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Outsider's Guide to XM

Ground zero for satellite radio is someplace where you might not expect it to be: Across the way from the new Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms building, a Wendy's and in the crosshairs of some of the worst traffic congestion known to man.

There, along New York Avenue on the eastern edge of Washington DC, is XM Satellite Radio's headquarters---one of the most creative looking offices in the area.

Inside one of many creatively decorated offices sits Dan Turner, senior vice president of programming operations and program director for the oddball holiday music channel, Special X-Mas. (Photo by Leslie Walker, Washington Post)

Several editors and I stopped by for a visit earlier this week and immediately noted that the place was far too cool for any of us, starting with the guy with piercings, long hair and red and black mismatched shoes smoking cigarettes with his similarly edgy co-workers outside the building. The building itself is a century-old renovated printing press where National Geographic and Newsweek were once printed. Now, the inside looks like a glass-encased oasis of loft-like architectural coolness reminiscent of workspaces at high-tech companies in California.

People decorate their work spaces with toys and posters of bands and movies.In what must be some sort of inside joke, they string up paper parrots and hang their old crutches from the ceiling. These distractions of playthings and free drink stations seem to serve as a counterbalance the otherwise intense work-vibe the XM employees seem to have about them.

Workstations are busy, filled with posters, toys and, of course, stacks of CDs. Pictured here are XM production director Bill Hutton (left) and Billy Zero, program director and on-air host for XM's indie rock channel XMU. (Photo by Leslie Walker, Washington Post)

The six years of its existence hasn't been easy for XM. XM and its New York-based rival Sirius Satellile Radio have suffered from high marketing costs and a slower-than-expected customer sign-up rate. There's been rumors of a merger between the two. XM is still the larger, with 7.2 million subscribers, next to Sirius's 5.1 million. Meanwhile Internet radio and MP3 players and iPods keep them on their toes.

But frankly, to be there is to want to work there. [Maybe this is because I'm writing this from my 3-foot-by-3-foot cubicle, which leaves a person very vulnerable to the tunafish smell and the upper respiratory distress of one's colleagues.] There are 600 people who work at the XM HQ, plus an additional 150 or so who work in another one of their buildings around the corner. The 172 channels are manned most of the day, and programmed mostly autonomously with the oversight of a program manager and a few people who have the flexibility to put together their own playlists and the like.

Jeff Roxbrough, XM's enterprise control center supervisor, makes sure that all of the stations keep broadcasting. (Photo by Leslie Walker, Washington Post)

Upstairs on the second floor, there are 100 studios, varying in size from something comparable to my cubicle, to a fairly sweet corner office. Here, deejays man their booths and monitor their playlists, take calls, remix sounds, interview artists, or just push the auto-pilot button and let the playlists roll. The man who makes sure all the channels are up and running and the satellite signals are operational sits in a blue, fluorescently lit control room where he has a rectangular chair that looks very much like it belongs to Kirk on Star Trek.

Inside The Raw and The Rhyme studio, the deejay had the lights turned off, jamming hard and singing along with his own rap playlist. Using a turntable and his own mike, he introduces the new Eminem track by blending it into the previous song. It's hard not to look at that and think, "wow, now that's a dream job."

Just down the hallway, in another soundproof room, Mindy Thomas holds forth. Thomas is one of the deejays on the XM Kids station and -- judging from the plentiful crayon art on the walls -- a minor demigod among kid-listeners everywhere. Mindy's show, "Absolutely Mindy," features her playing a kid who lives in a drawer. She also reports on a fake state called Califlordia, and regular listeners call in to report on fake traffic and weather.

