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Censoring Satchmo? 

In a move intended to promote greater sensitivity in the wake of Sept. 11's terrorist attacks, a radio conglomerate that controls seven New Orleans stations has reportedly suggested that Louis Armstrong's 1968 hit "What A Wonderful World" be removed from the airwaves.

Last week, reports of a list of 150 banned songs began circulating on the Internet. The story was picked up by The New York Times and CNN, and the conglomerate, Clear Channel Communications Inc., of San Antonio, Texas, quickly posted a statement on its Web site stating that the "national 'banned playlist' does not exist."

But Dave Stewart, operations manager for the seven local stations as well as program director for KKND 106.7 "The End," says that some type of list was circulated among Clear Channel stations. "Clear Channel did not ask that any songs be banned, or suggest any songs be banned," he says. "But they did send out a list of songs and ask that stations evaluate their content to avoid eliciting negative responses from people in a difficult time. It is not mandatory. But we're trying to be sensitive."

Clear Channel Communications Inc. is the nation's largest radio conglomerate, with a reported 110 million weekly listeners on 1,213 stations across the country. The titles of some of the songs reportedly on the list suggest why they might have been deemed inappropriate, such as the Gap Band's "You Dropped a Bomb On Me," Soundgarden's "Blow Up the Outside World," and AC/DC's "Safe in New York City."

Other selections seem less obvious in their direct connections to the tragedies on Sept. 11. In addition to Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," songs not immediately linked to themes of destruction include Mitch Ryder's "Devil with a Blue Dress On," Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and the Beatles' "Obla Di Obla Da." Some of the songs reportedly on the list have overt social and political content, but they run the political spectrum from Neil Diamond's patriotic anthem "Coming to America" to protest songs such as John Lennon's "Imagine," Bruce Springsteen's "War," and U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

Not all the songs would be played on all Clear Channel stations, even in normal times. In New Orleans, Clear Channel holdings represent a diverse range of stations: KKND 106.7 "The End" (alternative), KUMX 104.1 (hit music), WNOE 101.1 (country), WQUE 93.3 (urban), WYLD 98.5 (urban adult), WDDY 1280 AM (urban), WYLD 940 AM (gospel). Stewart says that while most of the seven New Orleans Clear Channel stations are not affected by the list, playlists at KKND and KUMX have seen some changes. "[After receiving the playlist] we evaluated some of the content and reacted accordingly," he says.

Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been heard recently on KUMX, but Stewart declined to name which songs have been removed, temporarily or otherwise, from any station's playlists. "I'm not going to get into that," he says.

A national spokesperson for Clear Channel acknowledges that a list was developed in its headquarters, but adds that it differed from what has been circulated around the country. "One person in our radio programming department created the list with the best of intentions the day after the horrible tragedy," says Rebecca Allmon, director of public relations. "These were songs he thought might be offensive, might be insensitive, and he shared that with other program directors. That's not uncommon; we swap ideas all the time."

Allmon declined to name the list's creator ("I'm not going to hang him out to dry," she says) and stresses that the list was only a suggestion. "We did not make our stations endorse this list. It is not a corporate mandate. Radio is a local medium -- local programmers listen to their market. It is always a local decision."

Still, the story underscores concerns over the size and power of conglomerates, says David Freedman, general manager of locally owned and operated WWOZ 90.7, which largely features New Orleans and New Orleans-influenced music.

"I understand their angle -- every broadcaster does feel responsible about what goes on the air and what message it sends," Freedman says. "But [the circulated list] raises other issues, like when one company owns 1,300 radio stations, at what point do they have a preponderant effect on what people can hear? That's a legitimate question.

"If you own seven or eight stations, especially the big ones, the strong ones at 50,000 watts, then you control one-fifth of the dial, and reach up to one-third of the listening public, then you can affect a huge percentage of the city. Your decisions become pretty powerful."

As far as Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" being on the list, Freedman offers no explanation. "I'm puzzled about that," he says. "I can't even imagine what's troubling about that. Especially now."

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