Monday, November 27, 2006



Sometimes our biggest challenge is the rule book. Veterans of radio and music business are especially vulnerable as the rules have been pounded in for years, but newcomers are also susceptible because they tend to assume following the rules is what you "have to do" and this is magnified by the fact that their bosses also pound in these rules. Meanwhile, the audience follows no such rule book. In fact they evolve and most often the radio and music business don't. The result is that record companies, radio stations etc...are often out of sync with the needs of the fans. Nothing keeps the business more out-of-sync and potentially irrelevant that blindly following the rules.

The problem is that these rules WERE valid at one point in time which is why they became rules in the first place. But we're moving SO fast these days that many of the rules are becoming more obsolete by the hour.

One "rule" came up recently. It's where major "heritage" artists release a new CD. There are a few rules and assumptions:

*Their popularity is based on CD Sales.

*You can't play these new releases on the channels that are their natural home because those are classic based channels and this is new material

*No-one cares about their new stuff.

We have to challenge these. First off--it's pure 1980 thinking to base an artists success on CD Sales. Take a guy like Rod Stewart. He probably wont sell that many of his new CD---a big reason is that few stations are playing it--but more importantly, his popularity is bigger than ever, it just appears as concert tickets, NOT CD sales...and it's a different kind of popularity, more of a vintage one than the hottest thing sort of thing...but nonetheless he and others of his ilk ARE popular.

Secondly--I wonder about the rule that you can't play these artists new stuff on classic channels. While there is an expectation that you'll hear Classic Songs on a channel billed as such, I can't see the harm of playing a new song by a key artist of that channel. In fact, I think listeners DESERVE that. It's not very often that a major heritage artist releases a new CD, so almost as a public service, these songs should get played WHERE that artists fan lives on the radio dial. Part of succeeding in the 21st Century of radio is being a "guide" for listeners to walk them through the myriad of media bombarding them. I think every XM channel needs to be a guide for people. There's a possibility to "over-guide" people to where the channel is blurred, but smart 'guidance' even if it means breadking a "rule" is paramount's something we CAN do and need to mobilize.

Finally, No one cares because they often have NO idea these new releases even exist! Granted, many heritage artists simply don't create on the same level as their early days, but if there's ONE new song that has traction, it's worth it. In many respects both the artist and the audience DESERVE to at least be exposed to these new releases...if it sucks--fine--it's really more informational than anything...and we should give listeners an opportunity to voice that. I don't think we should penalize the artists (or the fans) because they made great records many years ago...they may just have that ONE song still in them....maybe more. Let listeners decide--the artist has certainly earned the right for exposure. Again, they may not have another all-time classic to deliver...but it's really more about a service to listeners to display their new work. If it has the goods---great! If not, it is still an important informational thing to display their latest. XM is all about careers..not JUST the hits.

Of course you can't play SO many new songs that a channel loses it's definition, but these are so few and far between that I can't see that being an issue, especially if the DJ "educates" by talking about the new release. Deep Tracks is among several good examples of doing it right. While they are known for late 60s and early 70s Rock, in the style of the free form stations of that era, they will get into a new Robin Trower or Jethro Tull and do a number with it. It works.

The "rule book" fight all of the above mentioned three points...which is why at XM at least, we gotta CHALLENGE the rule book and do what's RIGHT for 2006. We gotta fight the "we cant do that" urge, sit back and think--What do LISTENERS want today?--And give them that. If any XM channel is SO vulnerable that it can't withstand 'breaking the rules' a bit (in fact rule breaking is what makes most XM Channels good), then we have a bigger problem. "Tuneout paranoia" is something that we must avoid at XM. If someone tunes out because there's a song they don't like--great. They'll be back. A huge FM problem is that they areafraid of tune out and as a result limit playlsts to the songs that offer least tune out. Of course that backfires when they become overplayed and become tune outs themselves! The idea is recognizing that tuneout ss a fact of life, don't let it bother you. Create a complete and interesting listening experience, realize people WILL tune out, but at the end of the day, they come back because you are "interesting" (aka entertaining and complete).

