Monday, July 10, 2006

GROWING PAINS?

It’s easy to get overwhelmed here. Shit is happening from all sides. Personally I kinda like it. Activity. Growth. Intensity. Beats being bored. You might read things and think the world is caving in, but it’s not…makes good press though. It’s just a crazy world out there, especially in ANY media. It used to be so mellow…rolling along under the radar. Now, the radar is full tilt on XM, Sirius, The music Industry, digital technology—you name it. There’s some evil stuff, there’s some futuristic stuff, there’s brilliant stuff, there’s cheesy stuff… there’s “stuff” overload. At XM, it’s easy to get pissed off and whiny as the percentage of brilliant to average changes, and that’s one counter productive mode I’d rather avoid. What I mean by that brilliant to average ratio thing is that when you are small everything it’s easier to maintain quality on…when you get big in terms of both your own growth and the audience growth it’s more difficult for EVERYTHING to be brilliant. I think it’s the same with every growth business. A guy who makes 10 guitars a year will probably turn out 10 amazing guitars. If production ramps up to 1000 guitars a year there’ll be some lemons in there. The brilliant to average ratio just needs to clearly lean toward brilliant. Gotta just get in there and do the best ya can. Can’t lose the focus or faith. Gotta keep pounding the message INTERNALLY. There’s something I admire about a McDonalds type company—just in sheer consistency. But McDonalds ain’t about creative…it’s a commodity. Gestapo like operational standards won’t fly in a creative environment or in an entertainment company. Well, actually they could, but you’d throw out the magic in the process. That spontaneity…that character

So it’s easy to get frustrated. With 1000 cylinders they realistically ain’t all going to fire. Does XM have ones that don’t fire? Yep. Drives me and a lot of us nuts, but as long as ya stay out of denial, I think you’re going to be OK. I certainly saw that at AM and later FM. Denial that there are problems brewing is not good. Accepting and attacking without ego issues and bullshit is what keeps great ideas moving forward. Roadblocks and down periods are a reality, just like great artists hit lulls, but constantly evaluating and re-thinking is where its at. That’s certainly the intention here. But again, it’s a complex business moving at light speed and as much as I wish everything was perfect, it isn’t. Is it bad? No. It gets back to that Brilliant to Average ratio. If EVERYTHING at XM was average, THAT would be bad, but there are a lot of brilliant things XM does…and a lot of average stuff, but overall leaning to brilliant I hope. I won’t get into what is average…or worst, much of that is either obvious or in the eyes and ears of the beholder. But anything that ain’t right IS our problem. Gets back to pounding the mission. We have some brilliant people at XM, but not everyone has the creative DNA. In fact, it’s a good thing some don’t. I don’t think our rocket or finance guys wouldn’t operate too effectively if they were creative whacko-s, just like I’d worry about an audio animator/production person with an accounting degree. But the fact is that EVERYONE here, in my opinion, needs to be plugged into the mission. The look, feel and smell that XM needs to project….and it starts within.

One thing that comes into play is the empathy thing. It’s very hard to understand the diversity of the audience if you are not here. The other day I received four consecutive letters, paraphrased, they were:

*Quit playing esoteric music, play songs we know.

*Quit playing hit songs, let’s hear some deep stuff

*Why do you have all those Jazz channels, no one listens to Jazz

*You need more Jazz channels, get rid of that Country stuff, no-one listens to Country anymore.
…you get the point. It’s a juggling act. But I have no complaints about that…comes with the turf. There’s a reason for every listener argument and every listener kudo. The goal is to take every bit of input, balance that with your interpretation of that input, keep things in balance and adjust and deliver to the highest standard possible. It’ll drive you nuts…but it’s a good nuts. My biggest fear is people getting overwhelmed, or consumed to the point where one forgets about the mission. I don’t see that happening, but it CAN happen…anywhere.

OK---enough of that---We have a cool show coming with Graham Nash. Just locked that. Quality artist. A very different approach to artist hosted shows…that debuts soon. Then we have Janet Jackson coming in. THAT will be interesting. The problem is that about 8 of our Pop channels all want a piece of her (time). We gotta figure out the most fan friendly way to do this. And a big month for Artist Confidential series--Pink, Chicago, Amy Grant (kinda diverse, eh?). If you haven't heard these Artist Confidentials, check them out. Rush, Randy Newman, Santana, David Gilmour, Paul, etc...We've done about 50 of them....they're cool. We also just started running Joe Walsh Offstage, Joe doing a one off radio show--this guy is amazing...and is re forming the James Gang.

