Monday, April 02, 2007



We've been doing a lot of "special" channels recently. Channels that are temporary and geared to support and celebrate a day/days that are emotionally impactful to people. It all started with the Holiday Channels. Pretty obvious and nothing new, however we have the luxury of presenting every flavor of Christmas. From the traditional to the orchestral to the absurd as in "Special Xmas"--my personal favorite. Special Xmas is assembled by Dan Turner. While Dan is a buttoned down operational guy by day, he’s a madman at night, and this channel is all about his madman side...and it works. Special Xmas is actually an offshoot of a channel we had--and I pray we bring back at some point called "Special X". Headed by Lou Brutus the idea here is pretty much the strangest and possibly worst music ever created. So bad it's brilliant. It's still online, but when it was over the air it was pure madness. I think it was a huge mistake to lose the channel but at the time we had to make way for some others. But these are painful decisions that had to be made...some think we have unlimited bandwidth--we don't. Anyways, Imagine a show called "When Hillbillies Go Bad"---an hour of positively awful hillbilly music...usually from the 40's and 50's...or how about a Parakeet Training Record in” hot rotation"...It was Dr. Demento on Acid. Or "learn a language" records--but ones like "Learn English" recorded in 1946 in German, filled with how a German National explains the War In English with lines like "We are so sorry--we are your friends now" A wonderful channel. It WILL be back---don't know when...but it was too good to keep in the background.

Anyways, recently we did a St. Patrick’s Day Channel. The idea was to celebrate Irish Culture in an authentic way, instead of playing drinking songs and U2 records. We ”rented" Ken Aiken one of our executives who is extremely Irish as our consultant. He then turned us on to the Irish Embassy and we were off to the races. No fake accents doing Irish songs that a person who is as Irish as I am choosing. It was the real deal. It was more about Guinness than Lucky Charms.

Last weekend it was "Play Ball" a complete celebration of Opening Day. Great calls from legendary play by play announcers...Classic Baseball Comedies and Old Radio Shows (like Babe Ruth guesting on Bob Hope in 1943). Baseball poetry...Baseball songs--and a LOT of them not just Centerfield and the other obvious ones. The production was usually processed to sound like a stadium PA...and of course plenty of sound from the greatest cartoon of all time "Baseball Bugs" starring Bugs Bunny as the rabbit that took on the Gashouse Gorillas and won the game thanks to a Statue of Liberty umpire. Smell the speakers and it's cut grass, mustard and $7 beer.

Doing these CAN be easy but we take the hard course because we could just play a bunch of songs and issue a press release...and claim the credit. OR--We can do something REALLY special and deliver the goods. That’s what we do. It takes a lot of people. Lou Brutus, Jim Mc Bean, Ben Krech, Mike "no relation" Abrams and scores of others contribute to making these pretty special.

It gets back to that "honesty" thing--where you actually deliver what you say. Combine honest with imagination, vision, integrity and purity and you CREATE TRENDS....that last. The junk culture trend isn't a trend, it’s a cultural lull that happens in between trends. The junk culture from Katie Couric to Brittney Spears will be trivia questions when the next TRENDS kick in. We're wading in the shit right now, till it hits the fan, then you'll see a new day. Honesty, Integrity, Vision Integrity and Purity will help that shit hit the fan.

Took a commercial flight from Washington to NYC a week ago. Shoulda flown myself...again. I keep doing this--I have a wonderful plane but figure commercial will be less hassle. Not true. This time I was at Dulles Airport at 9 for a 10:30 flight. Flight left at 2:30. If I had flown out of Reagan, there’s a shuttle every 30 minutes, but Dulles has 3 flight a day...that's it. Had to leave from Dulles because friend and confidant Frank Wood flew me back home on Friday in his LARGE private jet (Oh my God--more on that later--I'm still goosebumping) and you cant fly Private into Reagan. Got to NYC at 3:30. Had lunch with Cliff Burnstein at 1:30. We met and decided we should have a hot dog at this place he knew because we didn't have time for the originally leisurely lunch we'd planned. Good hot dog. Good conversation--though abbreviated. One thing that really struck a chord was that he felt Satellite Radio doesn't do as good of a job as it should in “selling" new music. We sure play it, but it often doesn't get the buzz, whereas there are a few FM's that still go nuts and sell a new release. We used to do this better--maybe we've gotten lazy. Rushed to the Joss Stone Artist Confidential which was great…kept thinking about Cliff’s comment though.

