by Greg Cunningham
The world must come together
“Check your egos at the door.”
This sign, inscribed by Quincy Jones, greeted 46 world-famous singers who showed up at the A&M Studios in Los Angeles the night of January 28, 1985, to record We Are the World for USA For Africa to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. A drought of a magnitude never seen in the region had caused famine-scale food shortages. Thousands were dying every month and horrific images of starving children haunted nightly news broadcasts around the world.
The song soared up the charts as soon as it was released, juiced by a promotion hatched by Georgia DJs Bob Wolfe of WROM-AM and Don Briscar of WKCX-FM that brought it to a wide audience, including President Ronald Reagan aboard Air Force One.
Wolfe and Briscar created what may have been the first viral campaign of modern-day pop culture. On April 5, 1985, the duo encouraged radio stations around the country to play the song at the same moment, 10:50 A.M. EST. In an interview days before the broadcast, Wolfe told the Associated Press that their hope was to “get the point across that we really are the world.”
When the moment arrived, their success shattered all expectations. An estimated 8000 radio stations in 25 countries around the globe played the song, including all-news station WINS in New York and country music station WWWW in Detroit, which suspended their usual programing to air the 6 minute 33 second track.
Hearing the song must have been a jolt to millions of office workers across America as the music service Muzak piped it in to their elevators. President Reagan, aboard Air Force One, asked the crew to broadcast the simulcast from a radio station on the ground to the passengers aboard the plane.
Networks such as AP Radio Service, NBC Radio, the BBC, Voice of America and Armed Forces Radio all joined in. For the duration of one song, the world seemed truly united by the hopeful prophecy of its lyrics.
All this happened without the internet, email, cell phones or social media. All it took was the effort of two guys who worked at a local radio station who created a cause the world rallied around.
As we inch back toward the life we knew prior to March 2020, the global pandemic has reminded us that the world is smaller than ever. No longer can countries or even individuals isolate themselves from events taking place in faraway places. The ease of travel coupled with digital communication options can easily make a local happening into a global event.
Yet we seem to be more splintered than ever. Conflicts surrounding global warming, immigration and trade pit country against country. Even at home, there is no agreement on voting rights, education funding, taxation or supporting food security for families. We are more fractured than ever.
But in 1985, 46 musicians who were often maligned for the rock lyrics they wrote, came together and raised tens of millions of dollars for famine relief in a distant land. With nothing but the telephone, two DJs got 8000 radio stations to suspend their usual formats and play the same song at the same time. Today it takes just a few keystrokes on Twitter to spur a viral storm. But in 1985 it was a herculean task, yet it all came together in just a few weeks.
Bob Geldof, the British music producer and political activist who was inspirational in the gathering of USA For Africa, addressed the artists the night of the recording session. He reminded them that “The price of a life this year is a piece of plastic seven inches wide with a small hole in the middle. What’s happening in Africa is a crime of historic proportions. I don’t know if we can conceive of having nothing; but having nothing is not having a cardboard box to sleep under when it’s minus 10 degrees, not having water to drink.”
The problems of 1985 may not be as jolting today, but they still persist. In this country alone, an estimated 1 in 4 families suffered from food insecurity during the past year. With a pandemic raging and leaders unable to agree on how to support the millions in need, maybe we need to ask musicians and radio stations to step up once again.
The efforts of Geldof, Jones and many others forced us to confront an issue a world away and take action to help. If musicians could check their egos at the door and accomplish such an amazing feat in 1985, imagine what we could accomplish today with the technology we have at our fingertips– if only our leaders and all of society would check their own egos and “heed a certain call, when the world must come together as one.”
Greg Cunningham is a Learning Specialist with JFYNetWorks and a former DJ.
Other posts authored by Greg can be found here.
Official We Are The World video found here.
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