THE XM RADIO THEATER: BOB DYLAN, GEORGE CARLIN AND LARRY KING
THE XM RADIO THEATER: BOB DYLAN, GEORGE CARLIN AND LARRY KING
Three things have happened on XM that re-enforce our commitment to the theater of radio.
We have re-upped with Bob Dylan for a multi year term for him to continue creating his award winning “Theme Time Radio Hour”. I gotta tell you that this has been an absolute highlight in my career. His show is consistently amazing. It’s Bob fucking Dylan…and he’s doing a radio show.
HIS way. With TOTAL freedom. The thing that amazes me the most is how people of all ages and musical backgrounds gravitate to the show.
I often get asked “what’s it like to work with Bob Dylan”? Well, I don’t! His show is a complete mystery. Bob and his producer Eddie put it together in complete secrecy. Part of the charm. Untouched by radio hands! Pure him.
He teaches us radio types a lesson in diversity…a lesson in the dangers of the playbook. Below is an old 3 part post that summarizes the early days of the XM / Bob Dylan relationship:
THE DYLAN DIARY (PART ONE)
Immediately upon arriving at XM in 1998, part of the mission was going into the daydream zone. Incessantly thinking about what this thing what going to SOUND like. The mandate was to bring together something that re-invents radio. Something that people will gladly pay a few bucks for. Something that can be an icon of the emerging new age in technology and sound. Generating FANS and not users. One of the things that we all knew was that the artist community would love and embrace the liberation of the play list. To play careers…not JUST hits. Who should WE embrace? Who should WE bring to the party? Quincy Jones, Snoop Dogg, Wynton Marsalis and an army of others that reek quality and commitment have come aboard. But there was ONE name that kept me sleepless. Bob Dylan. This guy IS XM. Or at least what we drive to be: Revolutionary. Intelligent. Rebellious. Different. Timeless….and oddly enough he wrote our anthem in The Times They Are a Changin.Getting through was not easy. The label was pretty useless. Of course the label usually owns the plastic...the managers own the artist...in Bob's case it was appearing that Bob owns Bob, and there lies the challenge. I tried one of his managers. We had a cordial breakfast in LA, he looked a a few proposals, but really couldn't get much traction. At the time I had no clue how complex and un-ordinary the Bob Dylan thing works. Most major artists have a back door. Bob was pretty isolated, but that is why he's Bob Dylan. The mystery. The purity. The intangible magic one should expect from one of the great poets of any generation.I kept trying. Every angle. Nothing. Then I heard that Bob owned something like 12 XM Radios and he loved it. The more I read and studied Bob--partially out of admiration...partially out of trying to sway him into a relationship. Hell, this is the guy that helped me write the soundtrack to MY life. In 1962 my older brother saw him at the Gate of Horn in Chicago. The legendary Folk Mecca run by Bob's one time manager Albert Grossman. I was into Bobby Vee, who ironically Bob points out as a mentor and fellow North Central US alumni from Fargo. But upon hearing Bob, I was educated. Not unlike hearing the Beatles. A musical version of the monolith in the 2001 series. "Something" that elevates you to a higher musical place. So with that all said---This battle for Bob has just started.I talked to a lot of artists and high level music types. No one really had much of a feel for this. There were the agents and artists who've worked with him, but there didn't seem to be the one "guy" that could unlock the door. The more I listened to Bob's work, the more emotional I got. There are two sides of me musically--One is the hardened programmer who battles for listeners, the other is whimpering muso that cries at the raw emotion of anything from a cinematic wide screen pictorial Classical piece to a touchingly well sung Gene Pitney wail to a Pink Floyd or early Yes song that hits a space beyond the threshold of consciousness to a favorite oldie. I was getting into that "zone" with Bob which is an emotionally dangerous but inspiring place.A few breaks came along. The first one was that XM's pal Willie Nelson was touring with Bob last year. Hmmmm...Willie is coming in to do an ARTIST CONFIDENTIAL, maybe he can bring Bob too. Willie alone is magic---with Bob, it could be well...historic. When I asked Willie he said "I've been on the road with Bob for a month...haven't seen him yet....have you?". Oh well, Willie along with his band and Son were awesome enough. But the Bob thing lingered.Miraculously, I am put in contact with his business manager, an incredible guy behind so much of what Bob does. We talk a few times, exchange e-mails, and he comes for a visit to DC. We hit it off immediately! Telling tales of the golden days of music and radio. I give him a few copies of Billboard from the 50's and Melody Maker (The essential UK Rock publication of the 60's & 70's). We share the same passion for Americana, for those 50kw AM's at 3am from 600 miles away in the early 60's. He gets pitched by EVERYONE but I think he has strong passion radar and can see through the typical BS he sees daily. I think I, and more importantly XM passed the test. He’s too smart to not have had his BS detector set to high when we met. I couldn't fake it. XM couldn't fake it. He met Hugh Panero our CEO and he said "You know Bob is not a "CEO" kind of guy"---but Hugh delivered the goods as a person who "gets" the idea of Bob and XM...from a musical standpoint. I