A lot of this harkens back to the way it was in 1958 where Pop music was for "teens". Modern day pop music goes back to 1955. It's 51 years old! That James Dean thinking is painfully dated. And SO many people in all aspects of music and radio STILL think 1958 even if they were born in 1978. Some rules are permanent--others need to be redefined and evolved. THAT can be a bigger challenge that you think. Things like:

*The only relevant artists are new artists. (that is a line fed by labels who need to develop new acts for survival...then there's the machine pushing these artists that can convince the unsuspecting that it's real)

*The hippest artists are the emerging ones (there's a trend toward mondo respect for the legends--from Floyd to Dylan to Ray Charles to Johnny Cash that far supersedes anything's more about "forget age--who matters". Wasn't always like that. In the early days of Rock, age was square--you HAD to be young, but now, with the exception of those who view music as fashion, it's all about what you put out.... Of course there ARE emerging artists that mean something long term, but you have to look at the big picture rather than the Industry picture....and the big picture is LESS era focused than it was many years ago. There's more of a "who cares who or when it is, does it turn me on?")-

*A radio station cannot deviate from its format (Is Colonel Clink the PD??...format control was a reaction to the sloppy radio that was happening in the 60's, and the free form guys---People like Bill Drake, Paul Drew and I guess myself a ways back were all about complete discipline and control. That was a long time ago. Discipline is important...but so is the ability to stray from the rules if it makes sense for listeners).

*Rock n Roll is here to stay (Maybe not---There are morphs and new styles that'll likely drive the future. Just like there was a Jazz Age, the was a Rock Age. Jazz still lives as does Rock...but maybe, just maybe, it's peaked and there's something else happening. Actually there IS something else happening and it ain't Rock). This symbolizes how complex things are, meaning--To succeed today you BETTER be in sync with 2006 listeners and not relying on the old rules or living in the last goden era.

*CD sales determine popularity (yeah--in 1975)

...the list goes on. Of course you can't blindly throw out EVERY rule. But EVERY rule has to be examined and possibly thrown out in order to flow in sync with what REALLY counts--turning on an audience. We had a slogan at XM early on---"If you want to do a break in Swahili on an A/C channel....go for it"--The point here is that NO channel should be SO locked into it's rules that you can't do something---because it feels right. One of the reasons Bob Dylan's show is SO successful (and it is) is that he knows no rules. His play list is a traditional programmers' nightmare--And it's pure magic as he goes from an INTERESTING Judy Garland song into Hank Williams into god knows what else---breaks every rule and is brilliant.

I'll be very upfront and say that we almost killed our ETHEL channel. For a brief minute we applied FM rules to it. After an audience revolt--we went back to doing it XM style instead of FM style. I credit Steve Kingston for quickly getting it, bringing in Erik Range--a Pizza delivery guy with a big passion and bringing it back to life. The point is that some of those FM rules are DEADLY...especially on XM. Steve wrongly gets a lot of shit for "bringing FM thinking" to XM--In reality though, he's drunk the kool aid and has thinks about fans and not the FM rulebook. He spent YEARS at K-Rock and Z-100 so you could expect that he'd have a lot engrained in him...and he didn't have the luxury of going through a year of bootcamps to liberate himself from the old school, but he's totally "getting it"...and that's a great thing for him, XM and most importantly the listeners. A lot of guys, in fact MOST guys with long FM histories have trouble understanding what we're trying to do at XM. Steve is not one of them.

It gets down to Listeners give us the directions, but XM Drives the car. Listeners show us where to go but XM drives them there. Things like industry hype, "rules" and playing the self serving industry big shot role are just roadblocks and exits that are barriers to getting to the place listeners want us to go. We all have to fight those urges once we are "in the system".

