The Beautifully Unexpected Advocacy Campaign Of ‘Runaway Train’

January 2, 2019

Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum never said Runaway Train was about homeless kids. The song is about depression. That’s pretty clear in the lyrics. But no matter. When Tony Kaye presented the band with the idea of turning the video into an awareness campaign for runaway kids, he thought why not. It fits. Maybe it will do some good in the world.

Boy did it ever. The decision set in motion a groundbreaking advocacy effort, featuring a song that would earn the band a Grammy and a video that would be viewed by the world on an endless loop throughout 1993. It set a new standard for how bands can use their platforms for public good. “We were able to turn a brazen promotion item into a public service announcement and we got away with it,” says Pirner in a fascinating and revealing 2016 article in MEL magazine.

Elizabeth Wiles was one of the children in the video. She had gone missing from her home in Arkansas at age 13 and stayed missing for two and a half years, causing tremendous anxiety to her family, who reported her name to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. She was leading a hardscrabble life in California when she saw her face in the video. She broke down. A week later she gathered the strength to call home.

Her mother picked up the phone. Wiles asked if it would be OK if she returned. Her mother wept and said she wanted nothing more.

Today she’s married and leading a happy life. And the song continues to play a special role in her life. “I hear it a handful of times a year,” she said in the article. “Sometimes we’re at a store and they’ve got the music playing in the background. That song comes on, and of course my husband now knows everything about it. We’re shopping and we both pause like, Okay nobody else knows the meaning of that to us.”

Wow. And what’s remarkable is Wiles isn’t the only one who has such a personal connection to the song. Kaye knows of 25 other children who have been reunited with their families because of it. And who knows how many others there are? And remember, this isn’t even the same association that the songwriter intended. Wild, right? Sometimes you just have to go with what feels right. Pirner did. And there are happier families in the world as a result.

The question for the rest of us is this: what can we get away with? And what’s keeping us from trying?