THE XM SOUND
Recently, it was written that XM may be losing its edge. Huh? This is truly absurd. Our mission is as strongly defined today as it was in 1998. A day doesn’t pass when the déjà vu between the emergence of FM back in the late 60’s and the emergence of satellite doesn’t rear its head. The similarities are astounding. I recall so clear when AM was dominant…and making a fortune. Doing so well that they couldn’t see their own vulnerabilities. Fueled by the emergence of Stereo and a musical revolution that the AM programmers generally didn’t grasp, FM quietly came out of the closet and within a few years put those AM music powerhouses out of business. Today, the FM guys generally don’t see their vulnerabilities. I don’t necessarily blame them because they have their own issues and in fact DO have the majority of the listenership. But the vulnerabilities are every bit as clear and almost exactly the same as those facing AM 35 years ago.
Eye off the musical ball…suspect, flawed and often corrupt music policies; a dated technology; absurd spot loads; sameness and lack of choice and most importantly — using a playbook that was written 30 years ago. At XM we need to be thankful for the denial that forces FM to put Band-Aids on their problems instead of attacking the reality of their dated programming point of view. Their problems are not spot loads or losing Stern. They are deeply rooted in the sound and attitude they subscribe to.
It’s easy to whine about it. At XM it’s up to us to change it. Just like the American GI’s were the ones who liberated Europe in WW2, XM has to liberate America in 2006. Same idea. It’s about liberating from a claw of something not particularly positive. Probably sounds a bit over-the-top. But that’s the mission. The first thing is AFDI. A call to action meaning Actually Fucking Doing it. When we have ideas, we gotta make them happen. Can’t handle talking about a revolution then chickening out and doing shit. Then you gotta de-cliché the place. Anybody who comes from FM is infected with volumes of tired clichés and assumed way of doing things. At XM we built a cliché buzzer—three clichés/buzzes and you’re fired. Then you gotta stress the importance of “creative batting average” where instead of sitting on your ass doing things as always, stepping up to the plate and taking creative swings. If 3 out of 10 ideas work—you’re an all star…most Programmers for whatever reason, fail to take any swings and bat .000. I can go on and on about the tactics to liberate but it really boils down to three things:
PASSION: Bringing back musical passion to radio. FM shot itself in the foot. It’s all about mechanics…not about the soul…the discovery…the musical magic radio can create. You get so hung up in the “A” coming up at: 19 you forget about the power of radios musical experience—in ANY genre.
CHARACTER: The magic that happens between the songs. The sonics...The attitude. The Technicolor.
MUSCLE: Ever since MTV emerged radio has had an inferiority complex. Screw that. Few mediums are as powerful and engaging as radio.
Am I pissed off at FM. Hell YES! I grew up with the transistor under the pillow…BELIEVING that radio is the theater of the mind. To hear how music radio has declined into this artless, soul-free zone is disturbing and upsetting. That’s why XM must re-invent radio to recapture the magic and save America from the parody of itself it has become. I don’t live in the past. I respect the past. To hear airchecks of the GREAT stations from the 50’s and 60’s can be an inspiration in the same way a Robert Johnson 78 can inspire a blues musician. Radio was COMPLETE back then. A total experience. Not a morning show, tested library and billboards.
It had a surreal quality. It was visual. The idea is to understand the history but program for tomorrow.
As Chief Creative Officer at XM, part of my responsibility is to force a certain style of thinking among our staff. Guardian of musical integrity and change.
Recently I put a list of 20 myths together that is only a microcosm of the intensity of revolutionizing, but symbolize the un-learning and re-learning necessary to move the radio listening experience forward:
THERE ARE GREAT FM STATIONS IN AMERICA. There are great call letters historically, but personally I can’t think of ONE FM station that would be worth taping and playing to the XM Staff. There are some OK ones, but most really are doing nothing especially interesting, compelling or new. A lot of stations are utilities doing a decent job…but are inherently vulnerable because they are living by the old rules. THIS is the #1 reason WE have to seize the incredible opportunity we have despite whatever barriers or difficulties this new medium serves up. Most of us came from FM and may have great memories…but it’s 2006 and the more we think about the RIGHT way to do things in 2006 rather than using the way FM does it…the sooner we’ll prevail.
