Satellite radio to the rescue

Corporate dreck dominates the FM airwaves like never before, but hope for music lovers may finally have arrived.

By Gary Dretzka
Published June 19, 2002 7:10PM (EDT)

In May, more than 75 weeks after it first entered the Billboard charts, the soundtrack to the Coen brothers' "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" was certified by the Recording Industry Association of America as quintuple platinum. Earlier this year, it picked up Grammy awards for album of the year, best soundtrack, best male country vocal performance (Ralph Stanley), best country collaboration with vocals ("I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow") and producer of the year (T Bone Burnett). "Down From the Mountain," a live album inspired by the success of the soundtrack, was named best traditional folk album.

If this tally already wasn't impressive enough, the International Bluegrass Music Association and the Country Music Association just made "Oh Brother" their album of the year. On June 25, musicians featured on both the soundtrack and live albums will team up for Part 2 of their highly successful national concert tour.

Since they have received such laurels and currently hold the No. 2 spot on the Billboard album charts, you might think Ralph Stanley, Dan Tyminski, Alison Krauss and Norman Blake would be every bit as ubiquitous on country radio stations as, say, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Shania Twain and LeAnn Rimes. But, then, if you believed that, you'd probably also assume that country radio stations routinely played the music of Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell, George Jones, Patsy Cline, the Carter Family and Emmylou Harris, as well as Hank Williams Sr., Jr. and III. But you'd be wrong on all counts.

Because it was lip-synched by George Clooney in the movie, and, therefore, held some celebrity cachet, Tyminski's "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" received some airplay on a handful of country stations last year. Otherwise, the only place to hear cuts from the soundtrack was on NPR, college and alt-country outlets.

Plain and simple, "Oh Brother" and nearly every artist enshrined at the Hall of Fame in Nashville are too "country" for country radio. Help, however, has arrived in the form of two new satellite radio services. New York-based Sirius and XM Satellite Radio propose to fill a void created by a radio industry dominated by profit-driven conglomerates, ratings-obsessed programmers and hit-driven playlists. Fans of country music aren't the only ones suffering. Based on content and the frequency of commercial breaks, today's pre-programmed FM stations are virtually indistinguishable from the uninspired AM outlets they drove into the ground in the '70s.

But just as digital video recorders like TiVo and Replay TV are offering TV watchers a way to make television programming serve the needs of viewers, rather than the other way around, and DirecTV and EchoStar have provided an alternative to unimaginative network television programming and non-responsive cable companies, Sirius and XM are presenting listeners with real choices. Both networks now offer their subscribers crystal-clear digital reception and a surprisingly diverse menu of entertainment, talk and news options. Listeners don't, however, need to install a pizza-sized dish on the roof of their car or boat to receive them, just a small knob of an antenna.

The services are too new to definitively answer the question of whether advances in technology can permanently avoid co-optation by corporate forces determined to reduce all entertainment into mindless mush, but right now, the outlook is bright.

"There was so little airplay for the 'Oh, Brother' soundtrack, but you look at what it sold and it proves that people who are passionate about their music will find it, no matter how they have to do it," observes Meg Griffin, who programs two channels on fledgling Sirius Satellite Radio. "Think of what it could mean if radio would support it. Our country and bluegrass channels have been all over that record, but, even after sales of 4 million-plus, mainstream country stations refuse to play it."

"They're much more likely to stay with what's tried and true," adds Griffin, who's responsible for Sirius' Alt Country and E1-7 Eclectic channels. "They'd never ask anyone in their target demographic -- 32-year-old suburban housewives -- to listen to Ralph Stanley sing 'Oh, Death,' Their need for profit is going to prompt them to stay with something like 'This Kiss,' by Faith Hill."

For the past six months, XM Satellite Radio has been beaming 100 channels of imaginatively programmed music, comedy, news and features to listeners across the United States. Most of the entertainment channels are commercial-free, while some of the news, talk and Top 40 networks do carry some ads.

Sirius Satellite Radio, which has just extended its national footprint from coast to coast, promises to keep its music programming "100 percent commercial-free."

