Monday, June 04, 2007

IT WAS NINE YEARS AGO TODAY....AND TRAVELS!

IT WAS NINE YEARS AGO TODAY....AND TRAVELS!

It was nine years ago last Friday that I arrived in Washington to join XM. Fresh off a 16 hour drive from Dallas inspired by the incredible lack of imagination on the plethora of radio stations I listened to on the ride. In fact I ended up listening to AM 1590 type local stations more than anything as at least they were somewhat interesting, even though the signals lasted for about 12 miles. Then it was over to old tapes for inspiration. Things like Arthur Godfrey, Daddy-O-Dailey, Alan Freed and Bob and Ray from the 50's; KFWB, WQAM, RADIO LONDON(BIG L), CHUM,WLS, WCFL, KLAC, WVON, WWRL, WABC, KJR, and WKNR from the 60's;Y-100, WDAF, LOOP, WMMS, KMET, WBCN, WEBN, WBLS from the 70’s and pretty much nothing from the 80's or 90's (other than some cool Australian, Japanese and Euro stations)because you could already here most of that-and it wasn't very inspired anyways-it's 80's and 90's style radio we were out to change...But there was a feeling of sadness and anger at how pathetic the newly consolidated terrestrial radio business had become...tempered with a feeling of responsibility to do something about it and a sense of "Don't screw this up Lee" as I was blessed with an opportunity to help change the 'sound' of radio. I think XM HAS changed the sound of radio, or at least gotten more people thinking of new ways to deliver it. Even the denial driven big terrestrial groups are starting to talk about "reinventing themselves"...bringing creativity back into the equation, etc...There are even some stations trying to make a difference. I credit the guys and gals here at XM, who had the guts to AFDI change for starting something that I hope we finish. Takes time but with very rewarding for all.

Upon arriving at the Westin Hotel on 24th street, I immediately checked in with CEO Hugh Panero across the street at the ANA Hotel. Hugh got there a day or two earlier. We hung out in his room and watched the Bulls win, both kind of exhausted from the trip but pregnant with promise and anticipation of this incredible new idea. The next morning I checked in at our temporary office located with Worldspace, a satellite company focusing on overseas. I had no office because some lady promenading as the Princess of Zamunda conned Worldspace into thinking she was royalty. During the interim before she was discovered and busted, I camped out in an unused conference room. Every night Hugh and I both solo, would go to a nice restaurant to bond and brainstorm. The classic 'notes on a napkin' thing. We tipped heavily to counteract the guilt of ruining napkins and tablecloths with plans. These were heady times. Armed with a license, ideas and some start up money, we were off to the races. The conversations were great. One night at Marcel’s, we pondered what if's like: Bob Dylan doing a radio show...baseball in digital sound...a channel that played nothing but "earth sounds" (waves, crickets and storms) and on and on. Some ideas we did...others sounded good at the time but were TOO whacked or simply not realistic. Others are still on legal pads in the archives. We talked about "liberating" American ears, about rethinking an omnipresent but tired medium, the enormous challenge of staring with no radios vs. 500 million FM radios...and getting people to pay for the service. Over a bottle of $7 French Water, it was clear that people WILL pay...for quality.

There are SO many stories abut the early XM. Those were magical times. I miss the free form creativity. I miss the "selling" of this new medium, and the pressure to CREATE new attitudes, language and ways of doing things. To balance history with a complete new blueprint in the building...on the streets and over the air. Quickly--efficiently--and thoroughly.

Now fast forwarding to 2007:
KT Tunstal came in for an Artist Confidential. She broke a new record and played for 2 hours! It was the Friday before Memorial Day and the 5:30 pm start ended up 7pm due to an endless sound check. The audience was thinking about bolting as it was one of those Holiday weekend Friday's you want to leave as early as you can. No one left. It was a rousing way to bring on the long weekend. Real stand up and go nuts stuff.

A few weeks ago we had a Linkin Park Artist Confidential scheduled. It was cancelled and re-scheduled till later in the summer at the last minute. It was planned for Sunday night up in New York, so weeks before we planned on seeing a Yankees game before the Linkin Park event. Even with Linkin cancelled. We figured we'd go to NYC anyways and check the game. For the love of baseball. Actually I can't stand the Yankees. Reminds me of growing up in Chicago when they'd come to town and pulverize my White Sox, usually by a score of 2-1. Back in those days the White Sox had unbelievable pitching. Check the records: Hoyt Wilhelm, Joe Horlen, Gary Peters, Ray Herbert, etc... EVERY pitcher they had was incredible. Unfortunately the hitting was anemic at best. he Sox would throw two hitters...and lose. (Which actually happened again last Wednesday)

The Yankees then were baseball Gods-Mantle, Berra, Howard, Ford...And every red blooded Chicagoan hated them. That hatred remains. That whole superiority perception. Nonetheless, it was a great day for a game, so me, Jayme Karp and Lou Brutus piled into my plane for a short flight up to Teterboro. Arrived in Teterboro and a car took us to Yankee Stadium...the car trip took longer than the plane ride. Arrived at the stadium. I had been there before for night games, never in the day. Good thing they're building a new one 'cause this one is in serious need of a coat of paint. Drab and bland. Yeah-I know--The House That Ruth Built...but for me it was a drab and bland place that really hold no significant memories. The flight was fine except for an autopilot failure on approach to Teterboro. A quick re-boot and it was back.

