In March, HBO's harrowing four-hour, two-part documentary Leaving Neverland reexamined allegations made by Wade Robson and James Safechuck that Michael Jackson had repeatedly sexually abused them when they were children in the 1980s and 1990s. And the explosive program had the late star's fans — as well as radio programmers — fiercely debating whether his hits would, or should, be played again.
The backlash was fast and fierce. Reviewers predicted the film would devastate Jackson's legacy; Oprah Winfrey agreed to sympathetic interviews of Robson and Safechuck on HBO; radio stations in New Zealand and Canada pulled Jackson's music. In response, Jackson's family called the allegations a "public lynching," pointing out that Jackson, who was found innocent of child-molestation charges in a 2005 trial, was not around to defend himself. The late singer's estate filed a $100 million lawsuit against HBO. (The estate declined to comment.)
In the immediate aftermath, U.S. radio airplay of Jackson's catalog dropped precipitously. According to a Billboard analysis of Nielsen Music data, in the four weeks prior to Leaving Neverland, his songs averaged 14,000 spins per week at radio, while in the 31 weeks afterward, through Oct. 3, stations played his music an average of 11,000 times. The radio audience for Jackson's music fell 32.1% during this period.
Yet people kept listening to Jackson's music. During the same 31-week period, Billboard found that streaming consumption of Jackson's catalog never saw a decline — on-demand streams of Jackson's catalog actually increased by 22.1%, outpacing the industry's 21.8% growth.
"After I saw the documentary and played Michael Jackson, I got on the mic and said, 'I hope no one here saw the documentary,' and people didn't say a word," says Jeff Wittels, owner and DJ at Retroclubnyc, a New York dance club that spins '70s, '80s and '90s hits. "They couldn't care less."
WFEZ Miami, which reaches 1 million listeners, "backed off" on the amount of spins of Jackson's music after the documentary aired, according to branding and program director Gary Williams. "But as far as complaints go, I maybe got two emails," he says. "As soon as we went back [to playing Jackson's music], we got a positive response."
"These are some of my top-testing songs, and you want to give the listeners what they want," adds WRRM Cincinnati program director Brian Demay. "If the listeners haven't complained, don't sacrifice your product."
Such listener loyalty bodes well for the Jackson estate, which has been rolling out new projects including a Broadway musical, set to debut in August 2020, and a 1,000-copy box set containing LPs and Blu-ray discs. Sony reps were prepping the box set before Leaving Neverland, and Scott Carter, senior vp marketing for Epic Records and Legacy Recordings, says the allegations had no impact on the release: "The basics for this were drummed up before that even happened."
"We got more emails saying, 'Thank you for playing this' versus 'Why are you playing it?' " says WALR Atlanta branding and program director Terri Avery. "And what would Halloween be without 'Thriller'?"
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of Billboard.