I went to Chicago for a few days. Flew into Midway airport. Always interesting as you are wedged between two arriving Southwest jets with controllers who talk very fast and have no patience for anything less than complete professionalism. I had to maintain 180 knots on final approach to avoid being swallowed by a 737. Fun stuff. Then, on the ground there was a classic Chicago taxiway traffic jam. The rap was " Cirrus 1XM taxi Foxtrot,follow Southwest 737 hold short of 22 Right. Southwest will turn at Yankee follow Citrus 737 coming off 22 Right, hold short of 22 Left. Follow Learjet coming off Kilo enter Atlantic from north side at Foxtrot 2, hold for King Air coming off the ramp"--all that in about 6 seconds. Easy to get swallowed up in all that, but I find it exciting...really in the flow.

Rented a car--no Satellite radio so I listened to terrestrial. Being from Chicago it was kind of sad as other than WGN, and some of the AM's---you could have been in Seattle. I always get the "But XM isn't local" rap--well, other than the ads, there wasn't anything local about the local stations either. And the SLOGANS! It seems as if practically every station is all about SLOGANS. Song, Song, slogan, ad, ad,ad,ad,ad, slogan, song, song, slogan, song, ad, ad,ad, etc….seemed to be the standard architecture of 99% of the stations.

The one thing that gets me is this addiction to Slogans. Why?? Yep--another "rule" that is so tired, it's helping kill the cred of FM radio. 90% of the stations both on air and on their ubiquitous billboards had these goofy slogans. Again, effective in 1980--now so oversaturated, they mean NOTHING.

Finally--if you want a low price XM Radio--you can use our FRIENDS AND FAMILY program. Send it to everyone you know. Sorry for the hype--gotta do it, but actually it IS an amazing deal. GOTO then type in and you're in. Good for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza and Boxing Day gifts, as well as an important thing to have for any music freaks, people who need to be music freaks, people who will never be music freaks, Sports Fans, News Junkies, Baseball maniacs, Oprah worshippers, Hockey fans, and other assorted whack jobs and normal citizens...


At 12:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Always enjoy your insights, Lee! The XM nation is grateful for the saving of Ethel after it's collapse last spring- thanks for responding! The only other grossly obvious problem with XM since 2001 is the decline in sound quality. XM's music is absolutely top-notch and has been since the beginning (top 40 excluded), but right now, XM is like fine cuisine served on paper plates in a fast-food joint. Without the sound quality we experienced in the early days, it's harder to enjoy and appreciate the product you work so hard to create.

At 5:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We want to hear the new releases and not just one song of the album. That way we get a taste of it and might just go pick it up.

At 12:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article Lee.

Corporate radio and their tight 350 song play lists of classic rock songs really suck. Every hour, every day the same Zeppelin, Van Halen, Aerosmith, Skynyrd, that have been burnt to a crisp day in and day out. If I hear the words "tested well" one more time I'll throw up.

Corporate radio has kids in their 20s as PDs of classic rock stations that don't even know who Robin Trower or Pat Travers are.

At 1:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the first time in XM history, they hired a corporate FM suit to program the music on a channel--This was a huge mistake--you've lost me, and my word of mouth--

Move Kingston off Ethel--please.

At 6:37 AM, Blogger MikeV said...

I want to agree with #1 here regarding sound quality. The music itself is always getting better by the day, but it still sounds like crap IMHO.

Glad to see that XM continues to have no problems breaking the rules when it comes to what to play and where to play it. :-)

At 9:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll repeat the comments about sound quality. I don't listen as much as i used to because the sound quality has declined so much. It's a shame but I can't even listen at times because of the artifacts. I guess it's ok if you are aiming for casual music fans, but a serious fan wants better sound quality.

At 12:56 PM, Blogger MikeV said...

Oh... and another comment now that I think of it... How about a little more variety and new stuff in the Top 40 arena? :) Be a little more experimental there... don't just be a 2000's decades channel (specifically, Hitlist and to a lesser degree, Flight 26).