Got our Yankees provided seats behind Third Base. Lou and Jayme are dispatched to find genuine New York concessions and arrive back with Meatball subs from Arthur Avenue, a local Italian deli with an outpost at the stadium. I wait for Randy Ezratty who I mailed a ticket to. Randy and the subs show up and it's game time. In a display of the worst anti social behavior I am consistently emailing resident XM Yankee fans Mike Marrone and Eric Logan. Marrone is upset that he's not there as we are doing two of his favorite non musical things: Yankees and Meatballs. Logan, who remains in complete denial about the Yankees record, is giving me reasons why they will lose today, while still maintaining that they'll go all the way by October.

Pretty good game. Then in the seventh inning, two bars of Take Me Out to the Ballgame...then a dour PA announcer comes on and announces an emergency type message. Oh no! Terrorist Attack? Please head to nearest exit? Nope-It's the announcement that Roger Clemens is coming back. Baseball's answer to the Who. You know--seven farewell tours. OK-the fans go nuts. They need SOMETHING...maybe this is it. I sure got the feeling they need something. SO much talent and they're threatening Tampa Bay for last place. Maybe they have TOO much talent and it screws with the chemistry. I remember when WNBC had Stern, Imus, Soupy Sales and Wolfman Jack on the staff (can you imagine THOSE staff meetings)? May have been hi profile overkill.

Game ends, and it's back to Teterboro. Lou has snapped yet another edition of incredible photos and three sweat soaked fans head back to DC.

...then last weekend I was going through airplane withdrawal. Couldn't fly for two weeks because of the Sinus operation. Finally given the OK to go up. Rob Johnston, our XM research guy sends me an urgent email. He had been reading Bob Lefsetz' blogs which focused on New Haven Pizza and Rob begged for a flight to get some. Great idea. So Saturday, it was me, Rob, Liz Speer from HR and XM audio psycho John Stevens hading up to New Haven. Talked to some experts and the rap was Pepe's...followed by Sally's (kinda wanted to go there because Sinatra used to have Pizzas trucked to Vegas). So, we ended up at Pepe's. Located on a quaint tree lined street in New Haven's little Italy. Perfect Day. 70...light breeze...Got their famous Clam Pie. No cheese just Clams and 3 lbs. of garlic with this crust from a 100 year old wood stove. It was unbelievable. Then went next door to Libby's for an Italian Ice to power down the acute garlic poisoning...then back to New Haven. The interior of the plane still reeks of Garlic. Brought some fans down yesterday to air it out.

So---Lindsey Lohan popped for DWI and cocaine. I just don't get why her and Paris and the others don't hire drivers. Would keep them out of trouble, though I assume they'd find another way to keep the tabloids in business.

Someone asked me "what are some big picture" things that one can transfer from radio reinvention to other media. That's a 500 page report, but in thinking, it’s partially about:

AFDI: (Actually Fucking Doing it): The idea of actually executing on ideas instead of talking about them or filtering them through too much research, meek, and committee thinking to the point where the ideas are diluted and/or simply not executed.

THE BIG THREE:

Passion: You just KNOW when a product is one created by passion…and one that’s created purely as an exercise.

Character: That extra dimension. As in radio, two stations can have the same play list, but the one that has character will prevail.

Muscle: Using “bigness” to your advantage.

CULT/MAINSTREAM: The magic balance. Engaging enough to have a cult following, mainstream enough to have a massive circulation. Religion is kind of like that….as is Starbucks.

NUMBERS OR FANS? Marketing people acquire the numbers for ad sales to use, content creators turn numbers into FANS. If the “Numbers to Fans” component is missing, the product will never be more than a utility. Utilities can be enormously successful, but the “fan” element ultimately makes the utility invulnerable.

ER: BiggER, BettER, or whatever…”ER” where it counts needs to be a focus.

SOUL: Ya need SOUL to cut through in today’s soul-les environment. Soul is that intangible that might be among the strongest competitive tools…and it’s off the radar in today’s conference rooms. Soul has to be developed…

ECLECTIC...ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK: Properly channeled eclectic…done smartly, is golden.