YOU CAN MECHANICALLY MANIPULATE “TIME SPENT LISTENING”: You can’t. It’s never worked. The best TSL device is simply having the kinds of listeners that love your station to the point where they listen a lot. Creating a station that is so right-on that you have fans who SAY they listen even if they don’t—and also listen a lot because the channel is so damn on it. PD’s have tried everything from time distortion (saying it’s 7:15 when it’s 7:10) to AQH stretching contesting. It inevitably fails. No human carries a pen around and writes down when they listen…or has the ability or desire to re-create their listening truly accurately. Most important, PD’s historically try to trick listeners mechanically/formatically. It’s all so simple: Create an amazingly cool station—and they will come. No need to complicate anything.
TRADITIONAL RADIO RESEARCH IS AN EFFECTIVE WAY TO BUILD A PLAYLIST: Research is smart…it makes sense…BUT—the ‘traditional’ terrestrial methods are clearly flawed. Every station does it—and most of these stations stink. IF traditional (call out, focus, auditorium, etc…) worked, FM would be invulnerable and there’d be no need for an XM.
YOU MUST BE MAINSTREAM TO SUCCEED: In our world, if we had 100 1 share channels, we’d succeed. In FM, yes—a degree of mainstream is essential. And on XM, there are of course mainstream channels…BUT—Look at “mainstream” as a word. It’s changing. Just like contemporary music was once mainstream and meant a hit song touched just about everyone. Now, we’re in a fragmented society. In our terms I think the “mainstream” is reached by every channel meeting their audience goals...then you add everything up and XM AS A WHOLE is “mainstream”. Classical, Jazz, AC, Decades and others contribute to a mainstream XM...often by being un-mainstream…but when you add everything together we ARE mainstream. There’s a NEW MAINSTREAM of American culture, and it’s the combination of a diverse spectrum of musical and cultural Points-of-view. Beaver Cleaver is dead.
NON PLAYLIST PROGRAMMING SHOULD BE PLACED IN SOFT DAYPARTS: If you have a Special that really touches a nerve—hell—it should be in PRIME TIME.
ARTISTS NEED RADIO TO BREAK: The ultimate denial. They don’t. It helps…but more and more there are other areas that can break artists. For us---we should view ourselves as a NEW medium and NOT get lumped in with the terrestrials who are digging their own musical grave. FM, Old-line Record Companies and the tired old guard of the music business are holding things back—including us. Think BEYOND the old music industry driven by cheesy promotion, free lunch and the good old boy network. Radio isn’t the cultural icon it once was…it shot itself in the foot—now it’s OUR turn to program at a creative level that makes XM the icon of the new millennium.
HAVING AN ARTIST DROP BY OR PHONE IN FOR AN INTERVIEW IS COMPELLING: Let me preface this with—It IS on a channel known for this…or on a show like Bob Edwards…or if the artist is certifiable. It ISN’T on a music channel. The point---We can think of better interaction than the clichéd old “interview”. We need to lose the “phoner” thing.
PLAY THE POWER SONG AT THE TOP OF THE HOUR: Back in 1968, stations played news at :55 and wanted to “re-establish” the hour by coming out of news with a “power”…that didn’t make much sense since they blew off so many listeners with their news, no one was left to hear it! Now---it makes no sense because :00 is nothing more than a given minute in the hour…nothing special about it.
LISTENERS WILL BELIEVE WHAT YOU TELL THEM. Not anymore. FM has lied and bragged to the point that music radio has little cred left. Best to just DO IT and if it’s “the best music” they’ll know without telling them that. We STILL have writing that is circa 1979.
YOU HAVE TO “SELL” LISTENERS TO GET THE POINT ACROSS: Yes of course, but sell on 2006 terms. The hard sell, radio speak, is amusingly behind us. It’s all about intelligence and talking normally like YOUR listeners actually talk... The exception is the channels where we are trying to re-create a bygone authenticity like on the 60’s.
THERE ARE NO NEW IDEAS IN RADIO. Correct—that’s why WE have to create them. Time to tear down the walls…burn the old playbook and create radio for 2006.
TUNE OUT IS BAD: Tuning out of a channel is a fact-of-life. NO station is tune out free, especially on XM where tune-out can mean simply tuning IN to another choice on the XM dial. “Tune out paranoia” is a key factor in the TOO-short lists, mindlessly written “statement promos”, rapid fire DJ’s who regurgitate liners with no real content, etc….The idea is to create a channel that is SO reliably “on it” that if anyone tunes out----fine---as long as they tune back in when they’re in the mood to hear what you deliver. Trying to create a tune out proof channel has never and will never work. In fact, it’ll create this machine that will deliver a sound that may well decrease listenership. Listeners will always tune out—but you should be great enough to insure that they’ll always tune BACK in when they’re ready for you.