At 4:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee--please go to and search under any huge Ethel artist--Pearl Jam, U2, The Strokes, NIN, Coldplay et al.(pick any artist Ethel plays)--You will see that Ethel's playlist of these huge seminal artists have been gutted--
These artists have great songs, gems that deserve to be played--if he only knew the music.

Steve Kingston does not get it--Most songs are the Lucy jukebox hits, and anything even resembling a gem is basically set a stagnant rotation (so even those get overplayed)--never, ever rotated.

As for Erik, he seems like a cool guy, but he does not know the music at all--I think that is why Kingston "brought him in." Basically to implement his FM agenda.

I just wish XM would have a programmer on ethel who really gets and knows the music--That should be job 1--What we have on Ethel is not cutting--Average sucks, and unfortunately, average is also easy to do--Just because Ethel is no longer an FM train wreck doesn;t mean it is a great channel--it just isn't--Please make a change in the future.

The biggest problem with Ethel is repetition--if he could cut back on that a bit--it would really help. Playing songs 3-5 times a day for months and months isn't Ethel--nor is it Ethel to play the Lucy jukebox hits almost everyday (Vertigo, Closer, Creep etc.)

Also, can you please ask the DJ's to STOP saying an album is awesome, only to not play anything of that album other than the FM single--In the past--Lambert would really delve into these great relases, and sprinkle them in--Kingston occasionally does this--but the few cuts he chooses then get overpklayed as well--there is no balance--Please rescue us from this.

Why is Kingston's Ethel so similar to alt nation on Sirius?--because they are working off the same FM playbook--

I di think the positive is that I belive XM will never repeat this mistake again--PD's on XM are gurus--They live and breathe the music they are programming--PD's on XM should not be FM suits not really known for music programming excellence.

At 10:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really hate the cooporate FM Classic Rock way of programming radio stations. The same dozen bands being played day after day.
Right now The Boneyard sounds like it's being programmed with like a FM Rock Channel. Every two hours, you'll hear AC/DC, Kiss, Ozzy, or Aerosmith. It's very predictable and disappointing right now.
The new P.D. Kevin Kash seems like a great guy, but he comes from an FM background and that scares me.

At 12:22 PM, Anonymous Jason Birzer said...

One thing that should also be remembered is sometimes genres that are considered "classic" are still active. Take Da Boneyard. Not only are older artists putting out new stuff, but there are new bands as well putting out damn good stuff. The station should reflect this, instead of cutting things off about 10 years ago.

Another note is that sometimes listeners buy into the FM playbook as well, and get frustrated when they aren't getting quite what they expect. My hope is that the response is to educate them, rather than to cater to them. Problem is, I find too much of the latter happening with XM.

At 8:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Mr. Birzer makes a great point--Ethel seems to cater to that FM mentality too much.

It's almost as if the format/framework of Ethel has been restored, but it is still driven by the same FM hack mentality--I say, you cannot have it both ways.

Steve Kingston is trying to have it both ways--he'll play a few deepish cuts--but they are set in stone and played frequently enough that they lose the luster--The Top 50 songs on Ethel are played 33% of the time (most played 3-5 times for months), and the rest is the Lucy jukebox hits played to death (also set ion stone, and never changing)--So basically, you have a very the dynamic Ethel format diluted so much so the end result is an FM Frankenstein that has a "day to day sameness" that is closer to Sirius and FM than it is to XM.

As for The Boneyard, I think it shows more promise--it seems to be headed in a more positive direction--At least the BY fans don't have to contend with the ridiculous, and unnecessary song repetition that is on Kingston's FM version of Ethel --

Please Lee--we love you--save us from this--oh, and by the way, I just don't buy your proclamation that Kingston now gets it--You get it too much to not know that Kingston (and Erik) clearly don't get it...

At 2:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I have no idea about Steve Kingston, but Ethel is definitely average. What really bothers me is this Erik guy--All he says as a DJ is "this song is on this disc,it's a cool disc...check it out"--and what is even more disturbing is he says that we should go "pick up the disc" while at the same time only playing the FM single off said disc, and giving us no reason to "pick it up."