There's ALOT going on from growth nuisances to heavy workload to staying on the edge in today's media environment.....Here are a few "thinking points" to remind us at XM about the "core" of our mission..things that at the end of the day, are what truly AMAZING and genuinely REVOLUTIONARY radio programming is all about......and something EVERYONE at XM in all creative departments, in my opinion, needs to breathe and live:

*OTHER THAN PLAYING THE MOST IMPORTANT SONGS FOR YOUR LISTENERS AND TASTEFULLY PROMOTING XM CONTENT, THERE ARE NO CREATIVE RULES.

*RADIO IS LIKE FOOTBALL: THE DEFENSE IS THE SONG FAMILIARITY FACTOR...THE OFFENSE IS THE TURN ONS, THE DJ CONTENT AND THE EAR CANDY....THE SPECIAL TEAMS ARE THE FEATURES. BALANCE WINS.

*THE MODERN FM FORMAT WAS CREATED TO SERVE AND CHEAT ARBITRON. THIS IS WHY THESE FORMATS ARE OBSOLETE IN XM'S ENVIRONMENT. SERVING AND CHEATING ARBITRON IS IRRELEVANT.

*WINNING BIG USUALLY CREATES TWO THINGS: EXHAUSTION & PERSONAL SUCCESS (both are worth it)

*PRODUCTION IS WHAT TURNS BLACK AND WHITE SOUND INTO TECHNICOLOR. SOUND IS TO THE EAR WHAT COLOR IS TO THE EYE.

*IT'S NOT TOO LATE FOR MUSIC DJ'S TO ONCE AGAIN BECOME RESPECTED, ADMIRED & LOVED.

*THE SONG/SONG/DJ/SPOT/BUMPER/SONG/SONG TYPE ARCHITECTURE STILL WORKS, BUT IS CRYING FOR RE-INVENTION.

*PROGRAMMING IS A BALANCE OF ART/SCIENCE/EMPATHY/STREET SMARTS/MUSICALITY. LACKING ANY ONE OF THESE FACTORS IS DEADLY. EMPATHY IS ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT IN "READING" LISTENERS WITHOUT BIAS.

*FACTORY WORKERS DO SHIFTS..PERFORMERS DO SHOWS.

*AMERICA LOVES "SPECIALS" THAT DIG INTO CAREERS BELOW THE SURFACE.

*IN RADIO AND MUSIC, ASSHOLES & EGO CASES ARE ALWAYS SECOND TIER PLAYERS. TRUE WINNERS EXUDE CONFIDENCE AND SWAGGER NOT BAD VIBES AND HOSTILITY.

*PART OF MUSIC RADIO'S MAGIC IS BEING TURNED ONTO TO NEW SOUNDS*THE OTHER PART IS THE COMFORT OF SONGS YOU KNOW AND LOVE

*IF WE DON'T AGGRESSIVELY SEEK AND DELIVER A NEW SOUND...NO-ONE WILL.

*WE ARE OUTGUNNED 300 MILLION FM RADIOS TO 6+ MILLION XM RADIOS. THE FIGHT HAS JUST BEGUN.

*MORE COLORFUL-ER...HIP-ER.....BADD-ER.... LIKE IN FOOTBALL--IF THE OTHER GUY FUMBLES, WHO CARES UNLESS YOU RECOVER....... AND RUN FOR A TOUCHDOWN!

*THERE IS NOTHING ABOUT XM THAT IS SIMILAR TO FM. DESPITE THE CHALLENGES AND PAIN OF BUILDING SOMETHING FROM SCRATCH, THERE IS NO BETTER PLACE EMOTIONALLY, CREATIVELY, STABILITY WISE OR, IF WE ALL DELIVER, OVER TIME, FINANCIALLY THAN RIGHT HERE....THAT GOES FOR LISTENERS AND EMPLOYEES

*BRILLIANT RADIO IS 10% LUCK. 10% SMARTS AND 80% SIMPLY GOING THROUGH THE EXERCISE OF "RE-THINKING" EVERYTHING BEFORE YOU EXECUTE IT. IS IT PERFECT? CAN IT BE BETTER? IS IT UP TO XM STANDARDS? IS IT THE BEST YOU CAN DO WITH THE RESOURCES AVAILABLE?

*BASIC GOOD RADIO (THE FOUNDATION) IS OFFENSE/DEFENSE/SPECIAL TEAMS......EVOLVING TO BRILLIANT REQUIRES A BALANCE OF INSANITY AND DETAIL IN THE EXECUTION.

*IN MASS TERMS--DUMB STUFF PEAKS FAST (BOY BANDS). SMART STUFF LASTS (SIMPSONS). ELITE STUFF NEVER GETS OFF THE GROUND.

*IT'S OUR JOB TO TURN CUSTOMERS INTO FANS.

