A Conversation with XM Satellite Radio
A circuitous path, involving England, New York, rural Michigan, Indiana, and lots of parts in between brought Matthew Freeman to Charlottesville, where he's been writing about mobile audio/video for Crutchfield off and on since early 2000. He fosters an eclectic taste in film, and is fond of a wide range of music. A native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, he found his way to the University of Notre Dame, where, in an act of charity unsurpassed in the history of Western civilization, he was given a B.A. in English.
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On an afternoon in April, we were fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to interview four Program Directors from XM: Lee Abrams, XM's Chief Programming Officer and primary format architect; Scott Struber, Program Director of XMU, XM's most varied alternative channel; Jessie Scott, Program Director of X (as in "cross") Country, a channel dedicated to Americana, alt country, rockabilly, roots rock, honky tonk, and the like; and Sonny Fox, Program Director of XM's two comedy channels, Laugh USA and XM Comedy.
What comes across more than anything is their unbridled enthusiasm for the undertaking. They believe in the profound cultural implications of what they're doing attempting to reinvent radio, to alter dramatically the habits and mind set of radio listeners everywhere, and to breathe new life into a medium that has largely been stripped of its former glory and vitality. And they love it. One heck of a lot.
The conversation took place over about 45 minutes. We asked a single question, and the four participants were off and running, intuitively and spontaneously addressing everything we had planned on asking before we sat down with them. Their thrill at being involved with XM was certainly infectious. As you read through the following, remember that this wasn't a typical question-and-answer session; it was a free-flowing, energetic discourse which proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the folks at XM are on a mission to change the world of radio.
Crutchfield: As XM grows and reaches critical mass, how will it change our culture, and vice-versa how will the culture change XM?
Lee Abrams: Well, hopefully, it won't. It will maintain its present vibe and just get bigger and more powerful.
We can learn from FM and AM. AM, in 1954, was DOA. TV was here. But using rock 'n' roll as a vehicle, AM became a cultural icon, and made rock 'n' roll. AM broke Elvis and broke the Beatles. By the mid-'60s it was a critical part of our culture, and 99 percent of Americans were listening to AM radio.
But then AM radio made a lot of mistakes, and FM which had been in the closet since 1940 made a lot of moves around 1970. A lot of broadcasters said, "Let's do something with this FM," because AMs were just real oversold and bloated and making lots of money, but at the expense of listeners. All of a sudden FM got it together, and within five years, defeated AM.
In 1968, you could buy a major-market FM station for $50,000. Nobody wanted them. By 1975, five years after FM stations started taking themselves seriously, it became the band of choice. Throughout the '70s and '80s, everybody was into it. And now, FM has done the same thing AM did just shot itself in the foot.
It's a perfect time for a new radio band. That's why we're here. I think XM probably wouldn't have had much of a chance 15 or 20 years ago. "Whaddya mean, pay for radio?" FM was fine. Now it's like, "Bring it on. I'll pay whatever. I'll pay double. Just save us!"
So looking back at AM's mistakes, FM's mistakes, we're learning from the past what not to do and what the traps are. We're going to be around in the current culture and the current focus for a long, long time.
Because we are a paid service, if we start screwing up, and adding too many commercials or tightening playlists where they shouldn't be tightened, listeners will let us know by just canceling. So I'm confident that, as long as the existing team that knows what we're all about (or most of it) is here, we'll stay that way.
Sonny Fox: We don't have to worry about FM counter-programming us, either. They're caught in a situation like network television very research-oriented. They only go with safe product. You'll never see anything on ABC that you see on HBO. And you'll never hear anything on FM that you're going to hear from us.
I think the biggest adjustment all of us have had to make, coming from radio, is that there are no ratings. There's no worry about listeners changing the dial, because we're all part of the same family. There's no worry about censorship of any kind. It's total, pure art form.
Really the only requirement from us is the same as HBO has. I'm flattering us by comparing the two, but their only objective is to create something even more outstanding as you go along. It has nothing to do with playing it safe. FM is just stuck, and they're going to remain there as long as they're selling time based on demographics, time spent listening, what the competition is doing you can't afford to have listeners change the dial by playing an unknown record. They're history. So all we have to do is not get caught in that situation, and we're not going to, because we're not involved in the same circumstance.
