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Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Thursday, 01 August 2002
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Programming and Content
When DirecTV was launched, it was an immediate success because of its unique and bountiful programming. Cable television in Los Angeles simply couldn’t provide content specialized enough for my tastes, for example, every Philadelphia Flyers hockey game for an entire season. The decision to buy DirecTV was easy and I have never looked back. The decision to buy XM is not nearly as easy. XM has about 100 channels (with eight new ones coming in August 2002) but the problem is that they are not nearly as valuable as what I got when upgrading to DSS TV from cable. Worse yet, the overall quality of the programming, on-air talent and production on the stations is shamefully bad. I think it was Bruce Springsteen who sang “57 channels (and nothin’ on).” That is frequently the inexcusable problem with XM radio.

The biggest programming problem with XM is the fact that no matter what channel I listened to over a four-month period, I have never once heard three consecutive songs in a row that I liked. I have about the widest range of musical tastes of anyone you will ever meet, so I am not that hard to please. The worst offenders for this phenomenon are the first few channels on the XM dial, which are dedicated to decades ranging from the 1940s through the 1990s. Having grown up in the 1980s, I often can find a jam such as a good Guns 'N Roses track from 1987 on the 80s station, logically located on Channel 8. The problem is that the next song is likely to be an urban-dance tune from Bobby Brown. Then, they’ll play Haircut 100 for a New Wave record. No G&R fan is going to hang for Bobby Brown, let alone Haircut 100. They just aren’t, so you end up spinning the wheel to look for something in the genre most closely associated with the mood you are feeling.

The rock genre is hyped as one loaded with tasty programming on at least six channels. The lead-off rock channel (channel 40) is called Deep Tracks. If you were ever interested in a radio station dedicated to nothing but stiff (aka non-hit songs) records – you got it. Hosted by burnout baby boomer, monotone DJs who seemingly keep the bong fired up during segues, Deep Tracks features the lamest songs you have ever heard from artists you may actually like. For example, if Deep Tracks is going to play an Areosmith song, they will go six cuts deep into a hit record like Gems, forgoing the actual hit songs from the album. You could then expect them follow it up with something like a 24-minute Grateful Dead jam of “Johnny B. Goode.” If the Osbournes haven’t been enough to get Gen X and Gen Y to stay off of drugs, Deep Tracks will accomplish feats that Nancy Regan couldn’t achieve in her fondest dreams.

For my tastes, the best and most coherent overall programming is called Boneyard, located on Channel 41. Boneyard features hard rock from new and classic artists like Van Halen, Metallica, Soundgarden, Motley Crue, Papa Roach, Alice In Chains, etc. While it is the station best targeted on the music I most often want to listen to, Boneyard suffers from the same affliction that every XM stations has – they can’t help but play the wrong record by a good artist. I love Rush and Boneyard will play Rush frequently, but you are not going to hear “Tom Sawyer,” “Spirit of Radio” or even “Limelight” as often as you’ll hear more obscure and less popular songs from newer albums. Strangely, Rush has a new, well-done record called Vapor Trails, but I have heard only one song from that record once, despite how well it fits into the format of Boneyard. XM unsuccessfully flies in the face of decades of radio research when they provide variety instead of repetition. Despite what listeners say about looking for variety of music, years of radio ratings prove the exact opposite. Listeners want to hear hit tunes in a relatively tight rotation when in an oldies format and Boneyard, as hard as it may be for me to accept at my age, is ultimately an oldies format with some new songs mixed in. If the program director for this format would cut back on the “deep tracks” which are supposed to be played on Channel 40, Boneyard would have more staying power as a channel for people who love hard rock. Variety could be accomplished better by rotating in and out songs on a weekly or even bi-weekly basis, but no matter what, any song that is to be played should be one that is a killer new track or a solid hit record in the genre. Currently, this is not the case. If XM had more listeners, it could tell just how few people were listening.

