Sunday, July 02, 2006

TRAVELOGUE #3 AND MUSICAL EMPTHY

So me, Ray Knight, our Senior Country programmer and Randy Ezratty, master of live production and the guy who runs XM Productions, fka Effanel, and I pile into the plane and head to Nashville. Getting to the local airport was a trip as half of DC was flooded from the storms, but we got there and took off at 7am into the heavy humid Summer air. Once at 10,000 feet it was cool and clear as we made our way across the Smokies into Nashville. Upon arrival the first stop was The Country Music All of Fame. XM has a facility there and we checked in with the local crew and then walked over to the Ford Theater which is on site. We do ARTIST CONFIDENTIAL from both Washington and New York at the amazing Jazz at Lincoln Center facility. But half of the Country superstars live in Nashville so it’s time to mobilize that facility for more live music. The Ford Theater is perfect. 200 intimate seats..great acoustics, nice green room, easy load in, etc….It passes Randy’s smell check and we agree this is the place. We’ve done Dicie Chicks, Clint Black, Willie Nelson of course, Amy Grant (soon) and some others from DC and New York, but a Nashville location will really get Artist Confidential into the live Country game big time.

Randy Ezratty is an interesting guy. XM bought his Company Effanel to facilitate our commitment to remote live music. I asked him about the name figuring there was some guy named Effanel somewhere down the line. Nope—means Fear and Loathing. Cool. Any Hunter S Thompson reference works for me. I even got addicted to Dunhill cigarettes for awhile because he smoked them. Figured it would help my Gonzo factor. I stayed away from the guns and other stuff. Speaking of guns, years ago when I was at ABC we wanted to hire a “Rock Star” to be a syndicated AM personality. We talked to Ted Nugent. He ended up doing a two week trial on Z-Rock, our Hard Rock National station. He was unreal. An opinion about EVERYTHING. Often—SO bizarre, they made sense. Government cant pay for Education? Fine—Close the jails, shoot the prisoners and put that money into building schools. Ted is INTO guns and hunting. Every day after his show, cops from every district were standing in line to have Ted ride with them….reaction to the show was ridiculously positive. He could easily have been elected Governor of Texas. I’m going to chronicle that two week experiment soon, too much to cover now, but it was bizarre and it was memorable. Anyways, back to Randy. Randy rocks. He oversees our “big” live events. with intense experience and expertise Having him sign off on The Ford Theater is a good thing. He’s worked with EVERYONE and has made our shows with hardened vets like Santana go like clockwork.After the Ford, it’s off to see Marty Stuart up in Hendersonville. Went to his office where nearby he has this SHRINE to Country Music...not Modern Country, but REAL Country. we were mesmerized by his collection. All real stuff. Picture the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but all Traditional Country. He pulls out a box (one of about 3,000). In the box were things like a telegram to Mrs. Williams stating: Hurry Home. Hank is Dead. Chilling stuff. He had original lyric sheets written on whiskey stained hotel stationary from some of the greatest songwriters...the costume Johnny Cash wore at his first Nashville performance back in the 50's. Miles of aisles of this sorta stuff. Immaculately cataloged. we were blown away. I still can't stop thinking about it. After settling down we talk to Marty about some ideas he has to interact with XM. really from-the-heart passionate stuff that was really good. He is motivated...and so are we to do something together. Traditional Country music is the soundtrack to the American Odyssey. Along with R&B and Jazz, the American heritage is so incredibly rich and powerful. It's critical for XM to tap into this. You gotta put the hits aside for a sec and remember where it all came from. Everyone involved in music should step back and listen to Howlin Wolf...and Woody Guthrie. The trip to Marty's place was educational and inspirational. We've just done a deal where Willie Nelson has "bought" our Hank's Place channel.Aligning with these guys is good. Just like aligning with Quincy Jones. They are the history. You can't grasp the future until you understand the past. I think passion for the future is driven by a respect for the past. I was always into Patton or Montgomery as Generals and think programmers can learn from his vast knowledge of past battles. It's an exercise in thinking...in anticipating...in understanding the timeless nature of battles--whether radio or military.

