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Out of this world: XM, Sirius and satellite radio

By Jon Johnson, November 2004

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Continues Lindy, "The other thing that I found significant is what do we do with our image? I think the jocks should sound different than on radio. I think there's a great responsibility and obligation on our part to be better-sounding than radio. We don't want to be different just for the sake of being different. We want to do something that may feel unnatural to FM jocks at first, which is to put them into a framework where they feel comfortable knowing that they don't have to backsell eight songs (giving ' listeners song information). Because it 's right there on the (receiver's) display."

Ray Knight is Lindy's counterpart at XM, heading up XM's country music department from broadcast studios located in Nashville at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Before joining XM, Knight was a program director at KASH in Anchorage, Alaska and at KRAK in Sacramento, Cal.

"Coming to XM, it's kind of a clean slate because you take that experience and program from a fan's perspective," says Knight. "You're not worried about ratings. You're not worried about commercial spots."

Knight's boss at XM is Lee Abrams, a legendary figure in the radio industry who is credited with (and blamed for) the creation of the modern AOR, classic rock and adult contemporary formats, which shifted FM radio away from its free form roots in the '70s to the tightly formatted stations that dominate the industry today.

All the more ironic, then, that Abrams is now in charge of programming a company that hopes to revive the experimentation and anything-goes attitude of FM's early years.

"To a degree he leaves you alone," says Knight of Abrams. "There's no other way to put it. Lee and the people he brought in, they're not only programmers, but they're also fans of the music "

Asked how Sirius measures listenership in a segment of the broadcast industry in which no Arbitron or Nielsen-type system for doing so currently exists, Lindy says, "We have customer satisfaction surveys that are done on a regular basis. They're great because they're very detailed. But because our customer base is growing at such an exponential rate, I think we're going to see wobbles in that research over time. Right now, the exciting thing is that when we do research we'll see something just explode and go through the roof in terms of customer satisfaction."

Knight agrees that - at the moment - listener feedback is the only way to gauge listenership.

"To a large degree you're counting on feedback from fans," says Knight. "They certainly feel that you are programming for them, and I think that's caused them to take a very reactive role. They have no problem with calling you up and letting you know what they think."

Satellite radio's multiple channels and extra time per hour that is filled with commercials on FM radio also gives programmers the opportunity to "go deep" in terms of an artist's back catalog. That's particularly welcome in the case of classic country where hundreds of former hit singles are now unheard and almost forgotten.

Both Lindy and Knight agree that satellite radio offers a golden opportunity to play deep catalog cuts that would never make it on commercial radio today, though they agree that the programmer needs to be thoughtful in doing so.

"I think it's our obligation to go deep," says Lindy. "But you have to go with a sensibility. You can't just play five deep records in a row. You have to do some presentation tactics that make that (song) special."

"Let's take a Merle Haggard," says Knight. "Who knows how many records he has? Thousands. When it comes to an artist like that you're making a big mistake if you only play whatever his 40 biggest hits were. Because the hardcore fans aren't dumb. They know. You'd be making a fatal error in just playing his top 40 songs. What percentage of the Haggard library do we play? I'd just be taking a guess, but it's the vast majority. That's not to say that you just throw everything out there, though."

Another intriguing possibility for satellite radio is that it offers older artists such as George Jones and Haggard an outlet for airplay for their new recordings, a niche where they've fallen through the cracks on FM radio.

"It's all about the Now," says Lindy. "On the new album from Loretta Lynn, there were two songs on there that were perfect for New Country, so we put those on there. And there were three or four that belonged on Outlaw. It really is about the music. It comes down to where it's going to fit."

In spite of (or, perhaps, because of) the fact that the number of satellite radio listeners is still relatively small (Sirius has 700,000 subscribers and XM has 2.5 million as of late October), both Lindy and Knight have been far more willing to take chances on new songs and new artists, without the need to first subject songs to focus groups before putting them on the air. This has enabled both XM and Sirius to beat their FM counterparts to the punch with new material weeks before FM stations pick up on the same songs.

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