Mindy Thomas is music director and on-air host of "Absolutely Mindy" on XM Kids. (Photo by Leslie Walker, Washington Post)

In fact, Thomas is a adult who is dressed in fleece and has her hair in a ponytail. Her workspace looks like a 8-year-old child's bedroom, except for the panels of flat screened computers that help her monitor what's going on air, and what songs are in the queue. Every couple of minutes, she fiddles with a mouse and occasionally rearranges her playlist, much of which comes from XM's database of nearly 3 million songs. Like people who deejay in other genres, Thomas is the curator of her own music. Some of the songs include theme songs from kids shows and movies, or The Beattles's "Octopus's Garden," which would be new to young children. Occasionally, listeners or parents write in with their own suggestions. One of her most-requested "tunes" is a guy banging on his toaster and singing about toast.

The final stop is the XM Live studio, where two or three times a day an artist comes through and records live music for about 30 minutes or, as was recently the case with Kanye West, as many as four or five hours. The room itself is no bigger than a stage of in a New York City bar, but the walls are constructed in a special way to reflect sound, and special guests are permitted to sit in the 40 chairs or so that are lined up at the back of the room. Yesterday's special guest was, according to our host, "cool R&B/electronic music dude named Vikter Duplaix," who sat in the sound room prepping for his show. That's part of the appeal of chosing this site for XM's headquarters, Patterson told us. It's close to the 9:30 Club, the DAR Constitution Hall, and The Verizon Center, which makes it easy for artists to drop in and record.

By Yuki Noguchi  |  December 22, 2006; 12:01 AM ET  | Category:  Yuki Noguchi
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

now if they could only get a customer service center in the US with American english speakers. Nothing against Manila, but after 15 minutes with a voice recognition system that tells you to go to a web site [for a car stereo issue] you get kind of pissed. Apparently paying on the web does not automaticaly update the payment history and activation of your account. Calling for 3 days and waiting more than 10 minutes and still not getting an operator is frustrating. Then to virtually commit 20 minutes to resolve an error on their part cuts the cake. I might be an exception and not the norm.

Posted by: Customer service stinks! | December 22, 2006 10:10 AM

I have to disagree. Customer service at XM has been greatly improved. I just dealt with CS a couple of weeks ago switching recievers, no problems and was done within a few minutes. Now you want to talk about poor CS, go to Sirius Backstage Forum, there are folks who have been on hold for hours or were hung up on!

Posted by: SatRad Listener | December 22, 2006 10:37 AM

If it wasn't for XM, I'd go nuts from my beltway crawl.

Posted by: Peter | December 22, 2006 10:39 AM

Sirius might be #2 in subscribers, but that's mostly because XM was first in the marketplace. In the past six quarters, Sirius has been kicking XM's butt in the sign-up of new subscribers. Part of this was due to Howard Stern jumping from terrestrial to satellite radio but many of Sirius' new subscribers are there for the more creative music channels and dozens of special niche channels. Regarding Customer Service: I noticed a big improvement last month at Sirius when I activated a second auto account compared to 15 months ago when I first subscribed. The rep even spoke perfect English!

Posted by: Skyline | December 22, 2006 10:44 AM

Nice article about XM. I just left Sirius for XM due to reception issues. XM is much easier to receive, set the antenna and forget it, whereas I was always losing Sirius' sat signal and had to move the antenna to get the signal again. Plus Sirius is having lots of repeater problems that's been making the news lately.

Posted by: Former Sirius Sub | December 22, 2006 10:51 AM

This blog began coincident with Sara Goo's fluffy article about what a wonderful place Google is, and now we get an article about XM that reads like a glowing press release from the company's PR staff.

Journalists don't go to the offices of Texaco or AIG or Pepsi and come back with puff pieces oohing and aahing about the decor and the wonderful people there. With high-tech companies, however, it seems like ordinary news judgment gets suspended and embarrassments like this ensue.

Posted by: Tom T. | December 22, 2006 11:02 AM

Have to agree with "disagree" somewhat. I need a simple plastic clip for my car adapter, which probably costs ten cents.

After being advised to call another number, to be then told to call another number about seven times, I finally reached a customer service rep who advised me that I would have to buy another complete adapter unit and pay shipping and handling. To replace the ten-cent clip will cost over $10.