*DENIAL KILLS. IF SOMETHING AIN'T RIGHT. DO WHAT YOU CAN DO TO FIX IT.....ADMIT IT--WE ALL CARRY SOME DENIAL.

*WE'RE THE GOOD GUYS. THE LIBERATORS. XM IS BIGGER THAN YOU AND I. XM IS SERVING A MAJOR FUNCTION IN CHANGING AMERICA......

AND FINALLY AFDI.......

15 Comments:

At 1:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee, as an XM listener since November, 2001, what bothers me is not the excellent-to-average ratio, but the excellent-to-dismal ratio. The problem is not the disagreements about what music genres to play or deep-vs.-shallow playlists--those are unavoidable--but the inability to fix things that are clearly broken and are an annoyance to many listeners.

One example that comes to mind is the XM web site, which should be the place to go to find out what's on when. But take a look at the XM fan sites, and you'll find no praise and lots of complaints about the web site, which seems to me to be a mishmosh of poorly organized information. It should be easy for a listener to figure out when a program is going to be on, but instead the web site is full of stale information that drives me nuts.

And look at what people say about the same endlessly-repeated PSAs and promos on some of the talk channels; listening to this stuff is like being punched in the ear every five or ten minutes.

Keep in mind that I'm a big XM fan who wants to see the service survive and thrive. But when I see problems that are left unfixed over months or years, I have to wonder if anyone's paying attention.

Bob

 
At 9:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like Bob said, the things that have been broke continue to be broke and it doesn't appear that they are being attended to. Have you tried to call customer service? 45 minutes on hold is really unacceptable. I had a defective unit and just wanted to change ID's so I could continue to listen to XM, but it took me 2 days to be able to find the time to actually get someone to help.
That shouldn't be happening.

I have been enjoying reading how the programming has been developed and continues to improve. Now if XM could just make it easier to work with the service it would be so much better.

 
At 11:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What Bob said. The only place I can get decent information about XM is from Lee Abram's blog.

That's broken.

XM should be ashamed of their web site and communication with the users.

Thank goodness we can find out about stuff like Joe Walsh, Janet Jackson, etc. from Lee's blog. But how many people know about it? Very few.

Ray

 
At 6:20 PM, Blogger Joe Frazier said...

Lee, I really like XM and have been a subscriber for about a year. My biggest problem is that all the programming is based in Eastern Time. Living in Oregon I would have to get up at 5 am to hear Bob Dylan's show. Or O&A. I understand that it's difficult to time shift with satalites, but having some shows on at a decent hour in pacific time.

thanks and keep up the good work!

 
At 11:52 PM, Anonymous David H said...

Fortunately, the music is still working. You have some very talented people at Eckingotn Place, and their heart and soul comes through in spades.

But the ancillary things matter, too.

How do you let non-XM'ers know about all of this great content?

Count me among the current XM'ers that feel beat up with the promos. If you do not think it is overdone, Inno about 8 hours of a music station and look at it for yourself.

You already have us. Go out promo the unwashed heathens more. You are basically walking around the Vatican screaming at everyone to repent.

And please pay better attention to the marketing and the website, for example.

Analogy:

I had an old Mercedes diesel that I sold at 350k miles. The engine will probably run forever - it was amazing.

But the non-engine repair bills were killing me as the car slowly fell apart around the indestructible diesel motor.

At the core - content and technology - you guys are kicking butt.

But the other stuff matters. And poor execution on it could kill you.

 
At 9:19 AM, Blogger Dan Clarke said...

I would like XM Live to be the place for all the Artist Confidentials and have them run constantly..make that the original programming channel -- rebroadcasting Dylans show, etc.

I don't get why there's a simulcast on 23 channels for one show. I can flip channels and your on-air talent can direct me if I'm listening...

Of course, I enjoyed C-Wave and the USA Today channel..so what do I know lol

 
At 12:20 PM, Blogger Billy Roberts said...

I agree with the comments about the XM website and the repeated promos. While I can overlook the constant repeats of the promos, XM's website should be much better than it is. Let me give some examples:

I love The Groove and one day months ago I heard a woman on there (Chase Daniels). But she was not mentioned on the site - she probably still isn't.

Frank's Place discontinued their daily tribute to Frank Sinatra, but the web site still says that this is happening.

Kurt Gilchrist left the 70's channel and is now on the 90's channel (after a brief stint on the 80's). However, the website still lists Kurt as the PD for the 70's. He hasn't had that position since last autumn!

Did you know, Mr. Abrams, that your photo is no longer on the website (and the same goes for Jon Zellner)? Why was it removed? Anybody checking the site would think that you no longer work for XM.