THE BODY CLOCK: Memories are as important as now. The infatuation with hip and young is a myth. Classic and Archive are key words in peoples lives. 16-20 remain the cultural roots for most.

SCANNABILITY: The world moves faster. Need to deliver content at the speed of Now. What was the right length in 1960 is too long today. What was too condensed in 1970 may be perfect today.

INTELLECT: Can be mass appeal and mainstream. Intellect is too often confused with elite and stiff.

MISSION VS. MISSION STATEMENT: A Mission Statement means nothing. A Mission is all about action. The difference between Talk and AFDI….between what you want to do and what you’re doing.

I was never a big Al Gore fan. Goes back to when his Wife Tipper went on a rampage about song lyrics. With that said, he continues to impress me with his Point of View on the dumbing down of News:

Al Gore slams 'trivialities and nonsense' in news media


May 25 05:03 PM US/Eastern


Former US vice president Al Gore on Friday criticized the "trivialities and nonsense" of celebrity gossip in the media and called on people to focus instead on issues like Iraq and climate change.
Gore, who is promoting his new book "The Assault on Reason," made the comments at a book signing in New York, where he was treated to a rock star reception by more than 1,300 cheering and screaming fans.
"What is it about our collective decision-making process that has led us to this state of affairs where we spend much more time in the public forum talking about -- or receiving information about -- Britney Spears shaving her head or Paris Hilton going to jail?" Gore asked.
He lamented what he described as the "destruction of the boundary between news and entertainment" and said the United States was "vulnerable as a democracy to mass and continuing distraction."
His new book draws parallels between the US government's approaches to climate change and the war in Iraq.
"Just like the facts available before the invasion of Iraq, these facts about the climate crisis have been repeatedly brushed aside and ignored as inconvenient," he said. "In both cases the facts were ignored."
Since losing the US presidential election in 2000, Gore has become a full-time global warming campaigner -- a path he says he intends to continue treading despite speculation that he could run for the White House in 2008.
Gore was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Price for his work in drawing attention to climate change, while the film he helped make of his best-selling global warming book "An Inconvenient Truth" earlier this year won an Oscar.

And…..XM has a a few more Micro Channels coming (short term channels). One is POTUS (President of the United States). An election coverage channel. I think it was Hugh Panero's idea. Then on June 5 we're dedicating a channel to the new Mc Cartney CD-Paul is "walking though" each track and telling the story behind it. It's also the first release on the Starbucks/Concord label. Highly symbolic of the new era we are in when an EMI lifer makes the switch....it just keeps getting more interesting.

12 Comments:

At 10:02 AM, Anonymous Jason Birzer said...

It is unfortunate that most of that hunger that you had nine years ago in revolutionizing radio seems to have gone out the window nowadays. Da Boneyard is generic and boring. Ethel beats songs into the ground. Most of the more interesting stations are now gone.

Fact is, XM is becomming more like what you seemed to work against at the beginning.

Yes, I miss the early days as well, because XM was better back then.

 
At 5:17 PM, Blogger Bryen said...

I agree with the previous poster; XM was good in the beginning. It doesn't suck now by any means, but it has lost a lot of the magic it had. For one, the nature sounds channel woudl work much better as a low bandwidth channel (like traffic) instead of being fabled. I'd listen to sleep!

On The Rocks was a true channel that I'd use to explain how different XM is from FM. Special X was another perfect example. Even Luna, a Spanish targeted channel that crackers like me could get into. Time after time when it is channel addition / deletion time I get so excited that OTR & Special X will return and I'll have that excitement you felt again. You can do a lot more than we can... and if you do it'll make more than me and the readers here happy. It'll show them you dare to do what you did and stick by it.

 
At 7:16 AM, Blogger MikeV said...

Ditto and Ditto the previous comments. XM is still good. But it could be GREAT again. Without the diversity of those channels that have since been removed, XM is slowly becoming nothing more than commercial-free FM, with slightly broader musical selection. And what's to get excited about there?

 
At 11:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that XM has lost a little magic, but we also need to keep things in perspective. Yes, Da Boneyard, Ethel, and the decades neighborhood (not counting 80's) have taken a huge hit. But 90% of XM's music programming is still producing at the incredible levels in which they started (ie. Squizz). And let's not forget all of the non-music content that's been added. And niche channels like Cinemagic are still unparalleled and can't be found anywhere else. Yes, I'd love to see the aforementioned channels improve and don't enjoy them half as much, but that's still a small complaint in the grand scheme. Sound quality degradation is the biggest disappointment since XM's early days.

