Stingray is campaigning for and championing equality because we realize that not doing so hurts us all: “Even those of us who are benefitting from inequality are not free from it,” said Steve Jones, VP Brands and Content at Stingray Radio. Here's what the Stingray Equality Campaign means to him, and to Stingray.
LB: So when people hear this and click the link, this blog post has to answer the question: What did I just hear? And WHY. Why are they hearing this on the radio? Let’s start there and you could explain your rationale…
SJ: Well, so we are privileged to have a license to broadcast and, while we’re a for profit company, we feel that we have certain obligations to the community to use our license and our voice responsibly. Last year, when George Floyd was murdered and Black Lives Matter movement really took off we met as a group and said how do we do something that’s not token… because so often brands are guilty for trying to do good work but really engage in tokenism for their own benefit… we didn’t want to do that.
We wanted to do something more substantive so we put together a campaign to air and dedicate a certain amount of airtime to this equality message, and the message changes every few months.
And we engage people on our team who are BIPOC and have a story to tell… One story that was very moving was from an Indigenous employee in Red Deer, who talked about growing up feeling ashamed of being Indigenous and it was only when he grew up and learned about his heritage that he was able to be proud of it. Another woman who works at Stingray of South Asian heritage is fourth generation Canadaian and still gets asked where she’s from… So little things like that shine a light on these things for the majority of people who are not part of any particular group besides, you know, caucasian, european heritage Canadians.
And we’ve gotten a lot of great reaction and then we created an initiative called One City - so we run these in all of our communities, we have an on air program called One Toronto - it dedicates air time each month to different specific causes, we have the on air messages on equality that’s on continuously and then layer that in with specific messaging about the BLM community centre going up in downtown Toronto, this month has focused on Indigenous issues we have very specific issues we address - and we have One Calgary, One Edmonton, One Vancouver and so on … so when we updated creative to new message, this Oh Canada message, this message really resonated with people and I think there are a bunch of reasons why: I think it’s a well written, produced, voiced piece of audio, and it immediately got a lot of reaction, so we added a video layer to it in order to allow us to share the message on social and other places where audio isn’t applicable. It’s been fantastic. It makes people think. It forces people to think and it’s important that people are forced to think, when we think about these things they are suddenly so simple. I have the privilege of seeing the world for a lens through a 50 year old, white male… when someone who is not a 50-year old white male says “here’s how I see the world,” that opens my eyes.
And we need to do that for each other. And so I think this messaging gets people's attention and forces people to think about the world from a different POV. .. Even saying something as simple as: some people don’t have the same freedoms that we do makes you wonder why… What I like about this message is that it forces your eyes to open a bit to other viewpoints and worlds. The people who are not enlightened to the world as someone else sees it, aren’t always bad people, they are just unaware people…. I deal with bad people, one who complained to the CRTC because racism is everywhere and never going away, why are we interrupting his enjoyment of the message, it’s good MLK… there will always be people who are simply wrong, you aren’t going to write that but what I am trying to do is reach people who are actually well intentioned but have never bothered to see the eyes through someone who might be indigenous or black or transgender, or disabled, or whatever. So when you say to people, there are people out there who can’t hold hands with the person they love, that opens people’s eyes a little bit.
LB: You made mention of how brands have used the moment for their own gain. So I am curious, in your mind, what is the role of brands like Stingray in the fight for equality, specifically how much power do you think there is in the medium of radio to affect changes and actions?
SJ: I think there is immense power and we underestimate the power of our voice even though radio is a traditional, terrestrial, sort of ‘old-school’ medium, it stils reaches almost 90% of Canadians on a weekly basis. Almost 90% of Canadians are exposed to radio and that is a higher number than are exposed to Facebook. Canada doesn’t have 90% of Canadians who are using the internet. So if 90% of Canadians hear a radio station every week, then we have a really big voice.
And one way this was phrased to me which really as moving was from a friend who is transgender, and she said that when we started airing these messages, she felt like a cool kid had showed up on the playground and made it okay to say things and be a certain way.
Our radio stations, if they are doing their jobs, are kind of the cool kid. We’re an entertainment medium, we play cool music, we are one of the entertainment sources, whether its movies or tv or whatever, we’re an entertainment medium, so when we say something and normalize something we can have an immense impact on how society views these things. We need to think about this both ways: in the positive messaging and avoiding the negative messaging.
Another thing we were talking about when we were brainstorming the radio was how culture is amplified also by giving space to artists and musicians and creatives…and I was sent a list of all these channels you have, which is incredible...
