In today’s Washington Post, Frank Ahrens has a very long opus on XM satellite radio, the history of FM, and the person in whom they intersect, Lee Abrams:
- Why does radio sound the way it does today? Why does it sound like it’s been prepped, packaged and served up in easy-to-digest bites, like tiny bits of Spam stuck on toothpicks?
We’re talking about music radio, so we’re talking about FM. Staticky AM remains the province of news, sports, talk and such utility-style information. Silken FM, as it has been for the past 35 years, is the home of music, thanks to its static-free stereo sound.
Owing to a growing sophistication in audience research, light-speed consolidation of radio ownership and the attendant rise in value of FM stations, the commercial FM dial has been essentially reduced to six musical formats: Pop/rock, hip-hop, country, classical, Spanish-language and variations on the theme of “adult contemporary,” a sort of light pop or R&B. Research has shown radio owners that these are the moneymaking formats, and this is where they’ve flocked. Swept off the dial are niche formats, such as blues, bluegrass, easy listening and jazz, except for Kenny G-style “lite jazz,” which falls neatly in the adult contemporary category.
Today’s broadcasters will publicly tout what they call the diversity of the radio dial, but they know better. “It’s not like the old days,” they lament, though never in public.
….FM still manages to capture that magic, once in a while. But the response FM increasingly engenders is, “I’m so sick of that song.”
But are we sick enough to pull out our checkbooks? Lee Abrams and his colleagues at XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc. are betting their reputations and considerable money that we are. XM is a fledgling business, a company that beams satellite radio to your car or home for a monthly fee. Abrams, an FM radio legend for more than 30 years, is the man who dreamed up XM’s 100 channels. He thinks XM can find that perfect song at the perfect moment for enough paying listeners that it can became a sustainable business.
He arrived at XM five years ago like a man stumbling onto an oasis, saved from what he believed had become the wasteland of FM. At XM, he was told to create a new kind of radio. There would be no howling morning shows, no dumbed-down deejay blather and almost no commercials. It would be like starting HBO all over again, except starting with what HBO has become — the sophisticated “Sopranos,” not the polka shows and second-rate movies that marked the channel’s early days. It would be a wonderland.
….For our purposes, Abrams’s story — and, in a way, XM’s — began on a summer night in 1967, on a sidewalk outside a grungy VFW on Chicago’s South Side. Abrams was 15, skinny and longhaired. Teenagers were rolling out of a sock hop, where they had just heard a local cover band called the Dimensions of Thyme play “Louie, Louie,” “In the Midnight Hour” and other garage standards. Abrams buttonholed a sock hopper and his best girl and asked, “What kind of music would you like to hear the Dimensions of Thyme play?”
The teens were sick to death of the fluff they heard on AM Top 40 radio, brought to them by grown-ups. They and their friends listened to albums by new bands, bands with edge — the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Yardbirds. That’s who we want to hear, they told Abrams.
He dutifully wrote it down. He grabbed another sock hopper. And another. The Thyme began altering its playlist to reflect the desires of its audience.
It turns out that Abrams was the manager of the Thyme, and the band’s middling guitar player. But on this day, on this Chicago street corner, he was inventing the thing that would eventually change the way radio sounded for the remainder of the century. What he was doing was primitive, but primitive in the way that the Wright Flyer was primitive. Abrams was doing audience research — finding out what listeners wanted to hear, as opposed to what his band mates wanted to play.
….On New Year’s Day 1973, Abrams launched what he called “Superstars.” It was radio’s first album-oriented rock format and it broke rank with traditional stations by promoting artists, not songs. Abrams stations would play lesser-known songs by well-known acts, such as Ted Nugent and Eric Clapton. Playlists would be largely taken from the hands of the deejays and assembled by consultants like Abrams and station managers. They, in turn, would carefully monitor listener preferences and reactions via focus groups, exit polls and comment cards placed at record stores.
It would prove to be the Model T for FM rock formats — the template for all that would come after it.
Step One in the Superstars rollout handbook: Fire the deejays.
Back to the present:
- After the layoffs, Panero and the XM board were faced with the task of raising $400 million within the next few weeks to keep the company going. With XM/AM/FM radios optional in 25 models of 2003 GM cars, he is confident he can meet his projection of hitting 1.2 million subscribers by the end of this year. The second-generation XM radios are more user-friendly than their predecessors. An XM boombox has been rolled out. But the company is still a long way from its break-even number, which has now been pushed up to 4 million subscribers by the end of next year. The question that lingered more than a year ago — will people pay for radio? — has been partially answered. Some will. But will enough?
“The money we’re raising now is to continue the growth of the service,” Panero said in an XM conference room in early December. “Macro-economic forces have slowed us down or hindered the process, but the economy is painful to everybody.” He’s thankful that XM has more than a year under its belt. “I think if we were starting from scratch today,” he said, “I don’t think satellite radio would’ve gotten off the ground.”
On December 23, XM got an early Christmas present: $450 million in new financing, a combination of payment deferrals to GM and new cash. “We believe we have achieved full funding through cash flow breakeven,” Panero said in a statement.
From Day One, XM has been an attractive product. Now, it must prove it is a good business.
I bought an XM satellite radio for my car just after Christmas 2001. For the first few days, as expected, I spent most of my time on Channel 44, a station called Fred. It is a “classic-alternative” channel that plays the music I grew up with: R.E.M., Clash, Cure, the Jam, the Housemartins, the Smiths, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson. The sort of stuff that has almost no home on FM radio these days. Blissfully, there are no commercials on Fred. Another appealing feature of XM: The name of the song and artist playing appears in LCD display….
Ahrens likes XM – what music freak, or even fan, wouldn’t? Who would turn down 70 music channels, few or no ads, little generic babble? I don’t have XM, but I do have Music Choice through my cable TV, which affords 45 music channels with song and album titles, artist name, trivia and facts, and cover art. It’s the coolest, about my only complaint is the lack of jazz separation, with only a generic “jazz” channel and thedreaded “smooth jazz,” wich is really just R&B-flavored instrumental pop – jazz it is not (there are also channels for “singers and standards,” which touches upon vocal jazz, and “big band and swing,” which was the one era when jazz and pop converged to each’s mutual benefit). I’d like to see “avant garde jazz,” “cool jazz,” “fusion,” or even just a breakdown by decade like they do for pop and rock.
They could also do with a “worldbeat” channel, but worldbeat can be found via the “electronica” “soundscapes” and “pulse” channels (“pulse” can be found hidden within the “sounds of the seasons” channel which is only seasonal for Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras, Oktoberfest, and Fourth of July, it’s downbeat and ambient the rest of the time, and is a groove indeed.