Monday, December 1, 2008
Sirius-XM programming mashup
I didn’t immediately jump in and react to the programming mashup the two recently merged satellite radio subscription services, Sirius and XM, engaged in back in early November, combining some channels and eliminating others altogether. Three weeks after the fact, I’m ready to weigh in. The new Sirius XM is a dud.
Satellite, meet terrestrial. New Boss, shake hands with Old Boss. It’s freeform rock becoming AOR all over again. I’m pretty well convinced the ruination of a once viable medium is complete with the implementation of the same old tried-and-trues that have effectively sunk terrestrial radio as a source for music and entertainment: when in doubt (and there profit to be squeezed), just tighten up the format, play less music more frequently, play it safe, don’t offend the mean demographic or risk tune-outs, fire the old pros, and hire new blood for less, then expect increased income and a bigger audience.
Well, if you’ve just tuned in, maybe the new Sirius-XM sounds great to you. But you’re like me and have been subscribing to both services to get the full breadth of programming, the new Sirius-XM merger marks satellite’s devolution into the same ol’ same ol,’ just like old radio.
I subscribed to Sirius first and foremost for the two channels of National Public Radio programs on Sirius (minus Morning Edition and All Things Considered) and a number of music channels. My interest in XM was prompted by XM Public Radio including Bob Edwards, C-SPAN, and the POTUS politics channel, as well as X Country, Willie’s Place classic fiddles-and-steel country, Folktown, the 50s and 60s rock channels, Deep Tracks classic rock, Bluesville, the offbeat Fine Tuning and Audio Visions atmospheric soundscapes, occasionally the rap channels when Mike “5000” Watts and his Screwed Up Clique from H-Town were doing their thing, and XMX 2, home of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Hour on Wednesdays, in which Dylan plays Mr. Disc Jockey, spinning obscure gems dug up by his hep producer, Eddie Godoretsky, and Tom Petty’s show on Thursday (real cool record collector songs, dull announcer)..
Every blue moon, I’d tune a baseball game and check if there was a Dodgers home game and Vin Scully was calling the inning, just to hear the Master. Similarly, I’ve occasionally found myself in the car on Sunday afternoons and checked out the NFL games.
My Sirius music choices were the 50s, 60s channels, Classic Vinyl album rock, the Underground Gararge for trash rock (especially when Kim Fowley and Andrew Loog Oldham were on), Left of Center for new college rock, Outlaw Country when Cowboy Jack Clement was telling stories, Real Jazz, and most of all Sirius Disorder because it was in the spirit of freeform radio of yore – a semi-random, all-over-the-wall Jack Radio with brains - particularly on Friday afternoons and evenings when David Johansen’s totally goofy, wholly riveting Mansion of Fun show aired.
That was before the switch.
After a few weeks of tuning in, here’s what’s transpired since, as far as I can tell.
The 50s and 60s channels merged (as did the 70s, 80s, and 90s outlets) with Sirius’ programming largely taking over, meaning Cousin Brucie, Norm N. Nite, and broadcasts from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That comes at the expense of XM’s wonderful Flashback Fridays on the 60s channel that featured transcriptions of great stations from the sixties such as WLS, KLIF, and KHJ.
There are a few upsides with the merged programming. XM’s Jonathan Schwarz, the World’s Leading Sinatra authority, has been reunited with his hero Frank again every afternoon after Standard Time was merged into Siriusly Sinatra, the channel Nancy Sinatra authorized a year ago, effectively ending the run of Frank’s Place on XM. Sirius rightfully owns the Real Jazz channel with jocks who have deep ties to the New York scene including shows hosted by Gary Burton and Blue Note’s Bruce Lundvall, along with the addition of Wynton Marsalis’ program from XM’s now-defunct jazz channel. Unfortunately, the contemporary jazz channel on XM has gone away altogether and I’ve noticed some semblances of Smooth Jazz creeping into the Real Jazz music mix. Sirius listeners can now hear Bob Dylan’s eclectic once-a-week Theme Time Radio Hour on Deep Tracks, which is now one of Sirius’ album rock channels as well as Tom Petty’s program. Note: rock channels on both Sirius and XM played more variety of classic rock than their over-the-air free radio rivals.
Two changes, though, have me pondering cancellation.