The customer rep sounded surprised that I opted not to pay over $10 for a ten-cent item.

Not the best of customer service.

Also, when you enter the subscription agreement, you agree to allow XM to automatically renew it. It would be nice if XM notified you shortly before that was about to happen. At one of those renewal points you may be where you may want or need to opt out, and the notice would allow everybody to do so neatly. If you have to opt out after the renewal point it's just more work for everybody.

It ain't "bait and switch" but it's just on the OK side of the ethical line; no matter how many telecom, etc. businesses now use that gimmick to "retain" subscribers.

Most of the content is just fine; except for those channels which actually do have advertising. Maybe the promotions have "fine print" about that, but I was under the impression that XM would be advertising free. BTW - I'm referring to music channels, not the play of obvious commercial channels, such as CNN, ESPN, etc.

Posted by: Nor'Easter | December 22, 2006 11:06 AM

I've had far better experience with customer service at XM than any of my local radio (or TV) stations...
I think your piece got something else wrong-Sirius is NO competition for XM...not in the mind of anyone whos experienced both.

Posted by: HK | December 22, 2006 11:26 AM

It's certainly not the "Insider's Guide." Did you bother to talk to any employees while not in the presence of a PR minder? Shame on you.

Posted by: Insider | December 22, 2006 11:54 AM

I have had XM Radio for nearly two years. I think the programming for the stations I like to tune into is, generally speaking, extremely good although it wouldn't hurt if the folks running the jazz station loosened up a little bit. Don't get me wrong. They play great music but it would be nice if they could find a way to occasionally weave in something by Eric Dolphy (What about "Iron Man"?), the Art Ensemble, Marion Brown or Cecil Taylor and not at 2:00 a.m. I also wish the blues station programmers would expand their ears and play some blues tunes performed by a big band or large ensemble. Ellington and Basie, for example, did some great blues tunes and what they did was as valid as anything done by B.B. King or Muddy Waters.

The customer service, however, is terrible. Everytime that I have contacted customer service I come away feeling as if I should cancel my service.

Posted by: DCox | December 22, 2006 12:17 PM

I am enjoying XM's four channels of Christmas music not to mention the Hanukkah channel! I agree that the article about the visit to the headquarters carries a whiff of flackery but I have always been curious about XM's office which I used to pass twice a day on the bus. So the article did indeed assuage my curiosity.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 22, 2006 12:29 PM

I love my XM--I have a large cd collection, and even with the shuffle function of a multi-gig mp3 player, I still want new music.

It has made my commute bearable and provides expert djing skills around the home.

Great to hear that there is human involvement in the programming, it shows and I hope they can maintain it.

Posted by: jeanrw | December 22, 2006 12:41 PM

As a subscriber, and mega-fan of the service - 5 years and running - I've been to XM's place many times over and the article is dead-on about the atmosphere and environment there. It's a great place, and you can feel the creativity flowing when walking through the halls of the studios or through the office and cubicle areas. And the giant mock-up of one of XM's Boeing satellites hanging from the ceiling of the lobby tells you immediately you're in a high-tech building, holding over 25 terabytes of music, performances, and programming.

Posted by: Mike | December 22, 2006 1:03 PM

Mike: How does one get into the XM bastion? I've been by a couple of times and have not seen what looks like a business entrance.

Is there a simple front door through which they let subscribers, and others, enter?

Posted by: DC | December 22, 2006 2:12 PM

Is there a copy editor on duty? There are at least five typos in this piece. This one is the worst:
"There's been rumors of a merger..."

There HAVE been rumors. "There's" does not agree with a plural noun. Our president may not care about grammar, but please don't perpetuate this all-too-common error.

Posted by: ???????? | December 22, 2006 2:55 PM

Sat Rad is all about content and nitch programming and that's what makes it great. One month XM Chill is my favorite channel, the next Sonic Theater and the next...something else. For the content, the price is minimal indeed. Given that many receivers are able to record programming, you can't ask for more. My only beef is that if you go to the XM website, Sonic Theater (as an example) will tell you that at 4pm Colonial Radio Theater or Imagination Theater...or Sherlock Homes will be on...but it's not easy to find out WHAT the exact program will be.

