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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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