Scott Struber: Maybe it's because the channel that I program is a very forward-thinking channel, I think XM is going to have a dramatic impact on the cultural landscape of America. This isn't just a technology opportunity. This isn't just us moving up the audio standard, like FM did, compared to AM. FM can't present the full fidelity of a CD, and we can get much closer.
Far beyond that are going to be children growing up hearing all kinds of music that they were never exposed to before. Culturally, we can't even begin to estimate what XM is going to do. Unlike a lot of other products that have started out as underground things, like MTV, who had to then go mainstream as they hit their critical mass, XMU doesn't have to suddenly start playing a bunch of mainstream, familiar records when XM has 10 million subscribers.
Our role is to remain pure to what it is we do. Because of that, we can't even begin to imagine the kinds of music we're going to start to hear in 2010 or 2015, as kids start to get influenced by a wide array of different types of music.
We can be a catalyst to move the music industry into an era where CDs aren't as relevant to people's lives. People want stuff and they want it right now. They want to be able to customize what they can get. One of the great things about XM, though it's not on-demand programming, it is somewhat customizable, because there is a music channel for just about any mood you're in.
As we get to our critical mass, above 10 million subscribers, when we can make albums go platinum solely through XM, I think we're going to wield, in a positive way, tremendous cultural power.
It comes back to purity. I believe in the liberating power of music, and I think that's been largely forgotten by radio for many years. It's going to reawaken people. It's going to remind people how powerful sound can be, to move people. You have these things all being programmed from a point of passion, not from research. It's not about numbers.
Jessie Scott: Here's another thing, too. In terms of what MTV did for replacing one's own mind, [by providing] visualization through videos. You're not seeing that happen on as full a scale with all these different kinds of music. XM returns people into their heads to do that creative visualization again, and I think that's also a really significant impact, down the road, for the culture.
Sonny Fox: We thought that, as with any technological advancement, XM would be first adopted by the younger demographic. People who know. People who read magazines. But as it turns out, our demographics are very, very spread out. It was a pleasant surprise, but it only proved that there was a tremendous need for radio in general, in all demographics. [On FM,] there's no outlet for 40s music. There's no station in New York playing doo-wop music anymore. What, did I just roll over and die all of a sudden because I'm too old?
Sonny Fox: I'm seeing a cultural impact already on the comedy channel. Let me give you an example Larry the Cable Guy, OK? Here's a typical example of a guy who performs in clubs, and if you know enough to go to a club and pay the money, he will knock you on your ass. But to the general public, he comes to town, and to promote the gig, he goes on local radio. He can't talk about the subjects he usually talks about they're not "family." And he can't use the language he usually uses. So all you learn about the Cable Guy is that he's a good old boy and he's kinda funny. You have no idea. Now, because of XM comedy, you're hearing the real artist. And his popularity has grown tremendously.
The artists can't believe the response they're getting from XM. They look at the number of people who are listening and say, "Well that's not as much as an FM station in New York so far, so why such a great response?" It's because it's very emotional. It's a whole thing that's never been available before.
Scott Struber: I'm getting e-mails from people who are saying, "You've driven me to buy CDs again." I got an e-mail from somebody in the industry yesterday who said, "Damn you! I spent $75 on CDs this weekend. Cut it out!"
We did a world premiere of the new Blue Man Group CD, in which we had the founders of the Blue Man Group take you through the CD and deconstruct the CD. The name of the CD is The Complex and so we called the program Decomplicated, which is not a word, but most of the instruments the Blue Man Group has were not instruments before they invented them, so we thought it was kind of fitting.
I got an e-mail from a person who said, "That program and that CD have ended my CD-buying boycott." It's great to see that. People don't trust radio anymore, and we need to get that trust back. Part of us reaching critical mass, it's not just a numbers thing, we've got to get to that point where there are enough people who believe and trust XM, like they trust HBO programming. They will go to this [concert] and buy this [CD] because of what XM has done in the past.
