted along the way by all these systemic forces. The music that across the world is known as “the music of the oppressed,” “speaking truth to power”… well, it doesn’t quite do that in America anymore.

Why? Because advertisers wanted to make sure I, Morgan, felt comfortable. What white, middle class woman wants to turn on the radio and hear rap about racism, systemic violence, and structural oppression? I want to bop to something fun in my car on the way to the gym, or watch carefully curated collabs about love or success with my favorite white pop stars.

And then order a pizza.

Amy ends her book, and I start to wrap up our interview, with a quote I think is really important:

“Rap becoming more commodifiable on its own should not be mistaken for changing racial attitudes… The financial imperatives of the music industry dictate the terms of the conversations these songs can invite.”

Like I said, I’m not wanting to think about heavy things as I drive around running errands. Or sit at home prepping cheese plates (or beef and mayonnaise, apparently???) for my friends to come over.

One reason I connect with this topic so much, is that it connects with the mission of the Zeitgeist Academy.  Expanding your musical appreciation requires an active focus on being open about other styles of music you don’t know much about.

The way that you do that is to plug into the Zeitgeist that created it. That is how you learn to appreciate different styles of music, even if you don't end up loving listening to them.

Amy agrees, adding that simply listening to rap is not going to make you a more anti-racist person. You have to actually face biases that make you think rap is “gangster” or “violent” or any of these other messages sold to you by advertisers.

It's so easy to get stuck in musical silos or echo chambers if you don't actively try to break yourself out of them.

There’s way too much about this topic to share in one email… Really, get the book. Listen to the interview.  

I’ll end with another beautiful quote from the beautiful Amy:

“By really thinking about the possibility of music changing who we are, that to me is where the joy of this is.”

Even after all this research, she is still a lifetime lover of the radio. She listens both at home and in her car.

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