I do still fail to understand Flight 81 and HitList's purposes though. They are completely stagnant musically and offer nothing unique. And 20 on 20- the so-called "voter-driven" channel, which is a waste of bandwidth when 21 does it better and doesn't insult our intelligences by saying we're determining the airplay.

 
At 11:31 PM, Anonymous Zulu Radio Man said...

First, I'm a fan ... a BIG fan. XM makes me want to fall in love with the radio again. But I think all the previous postings have valid points, however. I really agree with the first one as I, too, believe XM is becoming more like what it seemed to work against at the beginning. Recently I had Sirius in my car “for a moment” (after my Roady2 was stolen); however I ended up taking it back to the dealer and installed an old original Roady for now. Listening to Sirius was like listening to any FM station ... with its “whiz bang” filtered production and terrible old school rock DJs who sounded like they were still living on the radio in 1978, said absolutely nothing entertaining and even talked over (or on) the intros. And I was PAYING for that???!!! My perception is XM now is traveling down the same path. The DJs on Hitlist and 20 on 20 are the main offenders. (PLEASE get rid of them!) And I swear I heard “Twofer Tuesdays” sets on Big Tracks a few weeks ago. I love reading the blogs ... and again I'm a BIG fan ... but XM is no longer AFDI like it once did. Please – no “Junk Culture” for us.

 
At 1:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hate to say it but I think there's such a thing as too much creativity and too much choice and diversity. XM has a limited amount of bandwidth to work with and there are just too many channels.

When I had it, I listened to maybe 5 or 6 of them regularly. Some were occasional distractions and I had no use for most, of them at all.

What made me cancel was the horrid sound quality. Too much compression. Too many compression artifacts. Not enough highs.

Maybe XM should poll its subscriber base, attempt to determine what channels actually have a significant number of listeners and kill the ones that don't. Then you might actually be able to offer the "digital quality" sound XM promises.

 
At 9:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ditto on Ethel--the reptition on that channel is ridiculous. I'd really like to know why? Ethel's format covers sooooooooo much and yet 40% of the playlist is about 100 songs with many cuts played 5 times a day. I really love to know why this channle was pushed off a cliff.

I also think polling the subcsiber base is a good idea--I know beloved channels will get cut, but the sound quality is just awful.

One other thing--you always talk about reinventing the hits channels--well, I hate to say it, but you may want to have a listen at the Clear Channel offerings. The Mix and Kiss BLOW AWAY the XM counterparts, and are way more Abrams-esque than their Zellner FM clones on 26 and 30--and Sunny is the best channel on XM (yes, I said it). This channel is an out of the box hits offering with an abosultely gigantic playlist, and tons of WOW--IMO, it is what The Blend should be...

 
At 11:35 PM, Anonymous Samantha in Cleveland said...

It's so interesting to read everyone's comments here. I'd have to agree. Over the years, XM has added more and more rock stations (Big Tracks is a great example) at the expense of niche channels. Losing World Zone was really terrible. I don't understand why XM keeps adding rock channels and dropping the channels that made it so much different -- and so much better -- than FM.

 
At 1:30 AM, Anonymous Mark said...

Lee,

I'm with you when you say things like "XM plays careers not the just the hits." The Boneyard use to be like that when it was a niche Hard Rock/Metal channel programmed by someone who had passion and knowledge of the genre. Sadly, today the channel is a shell of it's former self. The Boneyard is now predicable and repetitive. AC/DC every 2 hours. The same 8 Thin Lizzy songs over and over again. Not the band's career, but the same 8 songs played on a loop. The playlist should reflect over 30+ years of Hard Rock and be HUGE! Sadly, the playlist is small hence the song repetition. I hear "Metal health" and "Cherry Pie" everyday. The Specialty shows are all but gone. Only 2 shows are remaining when channel use to have 8!!! Where's has the creativity? The Boneyard sounds like it programmed by someone who's going through the motions. The passion is gone. Where did it all go wrong Lee?

 
At 9:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please kill enough channels that the ones that remain can have enough bandwidth to have decent audio, and have enough manpower to produce better programming.

XM is a classic example of why "....More is not Better..."

 
At 4:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too bad XM is hemorraghing money...

I know a headhunter who told me that he likes to contacts XM employees, as many of them seem anxious and ready to consider their long-term future.

I know several people who won't buy XM b/c they don't want to buy a radio that may become obsolete. XM should rent out radios for a nominal monthly fee, just like cable TV companies rent out set-top boxes.

 
At 12:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"it was clear that people WILL pay...for quality."

The reality we have learned is that while some will pay for quality, they are not enough to cover the cost.

Which is a lesson terrestrial learned 30 years ago. And why they sounded the way they did.

So now you've arrived at the same conclusion, and your company wants to consolidate, just as they did ten years ago. Funny.

 

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