I think the purpose of a music DJ is to emote and connect with the music. Otherwise, why bother? It just becomes useless DJ prattle… noise…I’m not talking about “morning shows” or other comedy and talk driven personalities…I’m talking about people playing songs. I DO believe there are a lot of channels where DJ’s are un-necessary. We DON’T have DJ’s on Top Tracks for example—WHAT can a DJ say about Hotel California? Or Audiovisions where a DJ would just interrupt the “spell”. But on most channels the connection to the music isn’t just paramount—it’s the very reason a DJ is there in the first place…to “narrate” you through the experience. Seems there’s this FCC Law that says only eclectic stations can connect with music. THAT is wrong. Connection with music is timeless and universal. IF a DJ is emotionally dis-connected with the songs he or she is playing—that is a BIG problem. That’s where you get the mindless DJ sound that permeates radio today. A bigger issue is that in light of the often soul-less new technologies delivering music—the DJ...Done right, is more important than ever when connecting with the music on channels that require a connection (not all do).

I sent this note to our staff:

Dan’s email about the great job on the Tim Mc Graw World Premier, reminded me of a lunch I had with Cliff Burnstein last Thursday in NYC. Cliff is one of the most important managers (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica etc….) on the planet. One of the reasons is he’s such a straight shooter. He shot straight with me and commented on how XM doesn’t “sell” new releases as well as we used to. By selling—it’s about emoting. Getting crazed over songs you love. SOME channels do this well (and you know who you are). Some channels fake it—and you can hear through that…some channels are on emotional autopilot. He went on to say how he hears BETTER music involvement on a couple of FM’s that we all know. Ouch! The idea here is that unleashing your emotions and TURNING LISTENERS ON to songs that turn YOU on, is an INTEGRAL part of the XM architecture!!! I know it’s easy to get distracted these days—but this is one areas that, well, you GOTTA stay on top of.

Here’s part of a note sent around on January 16, 2002 that covers this. Please get into and AFDI this CRITICAL part of the XM Sound! UNLEASH YOUR PASSION!

……Talk about it. Be in the loop. We have a real staff. We can really get INTO the music---get INVOLVED in it.
Where is it on YOUR chart? (you have one—right??) Call a record store in a cool or offbeat town and chat with the kid behind the register. GET INVENTIVE AND INVOLVED IN SELLING NEW MUSIC. I cannot tolerate or fathom our competition (satellite, FM, or even print) beating us in the sell of new sounds, let’s hear XM clearly dominate the air with information and EXCITEMENT about new and upcoming releases.


OLD MUSIC AWARENESS—Old music is just as important as new. We must be the smartest most in touch. No, we do NOT want to talk and talk and talk, but when we DO talk, music passion should ooze NOT from every break…but from every break where you FEEL it! (every break would be phony as you can’t POSSIBLY like EVERY song!)—honesty rules. Holding back sucks.

XM-Selling the concept
AMERICA—talking WITH and TO our very big local community

Now, song wise, unless you’re a decade station where the original authentic version is critical, look for imports, live versions, BBC versions…”different” versions of library songs. Some are bad. But some are gems. Again, we cannot let our competitor be cool because they are playing an odd version of a Hendrix song and we’re playing the same old greatest hits version.

THE BOTTOM LINE—our “fans” must know tat we’re out there searchin’ for the BEST MUSIC on Earth and there ain’t no static play list sitting there dictating every song. C’mon—DIG INTO THE MUSIC. Listen to Franks Place….. Among many others—these guys are talkin’ music..Informing..And doing it in a concise and compelling way. In other words, let’s hear ENERGY…SPIRIT…AND! Swagger, Information and “ownership” of your genre. Nothing less will a) be acceptable b) give us a clear musical victory.


-PLAYING THE BEST SONGS (remember “neighborhoods”. The BEST songs can be hits or experimental music…depends on your musical neighborhood)




-THINKING LIKE A MUSIC FREAK (rocket scientists may not “get” playing a lost Hendrix B side…we thrive on searching for cool songs to turn listeners on to)

-THE EXTRA MILE. Living your genre. It’s sad if listeners are more aware than YOU…and devastating if FM or another medium is.

-UNLEASH YOUR EMOTION. It’s bad if you can’t emote about what turns you on over the air…it’s REAL bad if you are so disconnected from what REALLY counts (music) that you present music in an automated and disassociated way.

If we do the above consistently…..we win….listeners win.

...a key word is "listeners win". We have another luxury---we don't have to program for advertisers on our music channels. THIS IS WHERE A DISCONNECT OFTEN HAPPENS and 99% of the programmers who join XM have to rid themselves of this key reality. Advertisers don't matter on Music Channels...therefore neither do ratings. It's all about LISTENERS. It's a whole new way of thinking and one that's dramatically different from FM or AM. We are somewhere in the middle--we aren't terrestrial and we're not Internet. We are in our own space and there is a new playbook. We are creating the new model. There is no model to refer to. Gotta remember that!