After Marty's we decide to head back to DC. It's 105 degrees as we sit on the taxiway waiting for six 737's to land. Nearly passed out from heat exhaustion. Once airborne it was a 2 and a half hour ride to DC. Typically in the Summer there were thunderstorms all around, but we were able to avoid them with the radar images on the plane. Once we landed I rushed Randy off to Dulles to get his flight to NYC...and the skies imploded with storms. Good timing.

Once back in DC at XM, we are looking at filling some PD positions. Damn! That's hard. When we first launched XM, we talked to 500 people, 450 of them may have been smart but just didn't get it...or at least were square pegs for our round hole. Same thing now. Talented people out there but it takes a certain mindset...a certain willingness to un-learn and re-learn..and to invent. That's why a lot of channels at XM are not as good as other channels at XM. Program Directors get a great deal of creative leeway, but some Programmers have grasped the new way faster...some instinctly know in their heads when something is sub par or average. Others are still so conditioned to the FM way that they struggle. The goal is 100% "XM way" and 0% FM way. There ARE some tings that are evergreen..but so much that isn't. I liken it to musicians--some know how to stretch the boundaries...others need a lead sheet to deliver more of the same. Patience is important as long as the programmer is learning and moving in the right direction. Listen to EARLY works of some great musicians and you'll hear crap....but then it gets better and in some magic cases they evolve to creating amazing and original music. Most artists never get there..some do. Same with radio people. Some get there...the vast majority don’t. I just hope we have everyone here getting there, and staying "there"...that magic mind space that inspires new thinking and new ways to revive a tired medium.

XM is a challenging place to work. It's a mission to most of us...but man, it gets complicated. There's SO much going on. I figure we have around 13 million listeners since there are a couple of listeners per subscription...then you add AOL, DirecTV, the three airlines and the number goes way up. The bigger you get the more complex it gets. I guess my main job is to insure that we stay on vision. literally every cool "thing" gets big, goes corporate and makes money but goes to hell. I always think are we going to become this big thing that's as customer friendly as an Airline or Utility Company, or are we going to grow into this big monster that eats its customers. I know that EVERYONE here wants it to grow big gracefully and with the integrity and standards in tact. I'm confident we will...but it takes work! The barriers are simply how much is going on..in every department, and the natural problems that come with serving so many different fans. A lot of people don't realize that our bandwidth is limited. It's a lot, but there are limitations. Fortunately new technology has allowed us to grow. Before XM launched we were planning on 50 channels. 25 music, 25 Talk. Then--the tech heads figured out a way for 100...now 160+...I'm hoping that sooner than later it'll be 200+.

The thing we gotta keep in mind is musical empathy. IT'S HARD and a pure music fan doesn't need to worry about it, but anyone dealing with programming to the masses must deal with it, or ya ain't gonna be around very long. Empathy is really just understanding and accepting that there's something good in just about everything musical and that everyone's tastes are different, and both respecting and catering to that. Personally I detest a lot of songs, but ya gotta separate the personal from the reality. I learned this in '70. Put on one of the first Top 40 FM's at WMYQ in Miami---along with Buzz Bennett, the late Al Casey, Robert Walker and others...we all pooled our $200 a week salaries and rented a mansion in Coconut Grove known as the "Q" house. We were ALL pot fueled youngsters who had absolutely nothing in common with our Partridge Family playlist. This is the place where I put the finishing design touches on an "AOR" format I had hoped to and soon after did launch. I really didn't care for 80% of our playlist at WMYQ, and overnights would sneak on a "cool" Santana song. Well one night I did just that and the phones lit up with ANGRY listeners---"How can you play that??!!"--play Bobby Sherman!...Play "Edison Lighthouse"....so I figured, I'm 17, I NEED this gig, an FM Major Market success story will make it easier to do what I WANT TO DO, so--OK...I'm gonna figure these "teenyboppers" out and give them some pleasure. So, I led two lives...at the station I was a 16 Magazine reading student of the David Cassidy sound. Then at night I was discovering the Mahavishnu Orchestra on personal time. Lowering my standards? Bending my integrity for mass consumption? well...yeah. It was the best lesson I ever learned. Actually, the inspiration was Buzz Bennett. An absolutely brilliant programmer. He'd do three hits of LSD, snort a pound of coke and wax on about the psychographics of the Osmond Brother fan. Then I kinda realized that the more you "get" the mass audience, regardless of what you think is cool, the better chance you can not only touch the American listener, but "change" them...on THEIR terms. That AOR format I created was NOT about blowing up Underground radio, it was about taking the Top 40 listener and introducing them to the emerging music, but in a way they could relate to. Literally changing the familiarity factor from his SONG to artist...so there was accessibility but also a degree of familiarity and comfort that they could actually relate and listen to. Haven't heard from Buzz Bennett in years, but one day there'll be a movie about him.