credit Hugh for this because he could have done a CEO rap and talked about the business impact...but the conversation focused on the musical impact. Sure, there are deal points, but it was more about coming to terms with XM being a logical and comfortable radio home for Bob. Without that, deal points are irrelevant. This is about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for art and technology to merge. For Bob fucking Dylan to play on a new stage....XM. Everyone can win here because this thing is for the right reasons.The next step now that "contact" has been made was to figure out HOW Bob could be involved. It was verified that Bob loves XM and listens to our Hanks Place and Bluesville channels religiously. Not surprised. Hanks Place is the kind of radio that is, by design, modeled after a Country station in Lubbock circa 1956. Smell the speakers and you smell Stale Lone Star Beer and freshly spat Red Man. Bluesville is as organic as radio can get. Together they represent that gritty, zero BS soulful radio that defines the story of America.At first there's talk about a Bob Dylan Channel. Well, we COULD do that, and it would make a great press release.But then what. Bob couldn't possibly oversee that and at the end of the day everyone would be disappointed. The fans....and Bob. Too much to manage. Too complicated. IF Bob would give up his career to run it--OK. But reality set in and we thought about what Bob could actually do that has NO compromises, that he totally controls and that speaks volumes a bout his spirit, intellect and vibe...but isn't some cheesy tell all where he explains Blowin in the Wind. It was decided....A weekly radio show. One where he dreams it up and delivers...on his terms. I am ecstatic. Bob's passion for Americana radio...his people having a grasp of how Bob ticks, at least as anyone other than Bob can...and Bob. I know him. Through his poetry, history and music. I don't REALLY know him, but I have a strong sense of what he can deliver on the radio with all of the stars lining up.Speaking of Stars lining up, they have. Weather it's by design or pure chance, Bob seems to be opening up....a bit. I sense he'll go to the grave as a mysterious genius and musicologists two centuries from now will be waxing on about his vision. But for now, he did 60 Minutes...the book...the Scorcese documentary. This window may never open again. It is now a personal mission to see that this thing happens. It's not about the deal. It's about the extraordinary opportunity to hear Bob in his own words. To peek inside the soul of a master. To subtly observe the inside his soul without disturbing the mystique. This is not about a quick PR hit. This symbolizes XM's commitment to long term excellence. Baseball ain't going away...it's part of our cultures DNA. So is Bob. Quick hits fade. Quality lasts. Most radio today is so focused on the quick hit...the quick buck that it's creative balls are being cut off and America hears it. Bob is more than a "content deal", it literally symbolizes our musical position. As Bob liberated the word, we hope to liberate the ears. It is a marriage from the Gods.OK---there is an opportunity--now what??!! We know that Bob Dylan is not an amiable hippy who will mindlessly sign on the line. He and his associates are smart. This has to work for them. There's a balance of art and business at play.
THE DYLAN DIARY (PART TWO)
It took a long time to put the Dylan Radio Show together. The delay was that I’m not sure everyone at XM “got” how extraordinary this could be. Maybe because it’s so unthinkably cool that there was this “We’ll never get Bob Dylan” thinking that was happening. After all—Bob is not a typical “content deal” that takes money and a good PowerPoint. This is engaging BOB DYLAN to do something that you’d never think he’d do. In any case, I laid traps throughout the building and enlisted everyone I could find to support this idea. The best supporters of this project were the other timeless and emerging artists. Not ONE artist came through XM without talking about Bob. As an influence. As a guiding light. Unprovoked and unsolicited. And then there are those who COMPLETELY got it. Together, along with the media attention Bob continues to draw, it became more and more a project we HAD to do.Once we had our house in order on this, the deal part was painless. It took three days. A lot of the credit goes to his team who is so damn easy to work with. When it comes to protecting the Dylan legacy and vibe—they are Patton. When it comes to AFDI’ing something (our internal programming slogan for “Actually Fucking Doing it”), His guys get it done with a minimum of the typical legal crap that goes along with ironing out the details.OK—It was right before Christmas, and we had an agreement. At first the shows were to start in February, but Bob DOES have a musical career also, and his first priority was finishing his album which he was in the middle of. So it was decided that a May launch was realistic.First the press release. The reaction was astounding. As we were told it would be. It was. Front page of the New York Times and Washington Post; mentions on thousands of TV shows including some pretty funny lines from Leno. I got calls from radio stations in Japan, Russia and the UK. First time I got to be on a Russian talk show! Then of course there was the “Sirius has Stern…XM has Dylan” comparisons. Pretty absurd. But in a way it does illustrate the differences in our companies, especially in terms of musical integrity and goals. However using Bob Dylan as a competitive advantage never really