At 2:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post--wasn't Cliff the one who intially clued you in on how Steve Kingston ruined Ethel?

I'd love to hear what he says about it now--I bet he still thinks it's sub-par, because it is.

As for new music, they are doing a better job, but it is still a soulless channel--with DJ's (with the exception of Jeremiah to a degree) who really don;t have the knowledge or passion for the music-I get more gossip on Ethel than actual music info-

As for "selling" the new music, they fall short--basically throwing stuff at the wall, and not really going very deep on the albums that demand it--And when they do go deep-ish, it is done in such a soul-less repetitive way, that it defeats the purpose of "selling" the record.

It's too bad that we're at this point.

At 6:30 PM, Blogger Bryen said...

Lee - Once again I'm glad to hear you mention Special X and that I'll be back someday. I wish you had said two more that instead of you didn't know when it would be back...I wish you had said it would be May. I think a lot of people would take it back at the same sound quality as the comedy channels, so long as Lou was programing it still.

I also wish you had mentioned On The Rocks. Talk about old music and a connection to the music! That is one channel where every thing has a story although they are usually minor but it is an entire ignored culture.

I work full time in FM, and you are once again accurate in your description of the medium. I don't listen to any AM or FM. Sad that O can't morally promote and support where I make a living, but it is all I know how to do. Actually the only time I turn off XM is to put on my Ultra Lounge CD' only way to experience On The Rocks now.

One other channel that I really think was a sad loss - Luna.

I have faith that one day you'll figure out a way to bring them all back (OTR and Special X first of course!!!).

Please continue the stellar work!

Oh- and if you can convince someone to bring them all back for May, it'll indeed be a great summer.

At 1:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee - great post as usual. Wish I could actually see more of your philosophy in action on the Boneyard.

Kevin Kash is at least making an effort at promoting new music now with the "breaking bone" show, but listening to the show it's painfully obvious he doesn't know or care too much about lots of this music. Often his introductions are just reading the latestest bits of info off the bands' website - any of us could do that. Listen to Eddie Trunk's show for the proper approach to this music - the love and passion for this music is instantly apparent.

At 1:05 PM, Blogger Leah said...

I like what you said about DJs. The luxury of most XM radios is that we don't need DJs to tell us what's playing. We need them (on some channels) to connect us to the music. I love having DJs on many stations because it takes it from being an mp3 player on shuffle to being a radio station and that's why I listen.

At 1:20 PM, Blogger David said...

Interesting to see you miss Special X. I do too!

Yeah, a lot of it was horrible, but there was a lot of really good stuff -- how can you call it all bad?

My daughter still asks if Planet Pluto Polka party will come back, so at least now I can say "maybe." Yeah, some of it was bad, but a lot was incredible.

And Wax My Woodie? I never realized there was so much good surf music.

Now if XM would only put up a real progressive free form channel like WHFS in its heyday, or the other guys Disorder channel...

At 7:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee, why don't more people "get it"? XM is my #1 music choice thanks to the great folks who live the music. Mike and Jerry do a fantastic job at The Loft! Just to name two....

At 7:17 AM, Blogger MikeV said...

I love the special channels. And I think it's all the more reason XM should instead do a "Sounds of the Season" channel. Put all these great ideas onto one channel that's always playing seasonal/holiday-related music/content. Then take it as one of the Holiday channels after Thanksgiving. Play your eery Halloween music/sound effects, your Irish music, your MLB Opening Day stuff (which, btw, I thoroughly enjoyed!).

As with the others here, I'm happy to see continued talk of Special X, and a possible future return to the airwaves.

And I'm happy to see that there is still a push in the direction of being different than everyone else. It's what NEEDS to be done to keep ears tuning in. I love hearing unique versions of popular songs... live versions, remixes, you name it. And god knows there's enough of those out there. As you say in your video, "create FANS, not listeners." Fans love to hear their favorite bands, regardless of if it's the same ol' "radio version" or a version from last night's concert, or their visit to XM 5 months ago. I've been listening to XM Cafe a lot lately, and I love how they always play versions of songs recorded at XM, versus album or radio versions.

At 11:41 PM, Blogger Jay said...

once again, another interesting post. I'm a HUGE fan of Fred. Lambert still surprises me with a few things he digs up. I noticed that he has added a few songs from the XM live library.

now Ethel, that still needs help. the dj's don't have a clue, the variety is still lacking, and the current rotations are getting overplayed. Indie103 and KBZT are better current music alternative stations.