OK back to XM. Gotta remember empathy. There ARE a lot of people who like hits and DON'T want to be challenged musically...then there are those who like the hits, but are ready to be challenged, then there are the fans that are of varying degrees of sophistication where hits are completely irrelevant. You can pretty much divide XM channels into these categories:

HIT DRIVEN: Comfortable familiar songs

DEPTH DRIVEN: Do you like Springsteen? Yes! Do you want to hear "Born to Run" Again?...no. It's about playing careers not just hits.

SOUND DRIVEN: It's abut the sound. Like Audiovisions. Who or what it is is irrelivent as long as it has the "sound"

EXPLORATORY: It's about EXPLORING a genre

EXPERIMENTAL: Fine Tuning is a good example.

ENVIRONMENTAL: It's about the atmosphere the channel creates.

In any case, it's SOOO important that XM does it with originality, quality and integrity. I believe there IS a way to play even the cheesiest disposable pop single in a caring and positive way. Thank you Buzz Bennett.

We gotta deal with it and maintain a connection with the listener. I like to think that our Marketing Department gets us customers, and programmings job is to turn customers into fans. My personal mission is to help us stay organic. It IS a business...a big one...but big doesn’t HAVE to mean strict and overly driven by the traditional business M.O....look at Record Companies, the big ones have gotten big--and not always so gracefully. I still catch a "music spirit" at some of them, but generally you walk into a big label and it's got the vibe of a bank. Radio stations are worse! There is more magic in the lobby of Southwest Airlines Headquarters than most Music and Radio companies. And we're in the entertainment business!can XM get like that? Sure...will we? I really doubt it, but that balance of art and business XM is a critical part of our mission that needs to be WAY on the top of our minds...with empathy and quality. It ain't easy.

14 Comments:

At 9:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Lee,
I just discovered your "blog" over the last couple of days and appreciate that you're taking the time to write about XM in the midst of everything else you have going on. It gives "we" the fans,something to ponder,and gives us a bit more insight into the programming at XM.
I spend alot of time with the 70's
channel. I'm also a former radio PD who's been working the retail side of things now. Its my job to sell XM and even Sirius with the business I work in. When I'm asked about the differences between the two companies,I've usually been able to say that the music channels on XM are deeper than what Sirius has offered--extracurricular programming notwithstanding. I spend more time with "70's On 7" than the other channels,and as an avowed chart fanatic of that decade,I'd like to see the music broadened somewhat. Sure,the predictable "Big Hits" will always get the airplay,and I'm OK with that.But I wish I could be challenged more where the music is concerned. If Neil Sedaka's #22 single from 1975 called "The Immigrant" can get frequent airplay,why not others in the lower 20's? Just seems to me like there's a wealth of music not getting any airplay. Lets use Elvis Presley as an example. Sure,he was at the tail end of his career by the mid 70's,but still charted a fair amount of hit singles. Yet I never hear "Moody Blue","My Boy","Way Down","My Way",or even "Hurt" which were all Top 30 singles or so. Isn't the attitude of the Decades channels supposed to reflect all of the music? I would think that anything that at least made the Top 30 should be fair game to getting airplay. Rock,pop,soul,country,disco,novelty--its all good to me!
Just two days ago I heard a Jim Stafford single that reached #37 in 1975 called " I Got Stoned And I Missed It." Yes,I was shocked to hear that getting some airplay and I welcomed it! As a 46 year old man,I would enjoy hearing more of those lower charting songs appear in the rotation,and not just every two hours or so.
Thanks for reading this reply. Sign me:
Steve Orchard
Kingsford,Michigan
SteveO@chartermi.net

 
At 12:36 PM, Anonymous Bob Olhsson said...