occurred to us…it’s not about that. It’s about something much higher.What has impressed me the most is how intensely Bob and his associates are taking this? This ain’t no radio show. This is an epic. We talked through the vision. I was expecting to guide then through the process, but in reality their vision was exactly what I hoped it would be. Theater-of-the-Mind. Americana radio. The glory of an AM from 500 miles away at 3am. Whacked humor. Ear Candy. Arthur Godfrey meets Bob Dylan…in 2006. Eddie Gorodetsky, a legend of his own, was brought on to help Bob produce the show. Their team is set to make magic. Eddie’s request for tapes of old jingles, air checks and ads so hokey that they are genius made me very confident.We first got copies of the song lists. For technical reasons we need to make sure they are in our system. As deep as the XM library his, they had us stumped on a few. Good! Symbolizes that the musical direction will break every radio rule. Perfect. In fact that they have no clue about what a traditional radio show should look and sound like means that the show WILL be a PURE reflection of Bob and uncompromised for mass consumption. I believe that because the show IS so unusual that it WILL be mass appeal…but certainly not by trying to be.Now there’s our team which is about Half the Company! Our technical and production people, marketing people, press, and the list goes on. The key is that EVERYONE at XM is in sync with the vibe as much as the timeline. Because the show is produced on Bob’s terms, it’s different. There are a million moving parts that go into each show. A true “production”…radio theater. As expected, the look and smell on our end leaned a bit traditional, or maybe a bit standard. So copies of his book, scrapbook, videos and other items were dispatched to everyone involved. The programming people instantly “got” the vibe…others who are involved in the traditional marketing of XM needed some guidance, though at the end, everyone got into the unique and powerful attitude that this show conveys and everyone in all camps seems pleased with the way the show is being represented. It’s a fine line. We have to have to make certain that this concept is presented artistically and intelligently while not getting TOO cool for the room. Personally I think erring on the side of too cool suits us best in this case. Reason: It IS too cool—and there are a lot of people who WANT too cool from their media.Every Monday at Noon we have a meeting/conference call with Bob’s team. Bob’s not in on the call…I don’t think Bob does Conference calls. Dealing with this project is so refreshingly music driven. The language is Radio Theater. Integrity. Quality. Keeping everyone motivated is NOT a problem, but there is a significant challenge in that this show launch involves so many pieces.Last Friday I had the chance to present the idea to the ENTIRE XM marketing force. Had a five minute demo that included dozens of major artists talking a bout Bob that we culled from our Artist Confidential series. Priceless comments from Coldplay, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, Judy Collins, Phil Collins and many more. At the end of the CD there was BOB DYLAN talking about the show. Surreal. It really was Bob. And he was talking about the show. Had a PowerPoint, but kind of tossed it to wax on about the show hopefully better than A PowerPoint. The main point was that this was actually happening!! And that this is NOT a normal show…its Bob Dylan. Putting the PowerPoint was interesting. It had to look pro…but it had to have grittiness to it to illustrate the character.Another conference call in an hour. We’re getting close to ShowTime
THE DYLAN DIARY (PART THREE)
Now it’s getting interesting. The actual launch show is in its final production stages. We give Bob along with his team complete freedom. Why would we want it any other way? The last thing we want is a Bob Dylan show sanitized or compromised to radio standards. The magic is hearing what Bob Dylan can do with a radio show. No doubt it will be different from any other show…ever. However, there is a lot that we at XM need to do to support the show, particularly in promoting it. It’s a learning experience. At first a bunch of our more adventurous “audio animators” as we cal them wanted to take a crack at the thirty and sixty second promotional announcements. In a sonic array that is a bit like a merger of Rocky Squirrel and Frank Zappa, they created some pretty incredible pieces. WAY out there. His team has the right to approve these and we knew they’d either hate them or love them. He hated them. Actually they liked them, but thought they were way too crazed for Bob Dylan. Or maybe the wrong kind of crazed. No problem…we kind of knew that. It’s a good feeling that our guys can create something that brilliantly insane, even if the got thumbs down from the Dylan camp.OK—this time we’ll produce some things with some guidance. We did. They were close. But they didn’t like these either. Too over-produced. Now I’m getting a feel for the style that Bob’s team wants. I took a crack at writing something. They liked it. Jim Mc Bean one of our animation aces recorded it---I just sent the MP3 to them. I think he’ll like it. Very informational…not too dense with sound. Stay tuned.This project is refreshing. Painful at times…but refreshing. The Dylan camp doesn’t operate off the radio handbook. They operate via the Dylan handbook which is probably more relevant today to listeners than the radio handbook is. Even the drastically re-written XM handbook. These guys know no rules…it’s