Is The New Sirius XM The Beginning Of Satellite's End?
I woke up one morning this week to find that five of the eight preset stations on my XM radio were gone--silence where distinctive music programs had been.
Throughout the many months in which the nation's two satellite radio companies fought for federal permission to complete the merger that they had once promised would never happen, Sirius chief executive Mel Karmazin said XM and Sirius would retain separate brands and programming for 15 years. Now, less than four months after winning government approval to merge, Sirius and XM have essentially blended their programming into one set of channels.
The new lineup that popped up without advance notice on the nation's 19 million subscribers' radios this week is heavily weighted toward Sirius programming, but includes some of XM's best shows and channels. XM listeners are now hearing more than 15 Sirius channels that have replaced XM programming; conversely, only a handful of XM channels have been added to Sirius's menu.
This consolidation was inevitable and in many ways makes sense: Nobody would argue that the merged company should produce two different channels pumping out, say, lite rock love songs, or heavy metal. But while both Sirius and XM listeners will still get 69 channels of commercial-free music, the merged lineup does represent a real shift away from satellite radio's original promise.
Sirius XM president and chief content officer Scott Greenstein tells me there's still "more breadth in satellite radio than in any other place, and there are still extraordinarily narrow niches of music that just isn't on FM." He's surely right about that: Satellite still has channels devoted to bluegrass, jazz, the blues, American standards, folk, as well as channels that uniquely super-specialize in one artist, such as Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead and AC/DC.
But the merged channel lineups also mean the elimination of a bunch of niches that spoke to the idea, espoused by former XM programming chief Lee Abrams, that satellite would be the one place in the popular culture where even esoteric genres of music could be heard--and where those mini-audiences would be aggregated into a large enough total audience that those minority passions could be served indefinitely.
Despite the precarious financial situation facing Sirius XM, 19 million subscribers are nothing to sneeze at; indeed, satellite radio has turned out to be the fastest-adopted new technology in entertainment history, faster even than the DVD. And it got there by letting the thousand flowers of radio formats bloom.
This week, however, Sirius XM jettisoned many music channels that don't promise to lure a mass audience. Dozens of XM deejays and producers have vanished and insiders say XM's Northeast Washington headquarters feels ever emptier. Sirius XM executives won't divulge any details about staff cuts, but they say the D.C. facility remains an essential part of their operation, with live programs, performances and production still going on in Washington as well as at Sirius's New York City studios.
The cuts are evident to any listener. On my presets alone, five formats disappeared this week: Beyond Jazz (fusion and acid jazz), Fine Tuning (free-form eclectic), Vox (choral works and other vocal classical music, programmed by Washington radio veteran Robert Aubrey Davis), Cinemagic (movie soundtracks), and Chrome (70s and 80s dance tunes). (Sirius says the movie channel is "on hiatus" and will return next year. And Greenstein says the concept of a single channel offering an eclectic mix of non-mainstream, cross-genre music is not dead; something like XM's Fine Tuning and Sirius's Sirius Disorder is likely to evolve in a future channel shuffle.)
Elsewhere, XM went from four different flavors of Latin music to just one, killed off its European pop channel, scratched its channel featuring long-form concerts and interviews with rock and pop artists, and remodeled the mood-based alternative rock formats that were the loving creation of XM programming guru Abrams (channels called Lucy, Fred and Ethel--but not Ricky). Greenstein says those alt rock formats are continuing under more accessible channel names. "I couldn't walk down a street and say 'Fred' and have you know what that channel is," he says. "'First Wave' says something." He says the playlists for the new versions of the alt rock stations are virtually identical to what listeners had previously enjoyed.
Listener reaction to the changes has been sometimes welcoming and grateful, and sometimes loud and angry, with a fair number of threatened cancellations on the various Internet sounding boards for satradio subscribers. Greenstein says XM listeners are reporting that they're particularly thankful to receive Sirius's all-Springsteen and all-Dead channels, and Sirius subscribers are glad to get XM's shows hosted by Bob Dylan and Tom Petty.
Critics seem skeptical of the new lineups and the concept behind them. Although Sirius listeners aren't adjusting to nearly as much change as XM subscribers, they too are making their losses known, crying out for the return of distinctive channels such as Sirius Shuffle, which played random tunes from many other channels of wildly different musical formats.
Greenstein says the merger of the music channels is neither a cost-cutting move nor a change in programming philosophy, but rather a logical desire to reduce duplication. (XM and Sirius each still have a few distinctive channels, which are available for extra fees on the other system. Sirius, for example, offers Howard Stern, the NFL and Playboy Radio. The XM-specific channels include the NHL, the NBA and Bob Edwards. XM's exclusive coverage of all baseball games is not yet available to Sirius customers, but "We continue to be hopeful that at some point, we will be able to add MLB to our Best of XM package," says spokesman Patrick Reilly.)
But there was always a difference in tone and approach between Sirius and XM and now, Sirius's culture is by and large the governing one.
"I like to gear everything to mainstream America," Greenstein tells me, and while XM's Abrams was hardly a radical, he often spoke of satellite radio as the antidote both to FM's lack of musical choice and to its dumbed-down, predictable personality. Abrams specifically set out to offer channels for Everyman, but also channels for the music snobs he personally couldn't stand.
With the merger, that latter approach appears to be out of fashion. Where there was once choral music--admittedly a high-end taste even among classical buffs--there is now only opera. Where there were once separate channels for Spanish oldies, Mexican pop, Latin hits and jazzy salsa, there is now but one basic Latin pop offering. Will a less varied menu of music be sufficient to get Americans to shell out $13 a month for radio? Not clear. Sirius XM is in serious trouble financially; its stock has lost 91 percent of its value this year and the company has $1 billion in debt that it must refinance this year.
Satradio still offers plenty of programming not heard elsewhere. And now some of the medium's top talents are heard on both Sirius and XM--Les Davis's magnificently learned evening shows on Real Jazz; Cousin Brucie, Terry Young and Phlash Phelps spinning 60s hits; Martin Goldsmith (and fellow WETA veteran Robert Aubrey Davis) on the sole remaining station featuring orchestral works; Jonathan Schwartz chronicling the age of Sinatra and the American standards; B.K. Kirkland's old school R&B on The Groove; and Dylan's consistently inventive Theme Time Radio Hour.
But if a service with more than 150 channels offers 20 flavors of rock, yet can't find room for so many of the culture's other forms of music, it may have lost its claim to the many niches that make up American eclecticism.
By Marc Fisher |
November 14, 2008; 8:05 AM ET
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