Lee,

The Ford Theater may be the best live broadcast venue I've ever encountered! I was utterly shocked that you weren't broadcasting from there.

This is a room that works acoustically without any amplification. There is the potential for extraordinary sound quality both for listeners and for those lucky enough to attend. Unfortunately most people just knee-jerk set up a crappy sounding PA because they think "it's how it's done." Engineering creativity could pay huge dividends.

 
At 10:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Lee--another incredibly intelligent blog entry--wow--your colleaugues are extremely lucky.

A great point about "empathy"--a lot of listeners, including myself at times, do not realize how many people a PD needs to please and cater to. The only thing I would add is that in order to do this, to have this real sense of "empathy," the PD must be a guru in their genre--without that, you're lost. It is not enough just to follow the charts and the label leads.

I think it is very possible for someone who knows the FM radio business to just about program any type of music on FM because everything has become so homogenized, and everyone is following everyone else. But not on XM--the playlists are too deep, and varied--you cannot get away with this at XM--that lack of actually "knowing" the music will show.

I also think one needs to also "get" XM--that I believe is just as important--I honestly cannot explain what that means, but like pornography, you know it when you see it--Mike Marrone gets it. Bil Hutton gets it. Rick Lambert gets it. Billy Zero gets it.--heck, even the people at Starbucks get it with Hear Music.

I think this is especially true in the Rock section--you have to know the music--period--before any "empathy" can be baked in. There are some obscure tracks that don't work, and some that do--conversely, there are some hits that aren't fit for a particular channel to play a ton, and some that are--a great PD who knows the music has a feel for this. This is also where knowing the XM landscape also comes into play. Should we play this song everyday when it is has already crossed over and is available in abundance on the hits channles? That kind of thing. IMO, there is only one channel that I have come across recently where I get the feeling that the PD does not know the music (very surprising for XM), and I listen to a whole lot of channels--even the hits channels on XM wow me.

I am huge fan of Rick Lambert's-- He knows the music, so well, it is almost uncanny--Fred was one of the most obscure rock channels on XM--even more than Deep Tracks--and what he has done with that channel is jaw dropping. Why? Because he has made it more mainstream without losing any of the flavor or depth. And he could play hits and familiar tunes all day long and not lose the depth on the channle--it's that good. When you know the music, it's easy to tweak--skew younger...sure, more depth...sure, more mainstream...sure--etc, etc. When you do not know the music and the "empathy" tweaking begins, what you end up with is a PD just throwing songs against the wall, and no one is happy.

Hiring a PD must be incredibly tough--especially at XM--but IMO, with maybe one exception, your track record is amazing!

Keep dreaming out loud, Lee!

 
At 8:27 AM, Blogger Peter said...

It is really a great thing to read your thoughts and the actual goings on at XM. Helps learn what the real direction of XM is. Trying to keep your hand on the pulse of so many different formats is just so taxing. It is great that you are looking to add dimensions for the subscriber. I do humbly ask again that you bring Luna back to the XM radio spectrum. I still find myself driving in the car and wanting to have that option. Sometimes a person needs that modern, Latin influenced jazz and it should be available to us on radio and not just on directv or online. Please.

 
At 2:30 PM, Anonymous Jason Birzer said...

Great post. From the conversations that I have with some of your PDs, and the various threads that I have started and participated with on the XM boards, I have learned how tough that can be. I have knowledge of many bands that I so much would like to share with the world. But, it is hard to get past what people are familar and comfortable with to have them be slightly more adventurous. So, I have adjusted my expectations with full awareness that some things may never be to my tastes, but if I can help make some inroads with some of the stuff I listen to, then I will feel that I'm making some progress.

