Thursday, March 10, 2016

Free Excerpt from Records Truly Is My Middle Name: The Dixie Chicks

On this day in 2003, Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines made a statement about being embarrassed to be from the same state as the president of the United States (George W. Bush). That comment (made during a concert in England) sparked a firestorm here in this country. Dixie Chicks records were burned, they were banned from all country music stations, their career was endangered, and though we didn't know it at the time--our careers (John Landecker's & mine) were endangered too. John told that story in his book "Records Truly Is My Middle Name"...

I’ve always been into political satire, ever since the 1970s when I was doing Nixon, and doing parody records about the politicians, but I never really got into the politics of it — only the humor. I never really got into serious political issues.


But there was one incident that happened toward the end of my ten year run at WJMK that was significant to me, because for the first time in my career, I felt motivated to do something about free speech.

Here’s what happened. In the aftermath of 9/11, I decided to play the Star Spangled Banner at the beginning of every morning show. However, I didn’t want your normal radio station standard Star Spangled Banner, and I couldn’t find one done by an oldies artist, because quite frankly, all of them sucked. But then, lo and behold, the Dixie Chicks did the Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl. It was perfect; beautiful three part harmony. Awesome! We had our regular sign-on song.

We played it every morning and it sounded fantastic. But then there was an incident with the Dixie Chicks. If you don’t remember, they were doing a concert in London and they said they were ashamed that George Bush was from their home state of Texas. Country music stations across the country banned them for this comment — they were burning their records — and right-wing talk radio stations were criticizing and vilifying the Dixie Chicks 24 hours a day.

And here we were playing their version of the National Anthem every morning at 5:30. But we never said on the air: “Here are the Dixie Chicks.” We never identified them on the air as the Dixie Chicks. Not once. Not ever. And I saw no reason to take this song off the air. We had been doing it for months. It’s the Star Spangled Banner! Why stop? Nobody had complained about it to me, and I talked to the listeners on the phone every single day.

Apparently, unbeknownst to me, there were a few complaints to the program director. I never found out how many, but I’ll never forget how I found out there were any at all. This program director was new to the station and was having a meeting with us, revamping our show (yet again). There was nothing new about this; program directors, general managers, and consultants had come and gone and revamped our show a million times. He started the meeting by asking us what we did on the show.

“Well,” I said, “We come out of the first record and play the Star Spangled Banner.”

“What version of the Star Spangled Banner?” he asked.

“The Dixie Chicks,” I said.

“Aha!” he said. “That’s where the complaints came from. You can’t play the Star Spangled Banner by the Dixie Chicks.”

Now this wasn’t about lewd comments, dirty jokes, bodily functions, or any of the usual complaints I had gotten in my career. This was something completely different. This was about being ordered to desist playing the Star Spangled Banner. The National friggin Anthem.

“I don’t know if I can do that,” I said.

Wellllll, a bomb went off in that room. I mean, it was a nuclear blast.

This program director lost it more than any other program director I’ve had in my life, and listen — I’ve been around. I’ve never seen or heard a more out of control, vindictive program director ever, and I’ve had more program directors than I can count. He was out of his mind. He was turning red. The veins were popping out in his neck. He was screaming at me!

“If you play it again,” he screamed. “You’re fired.”

I began to get out of the chair, and he added: “And if you get out of that chair, you’re fired!”

Even in the midst of this heated confrontation, I knew what was going on here. If I left that room at that moment, I would have been walking away from a potential severance package. So, I crossed my arms in front of me and said “I’m not leaving this chair.”

I don’t even want to get into what happened the rest of that day. It was tumultuous. It involved agents. It involved screaming on the phone. It was bad. By the time it was over, I decided that it just wasn’t worth it. That kind of stance wasn’t really the kind of thing I did on my show. But I must admit, that next morning when we came in to do the show, my producer Rick and I talked about it again, and we did seriously consider playing it again, because it just didn’t feel right to stop. Plus, we knew that this new management team didn’t like us, and more than likely wouldn’t be renewing us in a few months anyway, so, wouldn’t this be an honorable way to go out?

At the last second we decided not to do it. We played a different, lamer version of the song. And sure enough, a few months later the station opted not to renew our contracts.

The next time the Dixie Chicks came into town for a concert, I went backstage and met them, and told them the story, and they all autographed their famous Entertainment Weekly cover for me.

I still have it on my wall in my home office.