The fact that this guy is the Music Director is embarrassing for XM--The fact that he is an "out of the box" choice means nothing if he doesn't have "the goods."--I don't care if he was a pizza boy or the janitor--if he knows the music, then cool--Erik certainly does not know the music.

FM pedigree is not the problem--Heck. Lambert was on FM, and he is a f-in genius--I am sure most at XM have FM experience--even you Lee!--and you are all great at what you do!

It is the FM philosophy that is the problem--and that is the problem with Ethel, and I guess Steve Kingston, if he is the PD.

I used to have every movie channel--and I realized that I was paying a ton of money for services I could get anywhere (Netflix, basic cable, local store)--so I cancelled them all...all except one--HBO.

Why? Because they have content no one else has--you can only get it on HBO. XM is like that. And so was Ethel.

Unfortunately, now I can get Ethel on my local FM modern rock station (thanks to Kingston)--I do not need to hear Vertigo every time I tune in--26 has that covered--

Please change this--

Thanks Lee--

At 12:28 PM, Anonymous M Newton - 3 year subscriber said...

Always enjoy your blogs, Lee. I must comment though that Ethel, although much better than the last few months, is still very far from what it used to be and should be. The repetition is still out of hand, and quite frankly the song selection of "newer" music is pretty bad. Most of it can be heard on Flight 26 or Hitlist, so no need to FM those songs to death on Ethel as well. Also, the deeper tracks from the 90s is still not up to par. Too much from Lucy's selection. THere are lots of great tracks on most of those 90s albums that we have familiarity with because "we bought the album". Remember that those of us that listen to Ethel are very savvy, and repetition of Angels and Airwaves and the ilk along with playing only the "top 40" hits from the greats like Pearl Jam will get us to tune out quickly. I think Ethel is moving in the right direction but has a way to go. Thanks for stepping in and fixing it though. We all know you "get it".

At 1:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is really uncanny how close Ethel is to the free Music Choice service--offered by most cable co's (for free). I guess that's what you get when you have "paint by numbers" programming.

It is very evident that the big sat rad story of the 4th quarter will be soft sales--

I think the new wave will be to really differentiate, and raise the bar for sat rad (basically get back to basics at XM--and Lee--thanks to you and E,Lo it seems that vision is back on course--other than Ethel which won't change until you really get a PD/guru for that channel)--This is what XM was about until XM blinked and brought in people likes Jon Zellner and Steve Kinsgton(definitely not a guru).

Hopefully, Steve Kingston will be moved off Ethel (or leave and go back to being an FM consultant)--He doesn't belong at XM--Maybe 20on20 would be a good place for him to apply his so-called talent--People do not want to pay for what is already readily avaible--

Also--I would love to see a future post dedicated entirely to sound quality--I'd be very curious to hear what the future may hold--With the Kingston mess, I already have one foot out the door when my discount runs out--The SQ issue is not helping--I know it's a crazy tug of war between content/variety and sound quality-but it has gotten to the point where it reflects on the overall quality of the service.

Thanks Lee-

At 12:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I have another, EX.,

I have been reading, and I do get, a little,..However,

WHY? Am I listening to Casem top 40 , on 80's,

As it is MY intrepretation, that THIS IS FM RADIO FORMAT, 150 % ,

Problem is FM top 40, they do a lot of talking, This is exactly the FM RADIO I don't want to hear,
EX. he has told me 3 times that they are replaying the top 3 from last week, ETCETCETC

Should remake these things, kinda like , TERRY YOUNG, He needs to give some lessons around down there, this is part of my should be quick/easy/cheap solutions,

And I bet XM has to PAY top dollar,for this "Content", not disrepsecting Casem, BUT, this is supposed to be XM..........NOT FM..

And Finally,

You are "ON",

"The Run to 20 Plus, Or Bust, Your Choice"



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