I love XM. When there are problems with the company, though, I will mention them. It is very frustrating when XM is lacking in certain areas - especially when it has been going on for YEARS. I do wonder when, if ever, they will be taken care of.

 
At 1:35 AM, Blogger ai4i said...

To add to Joe Frazier's comment, day programs should be played for us third shifters, the overnighters. XM Classics ran the top twenty five classical works of all time on Independence Day. Did they run them overnight? I do not think so. Will they run them overnight? I do not know.

 
At 8:12 AM, Blogger Tom Twine said...

Kudos AND mad props (nu skool and old school) for the statement: *OTHER THAN PLAYING THE MOST IMPORTANT SONGS FOR YOUR LISTENERS AND TASTEFULLY PROMOTING XM CONTENT, THERE ARE NO CREATIVE RULES.

It got me to thinking...of course there are no creative rules. That's why they call it "creative."

Best of luck and keep 'em flyin'.

 
At 12:01 PM, Blogger Mike nh said...

Lee,

I love this Blog. Keep the info flowing and improving the service. Soon the whole country will be fully aware of this great programming.

Here's something to fix so you don't get bored.

MLB repeats games on TV. Please have your XM MLB team change the MLB contract so they can repeat games, instead of leaving the channel blank with that annoying taped message running. Many times we miss the game and want to hear it late at night.

That would be cool !

 
At 5:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

where do you go to listen to the old artist confidential or whatever?? the XM LIVE is always playing "the program you are looking for has not yet started" message.. make those programs play on that channel as well as, oh I don't know, concerts?? this was my favorite channel before it was turned into a "non-music" channel.. also channel 174?? WTF 174?? do we need two channel 1's... get real here guys...

 
At 6:18 PM, Anonymous NUCLEAR INFECTED said...

you're blog is very interesting to read, and I like to read it every week... I do however have a question about how to listen to these old "artist confidential" shows and that is where can I find them?? I mean the live channel could just as easily be taken off the air, it almost is.. XM Live used to be my favorite channel as I'm a big concert fan.. I don't understand why XM doesn't just have these shows and concerts as well as live events and the 60/20 sports show there or put the 60/20 sports show on 174... why do we need two channel 1's... I mean the message on 1 & 174 are identical.. what was 174 supposed to be?? why's it there?? sorry to be so long winded... yours etcetra, xxx

 
At 8:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To those of you who struggle with XM's East Coast-centric schedule, I'd really suggest one of the new radios -- the Inno, Helix, or Nexus. I have an Inno and it's amazing. It's so great to be able to time-shift radio. I record the BBC news in the middle of the night, the Twilight Zone each Tuesday at 5am, Bluegrass Gospel on Sunday mornings, Texas Fred's fantastic Zydeco show each Wednesday and more. The radios are pricey but well worth it, and if you don't need live XM on the go, the Nexus is about half the price of the Inno and Helix, and smaller to boot.

These radios are just phenomenal and will really change the way you experience radio, just as Tivos and DVRs are changing the way people watch TV. Congrats to the XM hardware team!

 
At 8:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why I'm not buying in.

I've been hemming and hawing over an XM investment for about a year. Last week I had an opportunity to drive a nice (quiet) car with an XM radio and spent about 25 hours with the service, which has helped me make my decision: no.

The primary problem is sound quality. I was planning to get a portable unit that can be used inside as well as in the car, but there's no way I'd listen to this on a good stereo. I had ear fatigue after about half an hour (the only exception seemed to be the Fine Tuning channel which seems to have significantly better quality). Yes, I did comparisons with both FM and CD and it's not the stereo, it's not me, it's XM.

I suppose some of it is the American taste for quantity over quality. I don't see the need for five (or whatever) modern rock channels; give me two distinct channels with decent bandwidth and I'm there.

The second concern is also related to the quantity of channels. With so many outlets to work with, it seems that you are narrowcasting on every one -- if I want any kind of variety change of pace, I've got to do the mixing myself with the channel dial; compounding this is the fact that each narrow channel has a relatively small amount of really top-notch material to work with, so even surfing doesn't satisfy.

The channel descriptions on the website betray you - a slot for everything and everything in its slot.

But honestly, I'd put up with the channel frustrations (can't expect a custom-tailored channel per person - YET) if the sound was better.

Thanks for listening.

 
At 8:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, forgot to mention (I just posted "why I'm not buying in") that I grew up with you through the glory days of WDAI, The Loop (even WSDM before that), XRT before they lost it, of course WKQX and the robotic fiascos (interesting pre-saging of some aspects of XM, no?). Glad to see somebody who helped shape my musical life is still moving things forward today.

 

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