all about sound. They have this keen and powerful Point of View that has absolutely nothing to do with radio. THAT in itself is a learning experience. I always prided myself on thinking beyond what the radio sheep were thinking…but these guys are SO far away from “radio thinking” that it really gets you realizing how engrained we radio people are in a certain style of thinking and creating.Just received the show’s graphic logo. Again—there ain’t nothin’ like it in radio. Zero “corporate” look. Very camp. Very earthly. As good as our graphic guys are, we would have never come up with this very cool retro look. Again, they aint thinking radio graphics…they’re thinking Bob graphics. This is all liberating. This won’t be another radio show. This is different. And it’s different by design, but spontaneously. No one is thinking “this has to be different’, it’s just happening that way. Not too many radio thinkers to screw it up. Keeps us on our toes.The web design was another area. We have some brilliant web people working on this, but in going through the web plan with them, there were dozens of little details. Lines. Looks. Attitudes that weren’t quite right. I talked it through with them. They got it. Still---Bob’s guys found more “flaws”—though they were pretty minor. I felt pretty good that I’m starting to learn how this thing needs to look and smell. An education in cool.Had to send Eddie some sound. He wanted some sound effects and strange vintage “classic” radio bits. Got ‘em sent. Mc Bean and John Keith, two of our guys doing a ton of work on this put a nice package together. Hmmm…I wish more of our own Programmers asked for this stuff. I’m confident that this Dylan adventure will inspire us all. In radio! His show will obviously open up some music voids in our heads…but who woulda thunk that this show would inspire in radio. I thought WE were the experts. Guess not. Can’t stop learning. That’s the problem at FM. They learn about systems and research, but stopped learning about the soul of radio.One thing I can help these guys on is the classic radio thing. I understand that. So do they. Together I think this thing will morph into something more like a radio variety show from the early 50’s than anything else. Now that is good.We really have our A team plugged into the production. Randy Ezratty and Rob Macomber from XM Productions in NYC are on the scene up there. Going beyond the call…on a taxi shuttle schedule to and from the production office. Here it’s McBean and Keith…and a lot of other people. Then there’s George Taylor Morris who runs Deep Tracks, the show’s home channel. George is experienced in this as he’s closely involved in Tom Petty’s show…and George is helping immensely with the music. We have millions of songs in our library, but even then Bob and his team are finding some real gems, that even we don’t have. But we’re getting them. I think some might be on 78’s. But this ain’t gonna be no oldies show. It’s about MUSIC. The dates are irrelevant. It’s all over the road—for the right reasons. I’m Kissinger. Keeping the XM and Dylan camps on the same page. Feels pretty good. This thing might actually happen! And LISTENERS are the ones who will really benefit from this.We moved the press announcement back a week. No big deal. Nathaniel Brown and Anne Taylor Griffith need some extra time to organize. Actually we ALL need the extra time as the premier date is creeping up.Feels like the days before the moon launch must have felt to NASA. The countdown continues…
On a related note, we did a week long tribute to Larry King. On paper, it’s not that big of a deal. On this air, I was blown away. We were able to acquire his old shows from WIOD in Miami and the Mutual Network. He was interviewing guys like Stan Musial, Jackie Gleason and Desi Arnaz. It was an education in radio magic and both entertainment and in Stan’s case, baseball history. These interviews were expertly conducted, but more importantly, hearing these legends in this unbridled environment was beyond fascinating. They were at the ends of their careers but still active so their point of view was very interesting. Been around long enough to tell it like it is/was without fearing ANYbody or ANYthing, but still in the mix enough to have a contemporary POV rather than a post mortem on their career. It was so “real”.
On yet another related note and another personal highlight we did Artist Confidential with George Carlin!!! George is entering his 50th year in Show Business. His “story” is so remarkable and told as only he can tell it. It was one of the greatest 90 minutes of radio in memory. WE forget that George came from radio. He worked at K-JOE in Shreveport, along with KXOL on Ft. Worth and KDAY in Los Angeles. He was one of the first “funny morning guys” along with Bob and Ray, Dan Sorkin and a few others. I can’t begin to tell the story of this show—you’ll just have to listen. What made is so great is that he doesn’t give a shit…about anything. As a result he is SO un-PC…so completely honest that it’s riveting…and of course funny because funny is in his DNA. He could sneeze and it would be funny, but it’s no about ‘jokes’…it’s about his take on life---which is so real and so bizarre….it’s ….funny. He talks about having a meeting with Johnny Carson completely coked up…to well, ya just gotta listen.
What all of this means is to underline that there’s SO much more to radio than formats, songs and ads. There’s a soul that in most ways is missing, but vanguards like Bob Dylan, Larry King and George Carlin illuminate the dial in a timeless and permanent way.