Roman: This is 99% invisible.
Speaker 1: Hey, I can’t find nuthin’ on the radio.
Roman: I’m Roman Mars.
Speaker 1: Yol turn to that station.
Roman: I went to graduate school in Athens, Georgia, which is a great place to be from the ages of about 18 to 25, if you like going out to bars and listening to live music. Even though Athens is a fairly small college town, it’s had a huge and important music scene for decades. And the most famous band to come out of the Athens scene, undoubtedly was R.E.M.
Speaker 2: To be provocative right from the start. I’m going to say that R.E.M’s out of time is the most politically important album in the history of the United States.
Roman: And this provocateur is reporter Whitney Jones, though I have to say, I don’t think out of time is even the most important album in the history of R.E.M.
Speaker 2: Actually, my argument here has nothing to do with the music. This isn’t one of those, “Oh, it’s a soundtrack to a generation” or anything like that. Out of Time made such a huge impact because of its packaging. The box that Out of Time originally came in led to a bill being passed in Congress and an actual concrete law.
Roman: Let’s go back to 1985. The pop charts were full of Prince and Sheena Easton and the youth of America are being corrupted.
Speaker 2: Tipper Gore and a few other elite women of Washington form The Parents Music Resource Center or the PMRC for short. They put pressure on the creators and distributors of quote unquote objectionable music. Musicians and labels called the censorship. There were senate hearings about this and eventually those little black and white Parental Advisory stickers started appearing on albums.
Roman: This set off a wave of censorship across the country.
Speaker 2: In 1990, A Federal District Judge in South Florida ruled that the rap group 2 Live Crew’s album, As Nasty As They Want To Be was so obscene that it couldn’t be sold or performed within his jurisdiction.
Roman: Three days after the ruling, 2 Live Crew played a show in Broward County, Florida. And after the show, two members of the group got arrested.
Jeff: And it was a live performance I believe that they found obscene, with girls doing what would be like what my– twerking. I think it would be a very early version of the twerking.
Speaker 2: Jeff Eroff wasn’t there, he saw it on TV.
Jeff: And I just– it was just so offensive to me.
Speaker 2: Jeff was an executive at Virgin Records. And to be clear, he wasn’t offended by the raunchy lyrics or the twerking. He was offended by the arrests and the blatant censorship of the artist’s work. Jeff spent the next couple of days mulling this over and then he had a revelation.
Jeff: One of the reasons why politicians get away with things because there isn’t an anti-constituency. There was never anything to lose by baiting rock and roll because there was this canard that young people didn’t vote, and within the next two days, the idea came to me like fully formed in some way. And I came up with this name, Rock the Vote.
Roman: For Jeff Eroff, the idea behind Rock The Vote was simple, get young people to vote for politicians who wouldn’t censor music.
Jeff: Yeah, it was that simple. It was the idea, if you put kids in the game, the game becomes different. Politicians can no longer scapegoat music, they can’t keep using us as an excuse.
Speaker 2: So Jeff air off got about 60 people together in a Los Angeles hotel to talk about launching Rock the Vote. Frank Zappa was there. Past and present California Governor Jerry Brown was there. As were a bunch of other record executives.
Speaker 5: So there we are, part of this virtuous circle of record executives who have spent a lot of their career being criticized for destroying the youth of America. And it was sort of like in a very altruistic way. I think we can do something positive, we can get kids to vote, we can– and it’s cool.
Roman: Also in attendance was Jeff’s friend, also a record label executive, also named Jeff, Jeff Gold. He was working for Warner Brothers and one of his major projects at the time was trying to figure out how to package CDs.
Speaker 2: Compact Disc packaging was the hot topic in the record world in the late ’80s and early ’90s. CDs have been around for a few years at this point, but record stores still didn’t have a good way to display them. Here’s Jeff gold.
Jeff: When CDs first came out on the market, record retailers were kind of angry about them because their stores were formatted to display 12 and a half inch or 12 and a quarter inch squares. Albums.
Whitney: In other words, they didn’t have any stands or display cases for these new CDs. So somebody in the record industry said, “Look, if you put a CD jewel case inside of a cardboard box, that’s as long as a vinyl album and only half as wide, you can fit two of these long box CDs side by side in an LP Rack.” Problem solved.
Jeff: And the Record Retailer said, “Fine, perfect.” And so millions of these things out of nowhere started getting made.
Whitney: Record people loved the long box. They thought it was the future. A head honcho at EMI wrote this opinion piece in Billboard magazine in 1989 entitled, Why We Should Keep The CD Long Box. He writes, quote, “I want to see the music industry continue to thrive and prosper as one of the cornerstones of entertainment. And I think making full use of the 6×12 CD carton is one way to help us do just that.”
