Remembering when N.C. Black radio stations boycotted Tina TurnerBy Cash Michaels, Peacemaker Senior Contributor / June 2, 2023
Editor’s note – The reporter of this story was once the program director and a disc jockey for 570WLLE -AM in Raleigh during the 1980s, and was a first-hand participant in this story. This is his personal account.
Last week at the age of 83, the world lost one of the most iconic music legends ever known – multiple Grammy Award winner Tina Turner, the “Queen of Rock ’n Roll.”
Her catalogue of music from both her Ike and Tina Turner Revue days, with raw soul classics like “Proud Mary” and “Nutbush City Limits,” and later, during her triumphant comeback solo career, with deep, pop anthems like “What’s Love Got To Do With It” and “Simply the Best,” are lasting monuments to an extraordinary artist who helped to define both Black and rock music for generations.
So as a former Black radio disc jockey and program director from the 1980’s, when I learned of Ms. Turner’s passing last week, I was among those saddened that the entertainment world had lost another undeniable icon.
But then it dawned on me – Tina Turner and North Carolina had a connection few people today would recall, and it was an important chapter in Black radio history here that only I can tell now, one of the few left to remember it.
Back in November 1985, I helped to lead a statewide boycott by Black radio stations that refused to play Tina Turner records on the air, because the promoter of her Greensboro Coliseum concert refused to purchase any advertising time on Black radio stations in North Carolina.
As I recall, Ms. Turner was on a nationwide 140-city tour to promote her monster hit album Private Dancer, from which “What’s Love Got To Do With It” and other chart-topping hits came from.
The issue for us in Black radio was very simple. After Tina left her abusive husband Ike in the late 1970s, and struck out on her own, her career went nowhere for several years. She was finished. No one wanted to hear her music.
But in 1984, Tina suddenly remade herself with the Private Dancer album, and Black radio across the nation welcomed her back with opened arms when no one else would. It was arguably because of strong Black radio play, and resulting sales, that Tina got her second chance at fame.
Folks of my generation will recall the record business was much, much different in the early 1980s than it is now. MTV – a 24-hour cable television channel born in 1981 that virtually everybody watched because they wanted to see the latest music videos from their favorite artists, was a big, big player. But when MTV first began, many will recall it played just a few Black artists, and only in the middle of the night, because, “We have to play the music that we think an entire country is going to like. And certainly we are a rock ‘n’ roll station,” an MTV VJ once told popular White artist David Bowie.
Bowie, who employed Black music producers for his albums, had publicly complained in an interview. Motown punk funk artist Rick James went a step further and actually sued.
But MTV prided itself for being a powerful music video outlet that specialized in showcasing the major White American and European pop and rock musical acts of the day.
The breaking point came when Epic Records, owned by parent company CBS, released Michael Jackson’s history-making Thriller album with its first monster single Billie Jean. Unbelievably, MTV refused to play it because they considered Billie Jean to be too Black. CBS told MTV Networks, MTV’s owner, that it would pull all of their popular White music videos by Fleetwood Mac, Paul McCartney and others from the channel if it didn’t play Thriller.
The rest is history.
MTV capitulated, videos from Thriller were placed in heavy rotation on air, and soon it wasn’t long before MTV saw the wisdom of programming other great Black artists on the popular channel regularly.
One of them was Tina Turner.
This was important because of the way radio worked during those days. Only a few Black music artists like Stevie Wonder during the 1970s and 80s could “crossover” from traditional Black radio to White dominated Top 40 hits FM and rock radio. If you were a Black artist like Stevie on Top 40s radio, that meant you had a strong following in the White community. That was important not only to the Top 40s FM radio stations, but to concert promoters and record companies as well, who profited from the racial divide they created.
Back then, the key for successful Black crossover artists like Stevie, Michael, Prince and yes, Tina Turner, was Top 40s FM and MTV airplay. Black radio was only important for breaking new Black artists, because as far as record companies were concerned, it was easy to get their artists played on Black AM stations in small, medium and large markets across the country. And small stations like mine, 570WLLE-AM, a 500-watter in Raleigh, were only too happy to break new Black music for our audiences because that’s what they expected.