The XMU channel purposely violates every rule in the book about how to program a current-music radio station, which says you never play two unfamiliar records back to back or says that you've got to focus on singles. There are all these unwritten rules that seem to exist in radio you have to play your hits 45 times a week for six months and da duh da duh da....
These stations set up these relationships with people under the age of 25: "Here's the new song from Creed." Well, it's the second single from Creed off an album that's been out for six months. And the kid already had the entire thing three weeks before it was released because he downloaded it. And if he really liked it, he went and bought it. Downloading isn't going to kill CD sales, just like VHS didn't kill the movie business, just like tapes didn't kill record sales.
Sonny Fox: XM subscriptions just reached a half-million, and the vast majority of that is from word or mouth. It's not advertising. It's not that a lot of money was spent on TV. Our biggest concern isn't winning people over, it's not disappointing them. Simply not screw it up, that's all we have to do.
Jessie Scott: We're really responsive to the audience. At X Country, we get turned on to artists by our audience. Sometimes it's the mother of the singer in the band. They send us the CD, and if we like it, we put it on. We ask our audience to turn us on to stuff that's in their neighborhood. There's tons of stuff we're playing that nobody else in the country is playing.
Scott Struber: It's just a matter of opening your eyes. It's out there, but people are so shocked that it's out there because they been so convinced that it's not good unless it's on a major record label. At one time, that was true. Independent labels were independent for a reason. Being on a major meant something at one point. You had made it to the bigs. Now it just means ...
Jessie Scott: ... that you owe your soul to the company store.
Scott Struber: There's a pretty good chance that any new music you hear on any contemporary American radio station these days has in some way been paid for by the record label.
Sonny Fox: We're all anticipating what it's going to be like two years from now. For comedians, there are no major labels. Everybody presses their own CD. They bring them around to the clubs and they sign them after the show in the lobby.
A guy name Tom Simmons comes by, and we do a little special on him. I've gotten so many CDs in the mail from guys bumping into him on the road, and he'll say, "Hey, XM will play it." A year or two from now, they're going to be beating the doors down here. They're going to find out slowly but surely that this is the place to go to get heard.
We get to that point and the major labels are going to be here trying to buy us lunch, and kissing our butts. And then we're going to have to make a decision, too that that's not how it's done.
Scott Struber: It's interesting that Sonny brings that up. Back in the early days of XM, I was told that I was not to let a record company rep buy me a drink or buy me dinner. I was going to my first CMJ [College Music Journal] convention, and I don't remember if it was Lee or another gentleman who said, "Flip it around. Anybody tries to buy you a drink, don't let them. You buy it."
Lee Abrams: That was the other guy. [laughter all around.]
Scott Struber: Just to change the dynamic. To demonstrate, "You're not gonna buy me. This is not about you setting up a line of favors that you've done for me." Again, it's that adversarial relationship that currently exists between radio and records, and it needs to be more symbiotic, working together on things. At XM, the political game has been eliminated.
Jessie Scott: There are no indies here.
Scott Struber: There's no agenda. There's no, "If you do this for Liquid Metal, XMU is going to be pissed off. They don't have to deal with any of that. It's a re-education for everybody on so many different levels.
Certain channels are a re-education. Ethel is a '90s-based alternative station, but with somewhat of a re-writing of history, because there's a lot of music from the late '90s that was not represented by alternative radio, because it wasn't signed to a major record label. Because they were on smaller labels that didn't have the money to get played on terrestrial radio, they didn't get played. But maybe they still sold 300,000 or 400,000 records. People found out about them, and they toured, and they really were alternative. They were in the vein of artists that were true alternative artists. And alternative used to mean something. Alternative was never a sound. Alternative was a mindset a whole disobedience or rejection of the mainstream. Now people associate it with a texture, or a guitar, or a look.
Sonny Fox: We do have our soft spots, though. I wouldn't say we play any favorites. In order to get on our good side, we would like for the band to come by and perform in our studio and talk uncensored on the radio to their fans. We're willing to let them expose themselves completely. It's not a matter of money or favors. It's a matter of, "If you want us to help your career, then come by. We'll help you."