While Da Boneyard is a very frustrating place to be right now, I am glad that you are taking the time to find the right guy for the job. I'd rather you did that than just selecting a guy and not having him be the right guy. I hope the guy you find groks the way the genre is now, as well as the way it was.

That seems to be the biggest problem I have seen with some of your PDs, that they'd have an excelent understanding of what was played back in the day, but don't have much of a clue as to the current state of the genre. That is where has-beens or never-wases have gotten airplay, where some more worthy acts have gotten ignored. A PD should be able to get to the heart of the genre and find the gems. They shouldn't just go to listener expectations, but challenge the listener as well. They should also listen to the fans of the genre, and sift through the suggestions to find the ones that make sense.

Your commentary gives me hope that XM can live up to expectations. I at least viewed it to be a refuge from FM and the limited genres and playlist, where some of us who have discovered bands who don't get airplay in this country can find a home. It is why I am still subscribed.

 
At 7:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee,

thanks for the blog..I was an early adopter of "XM". Unfortunately I just moved to Sirius. I had two big problems...I found the stations were too backround and didnt have much "life" to them. I don't want flamethrowers or pukers....but most of the stations seem like jukeboxes, but my biggest "gripe" (and don't get me wrong I didnt dislike the service but thought it was time for a change) is that many of the channels are POORLY defined. I could never get my hands around what "Lucy" meant or "Fred"....The Sirius stations are (at least to me) well defined.

 
At 10:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee, if I may, let me give it to you straight.

The XMU "Indie-pendence Day" special is a discrace.

It was hyped as a special and it strongly implied it would celebrate the history of big indie labels.

It ended up being a lame reordering of the same exact tired playlist that's been run into the ground over the last several years.

This is like inviting all your friends over for a party with great food and drinks and when they show up, all you have is a bag of doritos and a bottle of Shasta.

XM should not overpromise or overhype specials that are not special at all. If you promise you need to deliver. This is a good way to piss off listeners,way more than if there was no planned "Special" at all.

I blame the "Dean of Music". She sadly just does not have what it takes to get the job done.

 
At 5:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doesn't Steve Kingston still own WRNR and WNIX? If so, isn't that a conflict of interest for him?

And what does it say about the Lee Abrams/XM way of doing things if you go out and hire and promote folks who are very literally the "bad" FM way of doing things. In particular, Kingston took WRNR from an eclectic format and made it Corporate with a capital C.

 
At 11:46 PM, Blogger David said...

I think "Anonymous" might not know just how good he had it with XM until he spends a little time with the Other Guys.

 
At 10:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee, you wrote, "I like to think that our Marketing Department gets us customers..." Well I hope that with today's disastrous sub announcement you and the rest of the leadership at XM will disabuse yourselves of that notion. XM's marketing, publicity, and branding efforts are atrocious, and are doing serious harm to the company.

If you start with a few assumptions -- that XM's hardware is superior (there really is no doubt about this), that they have a lead in OEM partnerships (a fact), that they started the last year with a something approximating a 2:1 lead in subscriber ratio (you can look it up), and that their content is either superior or equal to Sirius's (this is more subjective), you're really left with marketing, publicity, and branding.

XM is having its hat handed to them in this arena. XM's Web site -- the first stop for potential new subscribers, and the home for current customers -- is an abomination. It's entirely out of date, fails to provide any depth about programming, doesn't work with certain browsers, and so on. XM's print and TV commercials are terrible, especially last year's pointless "looking for the bling" commercial and this spring's lame Inno ad that spend half the airtime doing just about nothing. In the publicity arena, only XM could pull off the coup of letting the Wall Street Journal quote a Sirius soccer commentator in an article about ABC's terrible coverage of the World Cup, when XM and not Sirius airs the World Cup.

And branding? XM has no brand, it's "a little of this and a little of that." It's like the company has practically made a conscious decision to ignore branding.