So the record companies and concert promoters felt they could treat us anyway they wanted.
But record companies were also doing something else then to fatten their wallets.
They would produce top tier Black artists like Michael, Prince and Tina doing songs for rock formats, in addition Black R&B and Top 40’s pop. Michael Jackson’s monster rock hit Beat It qualifies as a prime example of such a song that could be played in multiple radio station formats.
Tina Turner’s Private Dancer album also had a song or two that allowed her music to be played in multiple radio formats.
Multiple formats means more audience, more record singles and album buyers, and ultimately more concertgoers for the promoters.
And that’s where Tina Turner’s concert promoters ran into trouble here in North Carolina. They wanted Black radio stations like 570WLLE-AM – the one I was program director and a disc jockey at – to play Tina Turner’s music, but promoters did not want to spend the money to advertise on our radio stations the fact that she would be coming to the Greensboro Coliseum to perform.
Promoters felt they should get our Black listeners for free.
Back in the day, when a major Black act like Earth, Wind and Fire or Kool and the Gang came to North Carolina, it was usually through a Black promoter, and they traditionally played at the Greensboro Coliseum. Black radio stations all over the state would not only get the advertising buy, but local Black station WQMG-FM in Greensboro would also host the concert.
But that wasn’t happening with Tina’s show.
When I realized this, I got on the horn with my colleague, the late Alvin Stowe – program director at WDUR-FM in Durham, and some of our other colleagues in cities and markets across the state. They programmed small AM and FM Black radio stations too, and they were also upset that they were being deliberately overlooked by the promoters.
Black radio was where Tina had made her triumphant comeback before being played on Top 40s, rock and MTV, we said. Why were we being left out of the advertising buys?
We sent out a press release to the Associated Press and local news outlets, and soon, the whole state was talking about our boycott. I remember watching WRAL-TV news in Raleigh and seeing popular news anchor Charlie Gaddy talking about our story on air. We weren’t mad at Tina, but we were upset with her promoters and handlers on how they were treating us.
Thankfully, the public, Black and White, agreed.
According to a Nov. 21, 1985 article titled “Tina Turmoil Precedes Concert,” published in the Winston-Salem Chronicle, the Black radio stations that boycotted Tina Turner’s records were WLLE-AM in Raleigh; WDUR-AM in Durham; WAAA-AM and WAIR-AM in Winston-Salem; WEAL-AM, WQMG-FM and WNAA-FM in Greensboro.
In that article, WAAA-AM station owner Mutter Evans said, “This was our way of calling attention to the fact.”
And so what was the promoter’s response to our Tina boycott?
In that same article, Southern Promotions President Peter Conlon initially responded that he chose “…to advertise with stations where Turner’s music was popular.” But Peters then added that “85 to 90 percent of the people who have been attending Turner’s concerts thus far on her 140-city tour have been White.”
Apparently promoters were getting the concertgoers they wanted, based on what stations they were spending advertising dollars with.
Soon, with media and public pressure building, Southern Promotions changed its tune to say that Tina’s Greensboro concert was sold out, so they couldn’t advertise with us even if they wanted to.
That just made us angrier.
Finally, the controversy got so embarrassing for them, space was made at the Greensboro Coliseum for 100 extra seats for Tina’s concert, and advertising was bought on Black radio stations to sell those seats.
The Black stations began playing Tina’s Private Dancer album again, and Black program directors in North Carolina felt good that while all we got were peanuts in the end in terms of advertising dollars, we took an historic stand for ourselves, and our audiences.
I don’t know if what we did has ever happened again.
Now, 38 years later, we join millions of others across the world to commemorate Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Famer Tina Turner and her artistry. We have no idea whether she ever knew about our controversy, but make no mistake, we loved her then, and continue to love her now.
May Ms. Anna Mae Bullock – aka Tina Turner, rest in peace.
Editor’s note – Ms. Celeste Hinnant of Garner helped in the research of this story.