Washington's Loss: XM Empties Out
"It was very important for XM to continue, after the merger, to be headquartered in Washington, D.C. We've even said we won't have less employment here in the District than we already have."-- Sirius XM Radio chief executive Mel Karmazin, June 2007.
Well, probably no one really believed that even when he said it. Federal regulators approved the merger of the nation's two satellite radio companies this summer knowing full well that New York-based Sirius, which was essentially taking over D.C.-based XM, would dismantle XM and search for a path to profitability mainly by cutting costs--XM's costs.
Nobody has announced anything yet, but about 80 Washington-based XM employees, including many of the on-air voices and program directors of the service's most popular music channels, have learned this week that today is their last day of employment. They found out in the worst possible way: One worker routinely signed on to the company's payroll system and saw that his final day of employment was listed as October 15. Word spread like a virus through the building and by the time everyone had checked the system, it was clear that Sirius boss Mel Karmazin was ready with his bloodletting.
There's no word yet on the future of XM's headquarters building at New York and Florida avenues NE in NoMa, but it's hard to imagine that Sirius will hold on to an emptied-out building for long. Karmazin's plan, according to several radio industry news outlets, is to merge XM and Sirius programming into one stream on or around Nov. 5--directly in opposition to Karmazin's repeated and vehement promises to keep the two voices separate and distinct for some time to come.
Gone from XM as of this morning are some of the most popular voices and programs offered by the satellite service, including many of the producers and deejays on XM's highly creative Decades channels, which, unlike anything on Sirius, recreate the sounds of radio stations from the 1940s, 50s, 60s and so on. Also gone, almost all of the staffers on XM's black music channels, including Soul Street chief Bobby Bennett, a Washington legend from his WOL days (perhaps best known in more recent years as the voice of Cavalier men's shops and countless ads for R&B concerts. My profile of Bennett from 1997 is on the jump.)
But a scan of XM's music channels this morning finds most programs proceeding as usual, with deejays making no mention of any changes.
The big move came less than 24 hours after Karmazin made the rounds of media analysts, pushing the idea that Sirius is nearing profitability and is already "one of the top 25 media companies today," even if its stock has collapsed and is trading at 48 cents a share.
Although XM had more subscribers than Sirius and listeners often contended that the Washington-based service offers a better signal and more creative programming--here's my 2006 comparison of the two services, concluding that each is superior in certain areas of programming--Sirius got the upper hand in the years-long negotiations and lobbying that led to government approval of the merger this summer.
For the District, the potential loss of XM would be a rough blow to the emerging cluster of big employers in the NoMa neighborhood. It was XM's decision to build its base in a converted factory that led to the city's push for redevelopment of what had long been a dead zone. After XM and Federal Express moved to the area around Eckington Place, the feds decided to build the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms headquarters across the street, and Metro went ahead with plans to add a station there. The result has been an explosion of construction, but the softening of the real estate market and the collapse of the credit flow has led to an extended pause in progress, and any possible closing of XM's headquarters would only add to the sense that the boom is over, or at least on a long hiatus, in that part of the District.
More as it happens....
The Washington Post
March 25, 1997
R&B From A To Z; Deejay Bobby Bennett, The Soul of WPFW
By Marc Fisher, Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturdays at 4 p.m., the last of the great WOL Soul Brothers sears the ears of a sullen city with a thunderclap and a voice-of-God announcement: "Now, it's the sound of soul, with Bobby Bennett, the Mighty Burner."
Bennett is back with a public radio R&B show that puts on no public radio airs and puts the blandness of commercial radio to shame.
Bennett's weekend explosions on WPFW (89.3 FM) combine the intensity and excitement of classic Top 40 radio with the free-form artistry of the underground broadcasters of a generation ago.
Sitting at the control console of the station's Adams-Morgan studio, Bennett slips Eddie Holman's "Hey There Lonely Girl" into one CD player only 87 seconds before "Baby Love" by the Supremes will finish its airing on other machine.
But then a caller to the station requests "Please Mr. Postman."
"We'll try to get that on for you," Bennett says noncommittally.
He hangs up, hunts around in his stacks of discs, pops out the Holman number and drops in "Postman" with 13 seconds to spare.
"Now, that guy is extremely happy," Bennett says off-air. "He's like, 'Wow, immediate response.' " Bennett smiles with satisfaction: "Playing what you feel. That's what it's all about."