I also miss Special X and On the Rocks. Special X is a little too wacky, but a great selling tool for variety. where else do you get to hear Zappa?

and I know those 2 channels got dropped for XM Chill. I listen to that channel more than I ever did to those 2. hope that channel isn't in jeopardy.

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


You mention that some stations get it and some don't. What are the consequences when a station doesn't "get it"? We see stations flounder for years and not much happens. This is the age of transparency and Web 2.0, and as listeners, I think we'd all appreciate more direct ways to comment with programmers and work to make XM great. How about online chats?

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

Interesting post. I listen a lot to the decades channels. XM has a hugh music library - and has shown it on occasion, but we need to hear it on a regular basis. A couple of them have fallen into the trap of just playing the top hits (that I could hear on 96.1). Variety is needed to keep it interesting.

At 3:15 AM, Blogger rkb said...

I agree that more inter-activity between XM and its listeners would be a good thing. I have sent emails in the past and have received prompt replies however there can never be too much communication IMO

At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Regarding DJs ... while I agree with you on channels like Audiovisions and Escape, I disagree on Top Tracks and Big Tracks. If you're going to program your classic rocks like iPods on shuffle-play, then get rid of the liners and sweepers and seven-tone logos as well. Don't you think the same listeners who find disc jockeys an annoyance find the constant XM promos just as annoying -- they HAVE the radio, they're PAYING for the service, they don't need to be reminded what they're listening to between songs.

Also, your channels with announcers really need to be staffed 24/7, either with live talent or voicetracking. Why does soul street have the wonderful Leigh Hamilton in the morning and the equally superb Bobby Bennett in the evening, but is completely jockless from the end of Leigh's shift to the beginning of Bobby's? Can't they record a few minutes of gab each to fill the gap and maintain the impression listeners get of a vibrant, live radio station rather than an MP3 player?

The situation is even worse on the '70s channel, and has been from the start. I'm not sure where you or Kurt Gilchrist got the impression that Top 40 radio in the '70s was devoid of personality, but in the three markets I lived in during that decade, there was personality radio aplenty, on AM at first and then on FM toward the end of the decade. Yet I almost never hear a DJ on that channel, and when I do, it's the bland equivalent of a time-and-temperature jock on some Podunk daytimer, just with better pipes. (For Podunk pipes, listen to the voice on the repeating "this program has not yet started" loop on XM Live. The guy sounds like he's in junior high.)

I hope, if the merger goes through, that there'll be enough money available to staff all the channels that need to be staffed. There's no reason for Real Jazz or The Village or Vox -- channels that play music that begs for explanation and elaboration -- to go jockless for long stretches, no reason at all except pinching pennies.

Git 'r done, Lee, and make XM what Sirius claims to be -- the best RADIO on radio!

At 10:26 PM, Anonymous Dick Hungate said...

I do NOT agree with you, Lee, that there is "nothing to be said
about Hotel California" or some
other played-to-death but still
adored song on Top Tracks or Big
Tracks, for example. Just what
exactly is it that you think the
nation's most information-intensive, compelling and articulate FM air personalities
(like ME, all humility aside)
DO with a song like Hotel??
They say, "...that guitar solo
was writen by Don Felder at his
beach house in Malibu one afternoon...with the windows facing the ocean swung wide open and his feed dangling off the
ledge. He figured it out on
acoustic, then took it to the
whole band rehearsal for what
became one of classic rock's
greatest guitar duels between
Felder and Joe Walsh". I built
my whole 35-year career (and so
did Redbeard in Dallas, Bob
Coburn in Los Angeles and a big
and wealthy handful of others
adding such "rich icing" to a
what otherwise (after thousands
of radio, jukebox and iPod plays) might today be viewed as flat, plain, vanilla "sheet cake" like you'd buy at Kroger's. You want to hear Top Tracks REALLY come
alive with fascinating artist
and song factoids? Sit down
with PD Joe Bonadonna and make
a decision to put me on there!
Top Tracks and Big Tracks do NOT
need LESS embellishment, but MORE the way of never-before-
heard artist and song info.
And I am your man to do it.
Fact, not fiction--for ever
song on each of those two channels, I must have a good 20-25 never-before-related anecdotes that folks LOVE (!!!) committed
to my memory. There is a wrong-
headed notion that only some
super-obscure Savoy Brown song
needs window-dressing or extra
elaboration by the radio host.
That is totally misguided.


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