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XM Satellite Radio Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 August 2002
Article Index
XM Satellite Radio
Page 2
Page 3

The Downside
Poor programming is the biggest weakness of XM. The technology is a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. They have successfully raised all sorts of money, but failed to use it to hire talented programmers to develop exciting and well-programmed stations that would blow away traditional radio. While you have to commend XM for taking some chances with programming when terrestrial radio rarely does, the unfortunate fact is that they have, In my opinion, failed with nearly all of the stations in their present lineup.

The production and channel branding on the stations is pitifully bad, with disturbingly annoying “totally awesome” '80s jingles that last not just five seconds like on a terrestrial radio station, but 15 seconds or longer. They are so embarrassing that you are forced to change the station even if you suspect a good song might be next on the playlist. Even worse, every few hours this same '80s station remixes a bunch of unrelated '80s pop songs into a “Toe Jam” that is predicated by a hopeless promo that sounds like the scruffy-voiced guy who sang the song “Double Dutch Bus.” The songs are poorly mixed just like one of those Saturday Night Disco shows I used to hear on the radio when I was growing up in Philadelphia. XM could learn quite a lesson from the DJs at KCRW in Los Angeles as how to mix up a musically compelling set of related tunes.

On a number of XM stations, the DJs use what some would consider, foul language. Now, anyone who has ever watched me play golf knows I am no saint when it comes to my language but it is definitely a shock when you hear the DJ on Boneyard saying “fuck” in the middle of a set. Moreover, the DJs don’t come on and say, “That was Van Halen’s 'Little Guitars'. I saw David Lee Roth a few nights ago play that tune and it fucking ROCKED!” They are just using the term as verbal punctuation, which is less effective. On the comedy channels, the more colorful language is more effective and can add to the quality of the programming. There is nothing worse that having a bunch of bleeps on the “five o’clock funnies” on KLOS in Los Angeles. XM certainly beats the pants off of traditional radio in the comedy category.

After four months with XM, I have had nearly all of my friends and scores of entertainment and audio/video execs in my car to hear this new technology known as XM radio. None of them have bought it and I don’t think there is any chance they ever will. It is crystal-clear radio programmed for burnout hippies, but hippies with taste will feel distaste for the poor programming, no matter how far their synapses have deteriorated.

By updating the channel roster coming later this month to include better electronic and hip-hop channels, XM executives obviously know that they need to make changes to the lineup. I am just not sure they understand how bad their problems are. My recommendation is to focus on genres and figure out how to make them so compelling that if you love classical music or death metal, the XM offering will be so good and so unique and so well-produced that you can’t resist the $10 per month temptation. It isn’t that $10 per month is so much for us. Millions are willing to pay for Internet dating, cell phones and satellite TV, but the value of the XM service needs to be higher.

Next, XM needs to spend heavily, to steal the some of best talent from the entertainment industry. With one radio group owning over 1225 radio stations at this date and a decreasing demand for good consultants, it isn’t hard to find great programmers who can produce stations that are exciting, cutting-edge enough for XM without skipping the simple basics of radio, such as the fact we want to hear hit songs, no matter what anyone thinks at XM. There are other ways to improve content, including syndication of good programming. I bet Westwood One has thousands of great converts from topnotch bands just waiting to be syndicated. How about a rock concert channel that stays true to a genre but mixes in rare and unheard live versions of hit songs? How about doing a deal with Westwood One to get live, exclusive concert feeds for a show like a Bruce Springsteen date and broadcast it on a classic rock channel – blacked out in the city unless the show sells out – while selling an exclusive batch of tickets to XM subscribers on the XM website or on an 800 number promoted on air? In this case, you’d get programming on XM that you don’t get on regular radio.

The hunt for new talent must be key with XM. Creating DJs and developing artists who you can hear frequently on XM but not on radio would differentiate satellite radio from terrestrial radio. Hip Los Angelenos know that KCRW has some of the coolest new music on the planet spinning during any number of shows, ranging from Morning Becomes Eclectic to Chocolate City to DJ Jason Bentley’s Saturday night electronic show. If XM had these talents, you could count on radio groups to swoop in and steal the up and comers without a question. XM could easily do the same with hopes of radically increasing the quality of their bountiful offering of stations.

XM is a very new technology and, as a technology, it is extremely cool and worthy of its technological hype. As a form of entertainment, XM simply falls flat on its face. It is poorly programmed and marketed to entirely the wrong audience. There are some signs of change at XM, but I urge you to spend a good amount of time with XM at a dealer before you switch out your head unit in your car. I was wowed by XM for the 20 minutes I played with it at the CES convention in 2001. Upon further review, despite my absolute hatred for the radio industry and its own host of problems, I am not impressed with XM. There is so much potential in the technology and the changes that need to be made are creative, not technological. Let’s hope that XM gets the message. Until then, I’ll try not to cringe when I see the charge on my AMEX each month.

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