Roman: But not everyone loved the long box.
Jeff: Artists said, “Wait a minute, we don’t want you cutting down millions of trees to put our CDs in and then having people throw these things away. It’s an incredibly wasteful and bad thing to do for the environment.”
Roman: Because the thing about the long box is that it was never meant to be collected. It had the feel of a big Mike and Ike carton. When you bought a CD in a long box, you’d open it up, you’d take out the jewel case which had the actual CD and the album art in it and you toss the long box. There was no reason to keep it around.
Speaker 7: So REM have a record coming out in 1991 and they’re saying to me and to Warner Brothers, “There’s no way our record is coming out in a long box. We’re sensitive to the environment, this is a ridiculous thing, forget it.” And the Warner Brothers sales department is saying, “It absolutely has to come out in a long box or record retailers are going to penalize you.”
Whitney: And that’s when Jeff Gold got this idea. He could merge the two projects he was working on. They could use the CD long box to advance the Rock the Vote campaign.
Roman: But first, he needed a concrete political cause to connect it to, and Jeff Eroff had found just the thing.
Jeff: We were sitting there looking for a raison d’etre to get us into a political situation. And I’m reading Newsweek, or Time and there’s this column article about the motor voter bill. We just said, “We’re going to help these people from the motor voter bill. This was going to be our first thing we were going to do.”
Speaker 2: So there’s this Motor Voter bill that’s been bouncing around Congress since the 1970’s.
Roman: If passed, Motor Voter would allow people to register to vote at the DMV when you got a driver’s license. It also allowed you to register by mail or when you apply for social services like welfare or unemployment. Basically making it easier for lots of people including rock loving young people, to register to vote, by 1991, a few states had already adopted it but Congress had never been able to get it passed nationally.
Whitney: Jeff gold went to a political event in Hollywood about the motor voter bill and one of the speakers was Columbia sociologist and political activist, Richard Cloward. He said that writing to elected officials could help sway them on the issue. After Cloward’s talk, Jeff Gold went up and spoke with him.
Jeff: And went up and I started talking to him and I said, “What amount of letters would a senator or a congressman take note of on a particular issue?” And he said, “Oh, a 150, 200 that would really have an impact.” And I said, “Really that few?” He said, “Yeah, that people don’t write so getting 150, 200 letters about an issue would definitely make them sit up and take notice.”
Whitney: That weekend, Jeff Gold was riding his bike around Santa Monica.
Jeff: And I had this moment where it rushed into my mind this fully formed idea that we could take care of R.E.M. by turning their long box into a positive. If we put a petition on the back of the long box that would go to Rock the Vote saying I support the Motor Voter bill, and we could distribute it to their respective senators. And I knew we could generate an unbelievable amount of mail doing that.
Speaker 2: Jeff gold got on the phone with Jeff Eroff. And they agreed that this would be the strategy. They would turn the album long box into a piece of political machinery and they would flood Congress with support for the Motor Voter bill. That Monday, Jeff called R.E.M’s manager with the plan.
Jeff: And he said “Alright, let me call the guys and I’ll call you back.” I probably heard back from them within an hour and he said, “Great idea. They’re totally into it. Let’s do it.”
Speaker 2: So Out of Time hit the record stores on March 12, 1991. And then the petitions started rolling in.
Jeff: And I remember vividly, maybe four or five days after the record had come out. I mean, a very short period of time and they had bags full of these things. It was really incredible. Nobody could seem to put their hand on what the exact number of that we got of these were, but I remember thinking, wow, after three weeks we’ve got 10,000. I mean, that’s a 100 per senator that’s already half of what Richard Cloward said would make an impact. And these things just kept coming in in droves of Canvas bags full of them coming in.
Speaker 2: About a month after R.E.M. released the album, Rock the Votes political director plus two members of the hip hop group KMD, wheeled a shopping cart full of these first 10,000 petitions into a Senate hearing. And they just left them there for senators Wendell Ford and a very young looking Mitch McConnell. In May of 1992, after thousands of petitions and senate testimony, the Motor Voter bill passed congress but then President HW Bush vetoed it. This was in July, right in the middle of Bush’s reelection campaign. Bush’s opponent Bill Clinton took up Motor Voter as a talking point bashing Bush over his veto.
Roman: And the rest is basically history. Clinton wins in ’92. The bill comes back before the House. It’s actually the second bill that the house takes up in January of ’93. Motor Voter passes the house, it passes the Senate and then Bill Clinton signed it into law as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.
Woman: At the White House earlier today, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Voter Registration Act, commonly referred to as the Motor Voter bill.
