Leaving Neverland is a two-part documentary built around the stories of two men who claim that Michael Jackson repeatedly sexually assaulted them when they were kids. Its portrayal of Jackson as a pedophile didn’t exactly come out of the blue, but the credible, emotionally wrenching way it presents their stories is prompting a heated reassessment of his legacy. Now radio stations around the world are wondering if they should continue to play Jackson’s music.
Twenty-three stations in Quebec owned by Cogeco Media have banned Jackson, including three major stations in Montreal. “We are attentive to listeners’ comments, and last night’s documentary created reactions,” the company said in a statement.
MediaWorks Radio and NZME, the two largest radio networks in New Zealand, have both said they will not play Jackson’s songs. The content director of Mediaworks said in an interview on one of the stations that the move was made to ensure “that our radio stations are going to play the music that people want to hear.” Additionally, publicly funded broadcaster Radio NZ said it would only play Jackson’s music as “part of a news story or to provide color around a commentary piece.”
In neighboring Australia, radio network Nova Entertainment Company has also banned Jackson’s music.
What’s unclear is how far-reaching these bans are. Are the songs Jackson recorded with the Jackson 5 when he was a child himself included? What about the parts of his solo discography that predate the accusations?
In the United States, responses from radio stations have been more muted. In a remarkable display of buck-passing, Cumulus Media, the second-largest network in the country, told Variety that it’s “never in favor of censorship” while it lets local program directors “the right decision regarding airplay for their communities.”
Cumulus seems to be part of a consensus among American radio networks that it’s best to wait and see. These are old allegations, after all, and it’s possible that they fade from public consciousness again, creating pressure to reverse any bans instituted now. On the other hand, if Jackson’s reputation is permanently shattered it’s not a good look to have issued a statement supporting the late singer and promising to never ban his music.
It’s simply too early to tell if Jackson will become a pariah or, because of his body of work and the millions of people who don’t believe a word of the documentary, it becomes OK to listen to and broadcast his music again.