Programming irregularities go to new highs on the '60s and '70s stations. While an oldies format on traditional radio might play songs from the late '50s through the '70s or even a few from the early '80s, Channel 6, the '60s station, stays true to the decade. However, they have no specific musical genre or dedication to playing hit records. A Beach Boys song, paired with a Dave Clark 5 hit, rolled together with “Light My Fire,” makes for a musical nightmare. The '70s station is no better, with musical blocks that tie together Barry White, Donovan and KC and the Sunshine Band. The result is that, even if you like one or more of the songs, you are unlikely to hang out through songs that are so far from the core genre. XM, across the board, struggles with keeping the listener hooked on one station.

There are many more channels dedicated to all sorts of interests that fill out the XM roster. Some of the pleasant surprises I found were the Joint (yet another unnecessary drug reference) on Channel 101, which plays reggae that goes beyond the scope of just Bob Marley. Other neighboring stations take the world music theme to extremes. C-Wave on Channel 105 is good for some laughs with crazy world music from Cambodia, Vietnam and God knows where else. I defy you to stand more than one song on that station, however. The African station on Channel 102 is more tolerable, with artists who sound like they are all dreaming of the day Peter Gabriel will come to their town and sign them to a Real World Records deal.

There is quite a bit of news on XM for information junkies. Much of it is repackaged TV audio, which doesn’t translate well for me. Traditional radio news is better, because it is produced exclusively for radio. TV has a different cadence and feel, because it has a video element to it. It just doesn’t work that well on XM, but that hasn’t stopped XM from doing deals to get feeds from MTV, VH1, The Discovery Channel and other TV stations.

XM covers sports with feeds from The Sporting News, ESPN, ESPN News and others. It doesn’t have the scope of sports that satellite TV has with the availability of regional sports broadcasts. Much like my DirecTV subscription, I would pay to be able to hear the WIP broadcast of Philadelphia Flyers games. The best examples I have heard on XM are the national feeds on the network TV stations rebroadcast on XM. This issue highlights another key difference between XM and terrestrial radio. XM is a national media and terrestrial radio is a more regional media. This obviously affects the programming and it will be an issue for advertising. This is an area in which the traditional radio groups are crying foul, as XM is currently setting up powerful analog repeater towers that would “fill in” where the satellite left off. XM swears they have no plans to take XM local, which is the same line of garbage the cable TV industry gave out when they were setting up in the early 1980s. For now, XM needs to figure out how to make their product compelling enough to make traditional radio really worried.

Pay Radio With Commercials?
-The idea of pay radio is a new one and XM is clearly the leader. Sirius, another satellite radio hopeful, is a distant second in the race for a questionable market of consumers willing to pay for new car audio components, antennas, installation and a monthly service fee of at least $10. With recent XM press releases boasting of 137,000 total subscribers, there is not much to be proud of at this point from a ratings prospective. A good station in a major traditional radio market has more listeners actually listening in one day than XM has total nationwide. This begs the question: why the hell would XM run commercials at all? Sirius doesn’t, but their US subscribers make XM look powerful. People hate commercials on the Internet, they skip them with their TiVo on TV and they simply ignore them in print magazines. Traditional radio is riding for a fall with the rampant increase in commercial stop sets. The King of All Media, Howard Stern’s nationally syndicated morning radio talk show, can have commercial breaks that push 14 minutes long in some markets. Music-based stations were breaking for five to seven minutes two or more times per hour back in the dotcom boom of the late '90s to run even more ads to their audience. Listeners hated it and XM, so far, has blown their chance to exploit one of terrestrial radio’s biggest weaknesses. I will say there are barely any commercials on XM, but the fact that there are any with a $10 monthly charge is insulting and a foolish competitive decision.

In August 2002, XM is going to role out its first pay station with a special Playboy channel, which will cost an additional $2.95. The programming value on XM isn’t strong enough to be rolling out pay channels at this point, but sex does sell. Who knows, they may get some of their subscribers to sign up. But if XM wants to build momentum, they’d be well served to provide the large majority of their content as value included in the $10 per month. Historically, pay radio, in the form of cable radio, has had 99 percent of its subscribers fail to renew their subscriptions after the first year. I am not sure I am going to make it that far with my XM subscription and you’ll never meet a music lover who hates terrestrial radio more than I do.


 

 
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