The veteran jock leans into the mike: "Hey, call somebody you know/ Tell them to turn on the show." And a few minutes later: "Stick and stay, don't go away, 'cause I got the stuff."
They're simple deejay slogans, inanities perhaps, but in the right voice, with the right inflection, they compel listening and -- mysteriously -- create community.
"I can play what I want and say what I want," says Bennett, who took on the volunteer gig six months ago after pleas from WPFW program director Lou Hankins. "It's such a relief, especially coming out of formatted radio, where you have to read the liner cards they hand you."
Growing up in Pittsburgh in the early '60s, Bennett had a friend whose father was a deejay. "My grandmother and my mom said, 'That's not a job, that's a hobby,' " he recalls, "but I noticed he had a new car every year."
Bennett got himself over to broadcasting school and in 1967 parlayed that into a spot on Pittsburgh's WAMO, a black hits station. One year later he moved to WOL, the AM Top 40 outlet that was Washington's boss station in those days.
From then until 1980, Bennett was one of the deejays who made WOL, which was then white-owned, the voice of black Washington. The station's jocks -- known by street names such as Nighthawk, Midnight Mover and the Saint Train -- were stars, adults who won respect from the young in a time of generational strife.
After the decline of Top 40, Bennett bounced around the local radio scene, doing a sports talk show on WTOP in the early '80s, then serving as program director at WHUR from 1987 to 1992. He's also worked for record companies and has written "The Ultimate Soul Trivia Book," due out in September.
But Bennett's unmistakable voice never left the airwaves. For more than 20 years, he has been omnipresent on black stations around the nation.
"To-night! One show only! To-gether on one stage!" The concert might be the Chi-Lites or the Marvelettes, but whatever the act, the tight, intense, bracingly loud voice on the ad pierces the radio sameness.
Bennett is the voice of shouting spots advertising Cavalier men's shops and numerous nightclubs and black music concerts in Washington and other cities.
"Everybody else is cool and quiet in those concert spots," Bennett says. "I hit you like a ton of bricks. When I say Tina Turner's coming to town, you know she's going to be there."
The ads are so compelling that Bennett has even been asked to perform them in concert. But they are still ads, and what Bennett loves most is weaving pop music and chatter into radio that makes people sit up and listen hard.
On the WPFW show, Bennett plays standards of the genre -- his theme is Aretha Franklin's "Respect" and his gym bag full of CDs teems with Four Tops and a cappella collections -- but he also spins tunes no commercial oldies station would dare play. Here's Margie Josephs's "Stop in the Name of Love." Here's a Laverne Baker number from 40 years ago.
"I play songs that don't test well," he says, "songs you can't even identify from the 10-second hook they play in the research tests" that commercial stations use to determine their playlists. "You hold them with the familiar music and then you smoke 'em with the surprises."
Bennett is not ashamed to play florid disco anthems of the '70s -- McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now," but also Donna Summer and even the Trampps. He hasn't dared the Bee Gees yet, but he's not saying he won't.
"There's been an incredible resurgence of the '70s on TV and movie soundtracks, everywhere but on radio," says Bennett's old friend and on-air sidekick, "Uncle Jay" Johnson. "We interview a lot of those artists on the show and every one of them is still on the road, booked solid here and abroad."
"Yeah," says Bennett, "look at the commercials. I heard 'Jungle Boogie' on an Amoco commercial yesterday. That ain't Johnson hair care products. This is Amoco, man."
The Mighty Burner and Uncle Jay mix in just enough lore about the greats and also-rans of the R&B scene from the '50s to the '80s to make the show fascinating; they've also enlisted the aid of Dick Hawkins, a weekly guest lecturer on the fine detail of the '60s soul scene.
And there are frequent interviews with such artists as Abdul "Duke" Fakir, an original member of the Four Tops. On Saturday, Bennett is scheduled to talk to Cuba Gooding, singer with the Main Ingredient and father of the Oscar-winning actor. "Commercial radio is not giving these artists their props," Bennett says.
Just before Bennett went on the air with Fakir the other day, the deejay said, "Hey Duke, want to take a few calls on the radio?"
Fakir, accustomed to the 90-second guest slots of commercial radio and TV, said, "You can do that?"
"Hey Duke," Bennett replied with pride, "this is my show."
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