Crutchfield: Lee, does everybody who works here enjoy it as much as these three?
Lee Abrams: Yeah!
Scott Struber: Let me make one thing very clear: this is probably the hardest job that any of us has ever had.
Sonny Fox: I was doing mornings for four hours, making much more money in Miami doing nothing but screwing off and reading the newspaper. This is an 8- or 9-hour day every day.
Jessie Scott: We're on a mission. We're totally on a mission. In the launch process, it was so important to have your best foot forward. So we worked our asses off. I mean 7-day weeks, 12 to 14 hours that first summer to try and get ready. As we've grown, we've all added programs and concepts and expanded the parameters for each of our channels.
Scott Struber: There are enough challenges in our way, whether it be the fact that we have a fraction of the staff of a regular radio station. There are plenty of obstacles that, in any normal company, would have caused major attrition, which we don't have, because we are here on a mission. I didn't care about money when I came here. The promise of money down the road, that would be fine and dandy. But you know what? To have ridden through the first five years of MTV, and have been there for the next five years when it was just absolute insanity, and things exploded, and its cultural impact was absolutely massive, I think that drives a lot of us. Knowing that this is going to be so much bigger than any promotion we've ever done at any radio station we've ever worked at. I've worked at a lot of successful stations. I've been fortunate to be in very enviable places, at dominant radio stations, and ...
Sonny Fox: There's no comparison.
Scott Struber: Absolutely. A huge industry critic made the point. He said, "XM is not going to happen overnight. But the day it's available in every car and truck and SUV that's being made, terrestrial radio will die overnight."
Sonny Fox: I don't agree with that.
Scott Struber: As we know it, it will die.
Sonny Fox: Well, yeah. We're gonna end up like cable television, which still has room for local television. Look at the local TV stations. They specialize in news, because it's the most local element. That's what it's gonna be like.
Sonny Fox: The biggest problem I've got at the Comedy Channel is finding new material. People listen for three and four hours a day. They're just fanatics.
Jesse Scott: When we signed on, we expected people to be sampling up and down the dial. When we initially designed our channels it was with a different mindset. Now the doors are open. You're doing it for long-term and for short-term listeners, but no longer with the expectation that people are going to be spending 15 minutes with you. They're going to spend 10 hours sometimes.
Scott Struber: Somebody will call in for a request, and I'll ask, "How long are you going to be in the car?" "Oh, I'll be listening to you for the next six hours." It's just unbelievable. We get letters like, "You've cured my road rage" or "I sit in the driveway for 20 minutes, and I have to get one for the house before my neighbors start to think I'm weird."
Sonny Fox: FM is like McDonald's. They have a very narrow menu. They only sell what they know is going to sell. And they don't want people to make decisions. We're a buffet. And you know what happens at a buffet. One guy will walk up and bitch 'cause there's not enough crab. So we put up with that, too. We answer every letter we get.
They'll write me and they'll say, "There's a guy who has a bit about a fat woman in a bar." Thanks. [I need] a few more clues. But if they say what time it played, and we can look it up in the log. We answer them, and we'll give a link to the comedian's web site.
Scott Struber: That blows people away. I get some angry letters sometimes. After I write them back, and address their concerns, they write back and say, "I can't believe you responded. I can't believe the guy running the channel responded." Then they apologize. "Sorry for being so mean. I'm used to having to yell at companies to get them to listen." With us, it's totally the opposite. We thrive on audience interaction. Who knows what kind of interactivity we could have in five years?
The point is, what we feel about what we're doing here obviously comes through on the air. That may be one of our biggest strengths. We all know so well what the plan is and the things we need to do to reach our goals. And the fact that the people who are programming the channels are playing music they like. This is stuff they're passionate about. That comes through.
The CEO of the biggest radio company in America came out and said, "Anybody who says we're a radio company doesn't work for this company. We are not in the business of delivering informative, entertaining programming. We are not in the business of delivering well researched music. We are in the business of selling products for our advertisers."