Speaker 8: And we get invited to the White House for the signing ceremony. And it’s this totally surreal scene. Jeff and his wife are there. I’m there with my wife and all the people from Rock the Vote and Clinton at the signing. Talks about how Rock the Vote really helped to make the difference to get this bill passed.
Clinton: As I said, I have long supported the idea of Motor Voter. More than a year ago, I promised this president that I would sign HR2 and fight for its passage. I’m pleased to be able to keep the promise today that I made on this Rock the Vote card which still has my signature back in New Hampshire.
Speaker 8: Shaking his hands after the bill signing, we identified ourselves as Rock The Vote. He said, “You guys got this passed.” It was really one of the most surreal moments of my life.
Whitney: I want to stop a minute and point out just how bizarre this scene is. Remember Rock the Vote had formed in open protest against a censorship group that was started by the new vice president’s wife, Tipper Gore.
Roman: Those little black and white Parental Advisory stickers those were nicknamed Tipper Stickers.
Speaker 2: Tipper Gore’s husband was now praising Rock the Vote.
Speaker 10: And it’s a tribute to one group whose voice and organization was absolutely unprecedented. America’s young people, they rocked the vote, they got this done.
Speaker 2: So when Jeff Gold says–
Jeff: It was really one of the most surreal moments of my life.
Whitney: Yeah, I think surreal is probably the right word here.
Roman: What’s interesting here is that this campaign really could have only happened during a very brief period of time.
Speaker 2: Because before Clinton had even signed the motor voter bill, Jeff Gold had actually found a way to kill off the long box for good. He hatched a plan and he went to talk about it with the Chief Financial Officer at Warner Brothers, Murray Gitlin.
Jeff: I said, “Murray, how many of these things do we make a year?” And he said, “Oh, I don’t know, 90 million between the group. Something like that.” And I said, “How much do they cost?” He said, “Eh, 25 cents a piece.” I said, “Okay. So you’re talking about 20 to 25 million dollars a year. Warner music spends on long boxes.” And he said, “Yeah.” I said, “So what if we stopped making long boxes and we took that $25 million and gave it in the form of rebates to record retailers just to pay for them to reconfigure their bins.” And we did it as a one-time discount or payment and they got all the money we saved for the first year, and then for the rest of time, we’re saving $25 million a year.
Whitney: As Jeff gold tells it, the other Warner Brothers executives like this idea. They took it to the distributor, the distributor went for it and that was the end of the long box. Some stores got new racks to accommodate the long box free jewel cases. Others held on to their 12 inch bins but started putting CDs inside of these reusable plastic cartridges.
Roman: And record companies have been profitable and solvent ever since!
So, long boxes are gone. But the Motor Voter bill which after it passed became the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. That’s still very much a thing.
Whitney: Between 1995 when the law went into effect in 2012, the percentage of the voting age population that is registered to vote went up more than 10 points from 69.5% to 79.9. And in that same time span, more than 150 million voter registrations have been filled out at the DMV.
Roman: That doesn’t even include mailing registrations or registrations to social services for which the law also provides.
Whitney: So I think that proves it. No album is as important to politics in the US as R.E.M’s Out of Time.
Roman: But really their most important album– important of other things that actually really matter is Murmur.
Speaker 2: Musically. Of course, it’s not their best album, Automatic For The People is their Best Musical album.
Roman: Wait, how old are you?
Whitney: I’m 30.
Roman: You’re a child. You don’t know anything. Murmur.
Roman: It is two years after I recorded that, and my stance has softened a little bit. I will also accept Life’s Rich Pageant as the best R.E.M album. I sort of counted as R.E.M’s second first album. If you’re a fan, you know what I mean.
Roman: The reason I’m presenting this story again, is that it’s nearly time to vote. And I think that this election represents the most important we’ve ever had. Currently, over 40% of the voting age population does not vote. And this is a tragedy to me that 40% could set the entire agenda for the whole country and they don’t. Some are systematically disenfranchised and that is disgusting. But many just don’t vote for reasons that are mystery to me. Voting should not be viewed as an obligation. It is a joy, it makes you feel good. It’s an event you bring the kids to. Get information on how to register to vote by going to vote.usa.gov.
99% invisible was produced this week by Whitney Jones with Sam Greenspan, Katie Mingle, Avery Trufelman, Kurt Kohlstedt, Sharif Youssef, Taryn Mazza, Emmett Fitzgerald, Delaney Hall and me, Roman Mars. Whitney Jones is the co-host of the show Pitch which is an audible originals program about music. Whitney is on twitter at Whitney A. Jones. You could find out about pitch on the web at pitchpodcast.org.
We are project of 91.7 KALW San Francisco and produced on radio row in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.