Next up will be the 2nd quarter conference call when XM reduces guidance to 8 million subscribers. When is XM going to hire a professional marketing, publicity, and branding team? More to the point, when is XM going to fire the current crew? Without a grown up, aggressive, creative team leading the charge, miracles like the Inno and some of the great content on XM are irrelevant, and XM will remain what is has become -- the "other" company in the satellite radio industry.

 
At 4:46 PM, Blogger rjlohr said...

Lee-

I'm a happy XM subscriber for the last year and a half...you're doing a great job! Question: financial considerations aside, has XM ever considered simulcasting some of the best non-commercial radio stations around the world on unused channels? It would be great to be able to hear WXRT or KCRW via satellite in my car. It would also be great to hear BBC Radio 2 or Virgin Radio/Virgin Classic.

Thanks once again for the great job...love "Deep Tracks"!!!

Bob Lohr
St. Louis, Missouri rjlohr@earthlink.net

 
At 7:44 PM, Blogger Billy Roberts said...

I can imagine finding Program Directors for XM is an extremely difficult. Not only do they need to know how to use the state of the art equipment that XM uses, they also have to be "deprogrammed" in order to fit in to XM's programming style. People like Mike Marrone, Bobby Bennett, Rick Lambert, Mike Abrams, Jessie Scott, Lou Brutus, etc. "get it" - they truly understand XM. One person who, in my opinion, does not "get it" is Steve Kingston. I'm not sure why he was hired since he had a bad track record for alternative rock. XM made a mistake hiring him. I'm sorry, but he will never get XM. Ethel still needs improvements.

One programming idea that XM has not attempted yet (as far as I know) is something similiar to IT for the R&B/Urban channels. There is a rich history in R&B music and I would love to hear something like IT for this genre. Matt the Cat could cover the early R&B, Bobby Bennett the late 50's through the mid 70's, BK Kirkland from the mid 70's through the early 90's, the PD for Suite 62 for most of the 90's and Lisa from The City the more modern music. I would love to see this happen in XM's future!

 
At 10:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee,

My friend just turned me on to your blog. As a long time supporter of XM (I think I'm in the first 200K sub list), I just wanted to say keep up the good work.

I do agree with the post about Marketing. I just heard today that Sirius is outpacing XM this quarter. I highly doubt its the "soft market" and more likely terrible marketing reach. I agree that the website needs an overhall as well.

I will say that I am VERY happy that 41 the Boneyard has changed its programming. It was vry frustrating to not know 80% of the songs on the "Hairbands" channel. Every other song was new, which is exactly what nobody wanted to hear.

Keep fighting the good fight!

 
At 12:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee--

Ethel is most certainly not fixed. As far as musical empathy--I completely agree, but when you have someone like Steve Kingston who is so clearly NOT a talented Program Director, that will never be achieved.

There is a way for a talented PD to be both familiar and empathetic to the audience while at the same time staying fresh--just ask Bill Hutton. He is so talented that his mission is to program a strictly "hits" cahnnel and the result is something 100 times fresher than Ethel, without the predictibility and repetitive boredom that Ethel has become--and Kingston has more songs to choose from--Hutton is fishing in a pond 1/2 the size of Kingston's, and yet we end up with familiarity and adventure on Lucy--and Ethel is predictable, repetitive, and boring. How does that make any sense?

Please have empathy for us--the subscribers, and move him completely off of Ethel and all that is alternative--I am sure he is deft at maneuvering the corporate ranks of FM, but he is so clearly not an alternative PD--We do thank you and e.Lo for rescuing the format of Ethel,but what we are left with, is a poorly executed, extremely repetitive version of what Ethel should be--and even in some cases even more "obscure" due to questionable taste and poorly chosen music.

Thanks for fighting for us, and please bring back Rick Lambert and his immense talent to Ethel--if XM stands for one thing(whether it is a hits channel, a niche channel, or a deep rock channel),it is quality--what we have on Ethel is not quality--

Thanks again for sticking up for XM Nation, and let's punch this Ethel situation into the end zone!

 

Post a Comment

<< Home