THE PAST IS OVER: Yes it is---but there was a time when radio really was the soundtrack of the Nation. You gotta look back a ways, but there’s much to learn from radios golden years. Weather it’s the “theater of the mind” from he Lone Ranger in 1949 to the one-on-one connection that the old Top 40’s of the 50’s and 60’s had. What we gotta forget is the consolidation era radio that’s infected the FM dial—THAT is what we gotta generally speaking avoid and create something better---to bring a NEW golden age of radio—on XM terms. IF we were to use terrestrial as a reference point—better to use terrestrial in 1956 than 2006. In other words, radio CAN be magical—if we make it magical.
LISTENERS ARE SMART: Some are, but generally they aren’t. But-- a funny thing happens when you give them something intelligent---You raise the bar. I’m not talking about something elite and SO intelligent that it goes over heads…I’m talking about…smart. Intelligent. Something that doesn’t dumb down, but reaches out and takes a listener to a new level. Not unlike The Simpson’s, or an amazing movie or HBO Original TV show. Smart things LAST. Dumb stuff may have its five minutes---but goes away. It’s part of our “duty” to deliver something that raises the bar.
SHOW NAMES MUST BE “MASS APPEAL”: We create mass appeal. Look at the emerging Airlines. It ain’t Trans Global. It’s Jet Blue, Jazz, Virgin etc…Or how about I-Pod, or Google, Or car names, or any “new generation” success stories These are new names that sound and feel good. Even our own new radios have cool names. You wouldn’t believe the pushback on calling Fred Fred…or Fine Tuning Fine Tuning. My point is that when we give content a name---It’s OK to CREATE something that may not mean anything---until you deliver it. Then—it’s the “cool name”.
MUSIC & DJ’S ARE THE KEY INGREDIANTS IN A STATION/CHANNEL: Critical of course, but symbolic of the over-simplification that’s going around. An amazing channel needs to be complete---Features (aka trademarks); live music (where applicable), etc….Things like Ricky Nelson Complete and Harlem make our 50’s channel “COMPLETE” And completeness turns listeners into FANS. Cool on air voices and amazing music is a given---That “extra stuff” is what contributes to a TOTAL LISTENING EXPERIENCE
YOU CAN’T GET HURT BY WHAT YOU DON’T PLAY: Very clever at the 1968 Billboard Convention as a line Rick Sklar used to fend off irate Promotion guys. In reality, I wouldn’t want to be the station that DOESN’T have the new Pearl Jam…or DOESN’T play the other cool Metallica tracks, etc….You CAN and WILL get hurt if the library doesn’t deliver the goods in terms of the musical promise.
BIG VOICES ARE IMPRESSIVE: Hey if you got a big voice—cool! But it really isn’t too important. Look at Stern, Rush or historically most of the A-list “personalities. The Big Voice thing is so hilariously dated. CHARACTER is what counts. Pushing a voice to sound big (and just about everyone does it!) is…lame.
LOCAL IS IMPORTANT: Local radio is dead. It’s irrelevant. For us we should be ALL OVER THE NATIONAL thing. Big ‘n bad ass. Local radio is a quaint relic. BUT—We are NOT taking advantage of this if we aren’t Talking to America. The old “using fans pouring out of a Beyonce concert in San Diego to call in the set list and review”----Getting listeners to call in on their cellphones to be your stringers during events and catastrophes in their communities. ENGAGE AMERICA ON THE AIR to maximize “National”. We are missing a giant opportunity!
LISTENERS LISTEN WITH THEIR EARS: NO! They listen with their minds. That’s why “cinematic” production is SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO important, Your taking to a mind. A brain. Engage that listener’s brain with sound. XM is a travel agency—taking people on sonic adventures!!!! Cool voices…new sounds…WE MUST TAKE LISTERNERS ON A TRIP----Kill the one dimensional production. We can miss a giant opportunity by not creating amazing sound that engages minds…not just messages for the ear that don’t impact the head.
I can only say that in today’s changing environment, that the balance of science, business and art has never been more critical. It’s the art part that needs a kick in the ass and we’re doing that.