Posted by: Brian | December 22, 2006 4:47 PM

XM has better customer service than any local radio or TV station? What does that mean? How many times do you need customer service from a local TV/radio station? Sirius has better programming choices: Howard, NASCAR (coming 2007), and every single NFL game. What does XM have? Ophra (yawn), Baseball (yawn again), and Opie and Anthony which I can get on WJFK. I get XM free through DirecTv. I think Sirius plays better music also.

Posted by: BG | December 22, 2006 4:58 PM

Does Washington Post own XM? Does have editors that review this propaganda before it gets posted? XM is struggling financially and their workers are demoralized and tired because the company is stretched so thin. Shame on Washington Post for printing these lies.

Posted by: DC | December 22, 2006 5:26 PM

[The first "DC" again] I didn't see the piece as hard-hitting investigative journalism. I saw it as a Style Section article - a "look behind the XM door." Nothing more, nothing less. Plus, the Post regulary has articles on both XM and Sirius from a financial perspective in the Business section.

BG: At 3 million song titles, how can XM not be as good as Sirius'? Or, vice versa? Really, how many songs can any of us listen to in a day? Also, NASCAR is far better on TV than on the radio, whether it's XM or Sirius; and the production won't change when the delivery host changes.

They both have more than enough content for all of us. You simply have to make a decision between one or the other on a few of the differing variables.

It's not Elementary School, where it's "My Dad can beat your Dad." But wait, you may just paint your face Burgundy and Gold, wear one of those cute little pig noses and believe all that crap that the NFL has been putting out for years. What time does their latest GAME OF THE CENTURY (cue the stirring music!) start next Sunday?

Posted by: DC | December 22, 2006 6:28 PM

I agree wholeheartedly with "Customer Service Stinks". He described everything perfectly. I spoke with a training manager, David Brodbent, and all I requested was a small laminated program menu for my car. He was extremely arrogant, said there were none available because the XM Co might be changing their channel guide. He said he would like to help me but he was going on a business trip for a couple weeks. If he remembered when he got back he would send me a downloaded black and white copy. He did send that, but it was unreadable due to the way he copied it. The upper management of the XM Satellite Co are very nasty people to have to deal with.

Posted by: Definitely Dissatisfied | December 22, 2006 6:44 PM

Some sirius fan forgot to mention that sirius has about 3 times the debt of XM . With sat. sales down 45% from last year (for both companies) some wonder if sirius will even be around in 08 .

Posted by: B Cape | December 22, 2006 6:54 PM

Boy some of you are amazing.

I have one calling a service provider about a broken clip on a Delphi or Pioneer or Audiovox dock. Ever think of calling the manufacturer?

Second, I have a person who has his nose out of joint because the the guy at XM didn't drop everything to make him a personal, laminated channel line-up. Do you have a personal laminated line-up card next to you TV from you cable company or SAT TV company?
You people are brittel and high-maintenance.

I very strongly agree with person that made fun of the rha-rah Sirius folks. This isn't a sports team that you can boast about on one side or the other. You have Sirius?..good for you. You have XM?..good for you. You have neither?..thats fine too. Its America. Isn't it great we have personal choices?

Posted by: MaximaFan | December 22, 2006 7:55 PM

Write an article on XM or Sirius, and you're inevitably going to draw a pile of Coke-vs-Pepsi-style comments; say something about Howard Stern, pro or con, and the infighting just gets worse.

But for those who haven't tried either service, all you need to know is that *either* will blow the doors off terrestrial radio. Me, I like XM, particularly their deep music playlists. But many people are just as happy with Sirius.