XM is about music.
Scott Struber: We've built the most advanced digital broadcasting facility in the world. It's the two most powerful satellites that have ever been launched. Technology systems that have never been put together before. And all of it eventually comes back to music. You look at the very first XM annual statement, and the first page says, "XM is programming." It's cool that, from the highest point up in the company, that's what our product is. Our product is entertainment. It's not a secondary business to feed our primary business.
Sonny Fox: Take HBO, for instance, our role model. They could be another movie channel. They're not. HBO is programming.
Scott Struber: Every channel here can be pure. Liquid Metal is the loudest, most offensive, disruptive, satanic thing on the planet. But it's great, because it's balanced out by The Torch and by The Fish, some of our Christian programming.
Jessie Scott: There's something for every demographic, every mood. Urban, rural - it doesn't matter. It's about being a joy purveyor, which you don't get the opportunity to do too much in life.
Sonny Fox: Have you listened to Raw? I've been in the business for 30 years, and I did not know what real Hip Hop was.
Scott Struber: To a lot of Americans, who don't know about Hip Hop, Raw does represent what Hip Hop is. But on XMU, we play the underground. We play the emerging artists, the artists that are redefining Hip Hop and proving that Hip Hop doesn't have to be all about b**, switches, cars, chains, diamonds, cash, and whatever. It can be about love and unity and passion and things of that nature. And so, it's great to have both. It's great to have Raw doing their thing they represent what's going on in mainstream rap America and for them to not have to water it down.
Crutchfield: So this could change album-buying demographics. What's big in the L.A. underground scene could be big in the middle of Nebraska.
Sonny Fox: Sure. Exactly. Because people don't know what Hip Hop really sounds like [as it is performed] in the ghetto, and they don't know what comedians really sound like in the clubs. When I first came here, I wasn't working in the Comedy Channel. I was working in Deep Tracks. I listened to the Comedy Channel, and it made me uncomfortable. T-Rex doing a bit about his retarded cousin, drooling. I'm like, "That's really rude!" And then I realized you can't censor anything. It's brilliant in that he depicts a situation, goes into areas that people aren't supposed to go into. It's like Andy Kaufman used to make the audience terribly uncomfortable on purpose. He was enjoying watching them watch him bomb. Figure that out. But that was the art form.
I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is one of the most conservative towns in the world. I saw Midnight Cowboy, and I was shocked. I said, "That is New York City." And I wanted to go there. And to this day, that movie is an extraordinarily accurate depiction of walking down the sidewalk in New York City. That's what I think XM is going to do to people in the Midwest. Because they'll never go to New York. Most of them never leave the state.
Scott Struber: XM is the national broadcaster. People say, "You guys aren't local." Damn straight we're not local. We're national and proud of it.
Sonny Fox: At the same time, we are very much encouraged and reminded to localize. For instance, I will mention so-and-so comedy club in Lafayette. So-and-so is going to be there tonight. Or there's a beer-drinking festival in Milwaukee.
Scott Struber: It takes a lot for people to get their brains around the XM facility. It's tough for people to get their brain around 101 channels. They kinda get the concept. And then they hear it. They're like, "I totally didn't understand." A lot of people have this impression that it's a music service. It's not. The reason we have 82 studios is not because we decided we wanted to build the biggest digital broadcasting facility in the world. It's because we chose to do a style of radio that required more people, more production space.
It could have been a music service like Music Choice, DMX or Muzak but we chose to go the opposite route. The goal of the company, on a grand scale, is to cable-ize radio. The goal of our programming is to HBO-ize radio.
Sonny Fox: Most of all, we have to pinch ourselves to remind us of what we're doing, the scope of it and to prepare ourselves for what's going to happen. It sounds arrogant, but we know it's going to happen. The thing that we're fulfilling is quite obvious, and it's much needed, and it's going to be huge.
Scott Struber: The challenge is to explain what's behind 100 channels, to get people to understand how personal it really is, how human this massive thing really is. These are not decisions being made by computers and formulas, despite the fact that we're a 2-billion-dollar corporation.
