Monday, May 15, 2006

ADVENTURES WITH AN XM PROGRAMMER: TRAVELOGUE (TRIP ONE)

ADVENTURES WITH AN XM PROGRAMMER: TRAVELOGUE (TRIP ONE)

Mike Marrone is PD of the Loft. He’s extremely opinionated about EVERYTHING…I suppose that’s one of the reasons the LOFT is so effective. He cares…has high standards and no shortage of moxie about what gets on or off the channel. What really gets me though is when he starts doing his “New Jersey is superior” routine. Not easy for a Chicago guy like me to handle. He’s always ragging on the joys of Jersey pizza. So for years I’ve been asking him to let me fly him in my plane up to Jersey so he can take me to the joints he grew up around. Never took me up on it claiming to be scared to death of heights.

Recently I took one of our marketing guys up to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. One of the cool things of the XM MLB deal is primo access to places like this. Once Marrone heard about this trip he put his fears aside and decided to make the trip. However the weekend we were to fly there was a snowstorm up there so I challenged him to come with me instead to Jersey to settle the pizza dispute. Oddly enough he agreed.

We piled into my plane N101XM. He was freaked. I had to give him a hood used to practice instrument flying (aka blinders) to wear so he couldn’t look out the window fearing a complete freak out. Once we taxied out to BWI’s Runway 33L he ripped the hood off and decided to “face it like a man” and actually look out the window while I flew. We landed in Monmouth New Jersey an hour later…we were in the clouds most of the way so Mike couldn’t look out the window and see much other than grey cloud interior. Upon landing he rented a car and proceeded to give me the grand tour of the Jerseys shore. I learned where Springsteen bought his guitar strings in ’72 and some vacant lot where the Sniveling Shits first performed during the late 70’s Punk Heyday. Unfortunately the KIA had no XM. Not even Sirius. We were to listen to FM only. At first we couldn’t find a station NOT playing an ad, but as he toured me across the shore, we settled into FM land. First channel was a place he used to work. G-105 or something like that. Every cliché in the book. Every song sounded exactly the same and the DJ was some poor guy told to talk incessantly about some “Gorillaz weekend giving you a chance to win tickets to a Gorillaz show”. Talked up to the post. The DJ was probably impressed…listeners probably insulted, or really were simply conditioned to this level of music disrespect/radioisms…I found it amusing in how dated of an approach that is. Music was an afterthought next to his constant bombarding of this goofy promotion. That’s ALL there was to the station. Hype and songs presented in an old school “DeeeJaaay” way. Lot’s of circa 1978 Star Wars laser effects. Next we tried a Public station that he also used to work for…The Knight or something like that. Too cool to say who they were I guess. Not too bad—at least the DJ’s didn’t yell at you with inane liners and radio-speak. The music mix was free form that was GREAT for two songs…then lost it. That’s the problem with free form, just not enough discipline to have any sense of consistency. It’s always TOO free or too tight. I pray that we get that balance down at XM. It’s a matter of programming music for what LISTENERS in 2006 want rather than the 1980’s model. Not praying to the gods of Arbitron, flawed research and Ad Sales. In trying to find this public station we came across our own Jonathan Schwartz doing his weekend show. Pure Jonathan. Interesting, but I know what he’s all about, so back to the other stations. Hey! We can get New York radio…lets check out NEW-FM. OUCH. Did they suck. What a classic tale of blowing something. A legendary channel completely mis-evolved. They could have monster numbers if they would have evolved with their root audience that grew up with WNEW as a musical beacon. The Hall of Shame.

Then there’s Jack. The thing that gets me about Jack stations is the sheep factor. OK—so the focus groups said listeners want more variety and surprise, etc…Fine. But do they say the station MUST be named Bob, Steve, Mike, Jack or Tom?? This is insane. Underscores that no-one seems to be thinking. The sheep factor. WHY does it have to have some guys name. Jack is fine…but can’t anyone come up with another name? The classic focus group channel. Defined by the research—OK---but then there’s NO creative element to balance the data. It’s all by the book. Every Jack type station smells the same. By the Book. That’s why I believe it’ll inevitably fail. Well anyways, not much to this station. A lot of music. But then there’s the production. Pretty important when production and music are the only elements. It was more lies. I like the “We” play what we want. Who’s “we”?? There ain’t any we. Then the bit about how they play what they want. NO they don’t—they play a tested list just like everyone else. It’s called “Marketing” change rather than doing anything. Aka: a lie. All in all they were tolerable but from one of the Worlds’ entertainment Mecca’s, New York deserves something a little more engaging. They are a “focus group: concept. Creating something rooted in focus groups. You can HEAR that. To a listener, it’s just dull…not horrible…just soul-less. What a shame as radio is all about Soul. Imagination. Taking you on a trip. I don’t think they “get it”…it’s more about the station as something that can be culturally significant—or at least TRIES to be. Then there was the Classic Rock station. They were typical. Boring to the point of pain. Kept going back to that Public station that if they had some discipline, a better signal and a little focus could be at least somewhat compelling. Both stations sounded so tired…so old…so dated. None of he magic of old radio…just the baggage…with no NEW magic to counter he baggage. Basically—it was boring.