Posted by: Bobarino | December 22, 2006 8:01 PM

Yeah. Talk to an XM employee. About the promises made to them when they were originally hired. About how many of them have truly come to be. About the stock options plan. About loving, caring management. About the work load. About why many have left to return to terrestrial radio. About how much they like living in D.C. And about how the radio business has crumbled to the point that working in a sweat shop like XM is the only way for many of them to survive without changing careers. For that matter, ask the same questions of any Sirius employee. Then write about the creatively decorated cubicles and high tech equipment. Fluff.

Posted by: A. F. DeEye | December 22, 2006 8:24 PM

I had XM radio and the stock. They both stink. SIRIUS is a better bang for the buck in both the radio and stock. This article is actually damamging to XM. If I am a shareholder of a company in debt I don't want the execs giving away much of anything free....keep the costs low people. Give the perks when you are making money. Economics 101.

Posted by: TB | December 22, 2006 9:01 PM

What this writer says about XM is true. I have visited XM's studios on three occasions and in all visits I found it to be an upbeat, positive environment. Everyone is very friendly and personable. I have also been an XM subscriber for over 3 years and I am very happy with the service.

As for upper management, I have written the CEO, COO, and a couple of Executive VP's on more than one occasion and I have always received an immediate response, literally within a few minutes. I couldn't be happier with the service or the quality of programming that XM provides its subscribers.

Posted by: Marie | December 22, 2006 9:10 PM

I was a huge fan of Sirius until they lost their creativity on 9-29-05 when they changed their channel lineup to focus on the Howard Stern demographic. Then I jumped over to XM. Wow is all I can say. XM knows their music!! They never cease to amaze me with their deep play lists and excellent on air personalities.
XM is for true connoisseur of music and in all genres as well. Great article, now I have a better image of where all that good stuff is coming from.

Posted by: Glenn | December 23, 2006 12:40 AM

The main difference between Sirius and XM is in the quality of music. In this area Sirius comes in first and much of that is due to the fact that Sirius is based in New York which is the capital of music in the US. What does anyone in the South know about music? What talent is based out of DC or even visits it? None!!! Plus Sirius studios are much more impressive and being in the heart of the city attrack major talent.

Posted by: Jeff H | December 23, 2006 9:24 AM

Jeff, you shouldn't make blatant statements like that when they are not based on facts. Excuse me, but top performers are constantly visiting XM and do live performances in XM's theatre. And what a pompous comment saying "what does anyone in the South know about music." Where do you think the Blues and R&R originated from? And many top Blues and R&R performers live or lived in the D.C. area (such as Wilson Pickett who died last year).

Bob Dylan is one of the greatest musical geniuses of our time -- and he chose to program from XM.

I know many people who subscribe to both XM and Sirius who say that XM is superior.

Posted by: Gloria | December 23, 2006 11:09 AM

MaximaFan - Please be aware that the blog on the "clip" was about how XM's customer service is delivered. My impression is that they intentionally give it a low priority.

Both XM's and Delphi's websites were researched even before the first call was made. When calls had to be made, the responses were the equivalent "Not my Job!" until I finally reached a customer service rep who at least knew what I was talking about (also be aware that I had been using the Delphi terminology on each call, not guessing at what the part was called). But the rep's attitude was marginal in wanting to assist me.

It wasn't a "Woe is me! I can't find a customer service rep to kiss my butt!" complaint.

The post was that my experience led me to believe that customer service is relatively low on the list of XM's management priorities.

Otherwise, I fully agree with your blog. The laminated line-up card was a trip. The XM exec's 1st response was correct, but his follow-up was a total screw-up. The line-up changes regualrly. I see line up cards at XM displays at lots of stores. It's not like they are a rare commodity.

Posted by: Nor'Easter | December 23, 2006 12:08 PM

What's with all this nitpicking about which one is better. I am probably one of XM's most senior listeners. I'm able to hear my music of the 40's and also Frank's Place, where Jonathan Schwartz's comments give me great enjoyment. This week, I listened to Channel 108, the Hanukah channel - total enjoyment. My reception is great and all is right with the world.