XM’s X Country was eliminated altogether and replaced with Sirius’ Outlaw Country despite the two channels not having much in common. X Country was pure Americana with a folk bent and featured three particularly entertaining weekly programs – Texas Fred’s Zydeco Show, the most honest, best sounding zydeco program anywhere, Robert Earl Keen’s Texas Uprising, and Dave Alvin’s smart Nine Volt Radio folknrootsathon. Outlaw Country, which has its own charm, is less about Texas Country than it is contemporary Southern Rock aimed at the NASCAR crowd, as served up by growly, yahoo jocks such as Mojo Nixon and some ex-rassler dude. X Country and Outlaw Country are oil n’ water.
On the other side of the aisle, the disappearance of my favorite Sirius music channel Disorder, replaced by XM’s The Loft, a folk rock singer-songwriter channel (think Dan Fogelberg), is a total pisser. Disorder mixed it up like free form radio from the late 1960s used to. You never knew what you were going to hear, just that whatever it was would be interesting music. David Johansen and his Mansion of Fun captured that essence bouncing from the Carpenters’ “Close to You,” to the Ronettes to Maria Callas to brokedown blues and the Stooges with lots of Latin son and African high life, interspersed with David Jo’s nuggets of Buddhist wisdom (he never announced what he was playing). Once a Friday afternoon ritual, Johansen is evidently still on, but only at midnight on Wednesdays on the Loft. Unacceptable.
Spanish listeners are similarly ticked. What were once five Latin music channels on each service has dwindled down to one, although there’s Spanish CNN and ESPN.
Truckers, satellite radio’s first adapters, are unhappy with programming changes to the Open Road Channel on XM, once the showcases of the unique power of satellite to cater to a niche audience like terrestrial radio could not. On the other hand, to get licensed to do business in Canada, both services have several French music channels, which is fine for Francophones in North America but effectively shuts out the largest minority in the United States, who happen to be avid radio listeners; Spanish radio stations generate huge ratings in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and other major markets across the country.
Jazz listeners on XM have lost their contemporary jazz channel and the Fine Tuning and Audio Visions channels that mixed New Age, classical, album rock, and jazz..
And I hear they’re jacking with Willie’s Place and Open Road, the truckers channel on XM catering to satellite radio’s earliest adapters. Note to Sirius-XM Dudes, mess with Bill Mack at your own expense.
The watering-down of the programming began as soon as both services were on the air six years ago. Three years ago, Folk and World Music were dropped from Sirius and World Music disappeared from XM Radio. In their place, channels were dedicated to playing one artist exclusively, such as Elvis, Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and the Grateful Dead, or branded with personalities such as Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, Eminem’s Shade 45, BB King’s Bluesville, and Little Steven’s Undergound Garage.
The emphasis has apparently shifted to Howard Stern, the 800 lb Gorilla of Sat Rad, sports (NFL, MLB) and talk – not so much because it is unique content (often as not, it isn’t), but because talk uses less bandwidth, which is why entertainment channels that have mixed music with the talk are being leaned by management to drop the music and focus on talk exclusively (which means no song royalties to pay). No wonder most entertainment channels no longer broadcast in stereo.
As in the case of terrestrial radio, satellite has evidently concluded showcasing music is not the way to rope in an audience. It was bad enough once I figured out most of the music programs were taped in advance or voice-streamed, even though the announcer sounded live in studio. Still, paying to hear music with no commercials, theoretically programmed by humans hip to good sounds (I know now that’s not always the case), was worth the price, despite the steady decline of eclectic music that beyond mainstream.
Increasingly, music announcers have been forced to double-up, doing shows on two and even three channels (is it me or is Pat St. John on five channels now?) in order to save money. Sure, that makes the bean-counters happy. But it will come at the expense of dissatisfied listeners like me.
As mobile WiFi and WiMax Internet get closer to reality and affordability, the one edge Sirius and XM could claim was content you couldn’t find anywhere else. Now that’s not so much the case.
But perhaps the most glaring shortcoming has been lousy customer service. Sirius and XM never made it easier for listeners, requiring them to either buy a new car or rig up their existing vehicle with a radio that was clunky, not easy to use, and rarely meshed with the existing car radio. The way the November programming changes were done overnight, without any warning to customers nor any solicitation what listeners might want to hear indicates management at the top doesn’t care what their customers think. No matter what business one happens to be in, that kind of attitude poisons the business model, no matter how worthy it might seem.
So speaking as one of 20 million subscribers, all I can say to the powers that be is, you screwed the pooch when you screwed up my radio. You deserve what's coming.
Churn, baby, churn.