LB: So I am hoping you can talk about the power of music and the art form and how, you are right, it does help to normalize things. (“Stingray amplifies culture” ; “stingray passes the mic”)
SJ: The normalizing or mainstreaming of things like, for example, with suicide, we got involved a few years ago with a project to bring awareness to suicide. It is a leading cause of death among middle-aged men, it’s crazy. And there are communities in Canada, mostly in Indignnous communities that have higher rates of suicide than some of the deepest, darkest places on earth. So one of the things we did is that we went on this campaign, told our on-air talent, you are not allowed to ever say someone “committed” suicide because “committed” carries blame, you commit a crime, or commit an act. We don’t say people “commit” problems, you don’t “commit” cancer… so we just changed the wording to say this person died of suicide. When you say died of suicide, now the listener subconsciously has to open their mind that is a phrase that doesn’t make sense to them … so just changing a few words, we subconsciously open up people’s minds, and as a writer, you know the power of these words in certain orders and in certain ways, they are just incredibly powerful tools.
The music part is awesome because what people don’t realize when they are listening to music, is that they are engaging the right side of their brain that doesn’t care about logic, math, rational thought, it thinks imaginative, very creative way… and so when you are listening to music, that’s the side of the brain that’s engaged. When we can layer in a message about something very important to someone whose brain is in that mode it’s almost like the gates are open or doors are open for the absorption of that message in a way that isn’t there in other mediums. You know, when you are reading a website, newspaper, magazine, or watching a tv show, it’s different than listening to music because there is a visual, there is some logical thought going on. So I don’t think the messages carry the same weight. But when you find yourself singing along to a song, and then this message comes on, your brain is in a mode where it is open to new and unusual ideas. And so there is that to the music that’s important. And then there is also the alignment with the music… like, if that message about equality is surrounded by Billy Eilish and The Weeknd, it’s now been placed in a position to be as important to you as Billy Eilish and The Weeknd. There is something valuable in that.
LB: And the music itself is so diverse, that’s another thing I was thinking.
SJ: Absolutely. We definitely have work to do in some areas there - but as radio is kind of at the mercy of the cycle of music, and if you have a rich cycle of Black artists who are making incredibly good music, suddenly we’re playing a lot of Black artists, but then there are times where, usually by complete coincidence, a lot of core artists are out of cycle and they are working on new material, so there are times where the balance changes, and so I think as an industry we have to do better to always make sure that we are supporting those artists - especially in country music where there are very few black and very few female artists. And the ration to male/female is off there. It’s not like we don’t have work to do to get better and more diverse. A lot of the music we play speaks to a lot of those same issues, you know, almost every hip hop artist touches on the Black experience in their music, and similarly artists in country music talk about their music growing up. Everyone brings their own experiences to their songs.
Music is almost, you have a captive audience, listener, and you are almost able to subliminally send messages.
People sometimes wonder why they can remember the words to a song from 20 years ago but can’t find their keys. The lyrics to a song have subliminally layered themselves into your brain in a way you can never forget them. It’s really magical.
LB: One part of this ad that stood out to me was: And until we are all free, none of us really are. → I thought that was great, as it harkens to past activists, Emma Lazarus, a Jewish woman who first said something similar in the 1800s, MLK who said another version of it, so what does this message signify to you, coming from Stingray? What does it mean to you?
SJ: That line is very important to me and I am aware of those who have used it, Marcus Garvy used a version of it, and symbolically used it in Canada in a speech that Bob Marley later turned into a song called Redemption Song, where he said “Emancipation from your mental slavery.” So, you know, until we as a society are collectively all free from this awful inequality, none of us are free from it. Even those of us who are benefitting from that inequality are not free from it. Nobody is free from it. So I think that line is important because it signifies that, whether you are white or Black, or Jewish, or women, or men, or gay or straight or whatever you are, you have a role to play here, and that role it can be significant no matter who you are. Because we’re all sort of chained to that and until we break those chains, we’re all captive.
t’s so true and that phrase gets overused but it's so accurate: we are all in this together. You walk out on the street and if the person next to you isn’t equal to you or free to do the same things that you do, then you are not really free either. You are guilty of benefitting from that freedom they don’t have. That’s kind of the point that I was getting at earlier: the people who want to deny other people’s freedoms believe somehow that by giving the freedoms to other people, they somehow lose the freedoms themselves. That’s what’s amazing to me in going about this project and learning about this topic is that it’s not a zero sum game, if you don’t have freedom and I have a certain freedom that I can help you gain, I don’t lose anything. I helped you with something, and I didn’t lose anything myself. It’s not like you needed to borrow $10 and so I lost $10. We all win, we all benefit. It multiplies.
LB: Is there anything I forgot to ask you or anything we didn’t touch on about this campaign or Singray’s ambitions or actions that you’d like to say?
SJ: I personally believe that we do these things for two different audiences: the audience we reach with Stingray, whether it’s radio or tv or apps or any other products, we have an immense audience. But there is also our own culture inside our company, and I think it’s important that companies like Stingray do these things because it’s like, you are being reminded all the time that you are part of an organization that believes these things and you have a role to play in that organization, and in making these things a reality. I want to create a culture where people who might be uncomfortable somewhere else can be comfortable here. So this is a reminder to our own team and a reminder to people who see job ads. I want people to see that ad and say, I want to work for that company because they believe in important stuff. So there are multiple audiences. It’s not just about opening minds to radio listeners or tv listeners, it’s about communicating to all these different groups who are stakeholders in a better future.