Posted by: BigDaddyBob | December 23, 2006 3:00 PM

XM is indeed all that is it cracked up to be, and there isn't a better spokesperson or "face" for XM Radio than Mindy. She is a wonderful DJ, a fantastic, caring, and compassionate person, and a good friend. My daughter loves to listen to her XM Kids show every day, and my wife and I can't help but love to listen, too. The warm, inviting world she has created for children across the country is worth the price of our subscriptions alone. We bought XM to see what it was like a few years ago, we subscribed long-term and added radios because of Mindy (and Kenny, and D, and Jinx).

Posted by: Papa Todd | December 23, 2006 7:39 PM


Posted by: road runner | December 23, 2006 9:57 PM

XM has lost the battle to Sirius. I've tried both, and Sirius has far better exclusive content. Better music channels, NFL, NBA, Howard Stern, Playboy, Cosmo, Maxim, etc. (and Nascar in 07).

Also, I have never had a reception issue with Sirius. XM's sats are far away, down at the equator. Sirius has their sats over North America. That's why Sirius has better reception.

It's no wonder Sirius is overtaking XM in leaps and bounds.

Posted by: Sirius Is Better | December 24, 2006 3:29 AM

XM is 1 million times better than Sirius, XM is and still will be leading the way for sat radio for years to come!

Posted by: XMFINATIC | December 24, 2006 11:18 PM

I have been an xm subscriber for over three years, while satisfied one thing bugs me. With all the high tech equipment inside that old printing buidng on New York avenue, the audio quality sucks. That's becuase many of thier streams aren't even 40kbs. Horrible coding acrtifacts. BTW I know one the pd's there and I have not heard any bad stuff about the managment..

Posted by: Lee | December 25, 2006 12:59 AM

How can I visit and get at your of XM? I've been a subscriber for 3 years. Who do I talk to?

Posted by: Don | December 25, 2006 7:59 AM

How can I visit and get at tour of XM? I've been a subscriber for 3 years. Who do I talk to?

Posted by: Don | December 25, 2006 8:02 AM

Want a tour? Just stop by! That's what I did.

Posted by: Rebecca | December 25, 2006 4:44 PM

Let's separate fact and fiction in the endless XM vs. Sirius debate.

More people have signed up for XM than Sirius every single quarter since the beginning of satellite radio in 2001. Even at the height of the publicity surrounding Stern going to Sirius, more people signed up for XM than Sirius. XM has beaten Sirius in gross subscriber additions since Day One.

Each quarter, more than 98 percent of XM's customers choose to continue paying for XM. Sirius' customer retention rate is nearly as good.

Since XM has a larger base of customers than Sirius, the small percentage of people who drop XM represents more people than the small percentage of people who drop Sirius.

As a result, Sirius has added more net subscribers over the past year than XM, but XM still leads Sirius by about two million subscribers overall.

Posted by: Sojourner Truth | December 26, 2006 10:05 AM

xm sucks sirius rules

Posted by: rweaver | December 26, 2006 9:07 PM

"There, along New York Avenue on the eastern edge of Washington DC, is XM Satellite Radio's headquarters..."

A small point- there is quite a bit of DC to the east of XM Radio, including Gallaudet University and the National Arboretum.

Posted by: Mike S. | December 29, 2006 5:04 PM

I think that Sirius has a better sports lineup but XM has better music but it's all just my opinion. I had both until I moved to an area where Sirius just didn't work. When I dropped it, I was offered a free month to stay. I asked, would this improve my reception? As long as companies don't acknowledge and deal with the problems they have, they'll always be in second place. Not bad, two out of two, last place!

Posted by: Doug H | January 3, 2007 7:58 PM

I just don't get these immature, "my provider is better than your provider" arguments. I like XM; you like Sirius. So what?

There are things on both services I'd miss if I switched. That's life. Do you not have better things to talk about?

Posted by: BobH | January 8, 2007 6:41 PM

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