By now Marrone was waxing on about what he would do to fix the station…this evolved into conversations about XM. Constructive stuff. A little argumentative---in a good way. I guess that’s part of XM’s potential—the ability to brainstorm and act on the ideas. Then we started talking about Bob Dylan coming to XM to do a show. Funny thing about Bob. He has NO idea what a radio show is “supposed” to sound like. Because of that, he's stunningly original and…Bob. Picture 1949 style Radio with Bob’s POV done for 2006.

By this time, the FM tour was over and had to check AM. No surprises, but more entertaining than FM by a mile. The whole experience underscored how
Pathetic FM has become. All rote. No meat. All based on the 1980 playbook. Utilities rather than cinematic entertainment sources.

We tried to hit a used CD store, but they were closed. Market shriveled due to downloading. Then we wanted to hit a guitar store…but too financially dangerous.
So we hit the Pizza joint, Palumbo’s…then onto a genuine Italian cannoli place. Pure Jersey. ONLY if the radio even remotely captured the vibe…the food sure did. There was attitude in the air….just not on the radio

Headed back to BWI. Mike took roughly 30 pounds of Jersey Italian food back with him. Plane still smells like a pizzeria. Hit some Ice and crappy weather…fortunately the XM Weather in my plane guided us through, though I’m glad Mike had NO idea of the conversations between me and the controllers which were mostly about vectors around the heavy ice. Pizza coma I guess, dotted with discussions on Dave Mason and music in general between calls to New York Center, the air traffic facility monitoring the flight.

Upon arrival, the clouds cleared and Mike made it. He was beaming. A fear conquered. No barf bags, just a plane load of Italian delicacies from Jersey. One problem. Mike forgot to turn the rental car in. Oops.

We do these Flights to nowhere every weekend. The radio listening really points to the importanmce of DOING SOMETHING on air about the current state. And they sure beat the standard meetings under fluorescent lights in some office. These trips are reality checks…AND- Pizza rocked.

6 Comments:

At 4:31 PM, Anonymous Soundhound said...

I love how you bring the fun back to this business. Remember radio people used to be some of the most fun to hang out with?

 
At 5:42 PM, Anonymous Dick Brown said...

Lovin' your reflections, Lee. Heart & Soul - Heart & Soul of Radio, that's what it's all about!

Thanks for caring, beyond just a job!

Hope to see you at the Shareholders' Meeting (your favorite event of the year, I am sure!!).

 
At 11:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should have taken Kate Bradley instead!

 
At 3:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While you were in Jersey, you should have signed Eddie Trunk!!!

 
At 12:17 PM, Blogger Billy Roberts said...

Thanks for posting about your trip with Mike Marrone. It's great to find out a little bit more about the people who work hard at XM.

I'm hoping that there will be more entries about the people at XM. Some of my favorite personalities at XM are Matt the Cat, Priestly, Earle Bailey, Lou Brutus and Bobby Bennett. Hopefully there will be some interesting tidbits about them in future blog postings!

 
At 12:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I for one would love to know how Ethel really got that bad--it is stunning how bad it got--and it is quite evident that Kingston not only didn't listen to Ethel beforehand, but I am not sure he was familiar with XM all that much being that a lot of what he was and IS playing is on 20, 22, 26, 30 and 54 in abundance--it's one thing to play these songs every once in a while (yeah I get it, crossover), but not every day! There should be a sense of what is the "life" of an Ethel song--2 years from now I do not want to be hearing Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" every day, but unfortunately that seems like it will be the case--

I know it's cool that Erik breaks the mold--but does he really know the music?--even when Ethel is good now (it is still very inconsistent) it feels like someone is just throwing songs against the wall--I could easily name 100 songs Ethel is not playing, that Ethel used to play--and all of these songs are singles, on best of collections, and or concert fan favorites--e.g. the "Stariway To Heaven's."

Think of your favorite band--think of your favorite songs from that band...I bet it's not one of the jukebox hits that FM plays--unfortunately Kingston's Ethel doesn't get that meassage entirely--And the repetition--I am not talking about the current hits--I undersatnd those cuts need their spins, but I would say that when I hear a non-current, 90% of the of the time I have heard that song on Ethel within the past 1-3 days (and I only listen about an hour a day)--that was not the old Ethel, and since Ethel covers such a prolific time in music from HUGE familiar bands, it is unacceptable from XM.

Lee--I was wondering if you could clarify the Erik as PD reference--is he now the official PD? Is he the who is hands on day to day? Do they have any other people involved? They clearly need the help.

Thanks Lee!

 

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