Jessie Scott: We actually had debriefing sessions that lasted all day.
Scott Struber: Boot camps, we called them.
Jessie Scott: We got our dog tags for them to "un-terrestrialize" our thinking, to reinvent stuff. A lot of it is bringing radio back to all of the wonderful things that it always was back in the day where it was high-touch, where it was communicative, where there were sets or concepts that you heard, where you just don't hear anymore with how buttoned-down it's all become.
Scott Struber: And not to just throw artists out as disposable commodities. Because your territory is so specific, and you're covering your territory so comprehensively, the last thing you want to do is burn an artist out, to overplay them, to play them to the point of excess. America does a good job of building things up and tearing them down. We're trying to focus more on just building things up.
Jessie Scott: On his channel, something has to be new to get played.
Struber: Nothing's older than 18 months on the channel. But after 6 months, we're done with it as a new entity. But if it's made it 6 months on the channel, by that point we're playing nine or 10 tracks [off of the same CD].
Jessie Scott: I take a different approach to it, born of that fact that people listen to us for so long. The terrestrial concept was that you broke a single, and then two months later you came back with another one. When people are listening 10-12 hours a day, I take every song from that record that is texturally commensurate with my channel, and I throw them all on the air different rotations so you're gonna hear eight songs from the album, or five or three or one. Whatever it is that works.
Scott Struber: So when you spend your money [on the CD], you know what you're getting into.
Crutchfield: Do the record companies worry about home recording of the XM signal?
Jessie Scott: Yes. XM is built so you can get an analog recording, but not a digital copy.
Scott Struber: One of the ideas we had was to have a radio with a buffer built into it a longer buffer than four seconds, like a 20-minute buffer or an hour buffer (in a non-accessible part of the unit), so you would never have a dropout. If you were stopped in the tunnel for a while you'd have some music. If we were to lay that out there, I'm sure the record companies would....
Jessie Scott: The other side of things is a sensitivity to artists and record labels not wanting to get their stuff ripped. What I do with a world premier is I play one cut an hour all day.
Sonny Fox: We have been taken advantage of tremendously by the RIAA and by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. We can't play X number of cuts per hour by the same artist all under the guise of protecting artists. It's all [for the benefit of] the record companies.
Jessie Scott: This legislation was passed because of audio streaming on the web. We just happened to be digital and happened to get caught in this blanket.
Sonny Fox: With FM, if they do go through with digital broadcasting, they're grandfathered. They don't count, because they promote music, and we don't. We're a music service.
Jessie Scott: Whatever.
Scott Struber: It's because they've got a very powerful lobby behind them.
Jessie Scott: The first person I brought in here was Rodney Crowell, because I wanted to do a long-form hour with him on The Houston Kid, which was the record that had just come out. I wasn't allowed to. We get around it a little, because if we have people play in our studio, that's not covered by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. So we brought him in, and we did an hour show. It caused me to rethink the package. It was so much work to put it together because the Digital Millennium Copyright Act wouldn't allow me to do what I would normally do. So I cut it into a 15-minute package, and it was only live stuff.
Now what we do is a 45-minute set, and we play them as a concert series. Having people come into our space and record these incredible [shows] sometimes magic happens in that studio. I don't go out to shows much anymore because they're playing in my living room. One of the things I really love about it is we've done them primarily without audiences, and so, in essence, it's a house concert. As you're driving down the road, these people are playing in your living room or the front seat of your car, and it's magic. It is so high-touch. It's taking the obstacles and reinventing what we do according to what the new ground rules are.
Sonny Fox: We can play a whole album if we get the artist to sign a waiver. In the end, all these laws will disappear, because the artists are going to want us to play them.
Struber: We'll continue to evolve as we go along as we get more cooperation from the record companies, which we will now get, now that we've signed a deal with the RIAA. We've reached our payment agreement for the next five or six years. Things will get easier on that front.
We've gone gold. We've got 500,000 subscribers. There's all this momentum, and things are now starting to fall into our lap. This is not a matter of if. It's purely a matter of when.