If these services are going to succeed with music lovers, however, it won't be because they have a different business model than the thousands of stations controlled by such predatory behemoths as Infinity Broadcasting and Clear Channel Communications (described by Salon senior writer Eric Boehlert as "radio's big bully" and ironically, perhaps, an investor in XM). It will be because the music heard on satellite radio no longer can be heard on broadcast radio, and in such a pristine state.

"We have a digital database of between of 1.5 to 2 million songs, including 10,000 pieces of classical music for those three channels," points out Charles Robbins, director of corporate communications for Washington-based XM. "We went national in November of 2001, and had 76,000 subscribers by end of first quarter. It's the fastest growing audio product in 20 years."

"We expect to have 350,000 subscribers by the end of the year."

The equipment necessary to receive direct-broadcast-satellite transmissions is readily available at car-audio specialists and large electronics chains. Some Cadillac dealers already offer XM as an option in certain models, but most of the partnerships between XM, Sirius and other national and foreign automakers won't take effect until next year.

At the low end, an all-inclusive satellite-radio kit can be purchased and added to an existing audio system for around $400 to $500, with subscriptions going for an additional $10 (XM) and $13 (Sirius) per month. Anyone interested in ordering the whole enchilada -- AM/FM, CD, cassette deck, DVD, video monitor and OnStar system -- should plan on spending upwards of $3,500, installed.

Is it worth it?

After sampling both companies' products for about a month, several things became apparent to this reporter.

1) Sound and service were impeccable. From Los Angeles, through Death Valley, and up to the Continental Divide, the only interruptions came when driving through tunnels for longer than four seconds. The audio quality was comparable to that of any CD played through existing speakers.

2) Most of the 100 channels offered by each company appear to be programmed by human beings who have a history with the genre, and actually take their listeners into account. Playlists are not determined by cozy deals between agents of the major record labels and greedy station owners.

3) If you want to listen to the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, you can. Blessedly, however, Top 40 channels are in the minority.

4) The disc jockeys are low-key, informative and personable. Talk, sports, news and comedy shows are grouped together, and each has a personality of its own.

5) There have been times when this motorist drove around the block a couple of times, instead of pulling into his driveway, just to finish listening to a song he hadn't heard in 30 years.

"I'm getting e-mail from people, who, I assume, are around my age, saying how pleased they are to be hearing this kind of radio again," said Griffin. "They're happy to have something to listen to that's not unlike the early days of progressive FM radio. A lot of our listeners tell me they turned their radios off long ago, because of the direction FM had taken.

"When I started listening to FM radio, back in '68 or '69, you'd hear more than one song off a new Jimi Hendrix or Crosby, Stills & Nash album. Sometimes, you'd hear the whole thing."

Chrissie Dickinson, critic and former editor of the Journal of Country Music, chose to illustrate a similar point by suggesting a "taste test."

"In 1970, the CMA Awards' 'Song of the Year' nominees were Merle Haggard for 'The Fightin' Side of Me' and 'Okie from Muskogee'; Conway Twitty for 'Hello Darlin''; Marty Robbins for 'My Woman, My Woman, My Wife'; and Kris Kristofferson for 'Sunday Morning Coming Down,' recorded by Johnny Cash," Dickinson says. "That was the competition in 1970! An unbelievable list -- every one of those songs is a classic for the ages, written by an indisputable titan."

"Now, fast-forward three decades, and the winning song for 1999 is Faith Hill's version of "This Kiss," a spineless, dopey, goo-goo-gah-gah love song that took three people to write, including the ultimate L.A. pabulum hack, Annie Roboff. Jesus Christ, you can find more angst in a seventh-grader's diary!"

While one could listen to most any major-market country station for a week before hearing anything by one of those "indisputable titans," Sirius and XM offer at least two channels each devoted exclusively to such classics. Indeed, on the Alt Country and X-Country channels, you might hear Cash and Haggard one moment and Steve Earle, Wilco and Lucinda Williams the next.

"The greatest country music didn't shy away from life's and love's tough emotional issues ... you know, all the shit people actually live through," Dickinson adds. "When George or Tammy or Johnny or Merle or Marty or Conway or Loretta sang a great song from the gut, you knew you weren't alone. They articulated the pain of human experience for their audience.

"Now, country marketers are terrified to offend anyone, so it's become largely a middle road of tepidly expressed happy endings, spineless writing and production with every possible edge sanded out of existence."

Besides a half-dozen different country and bluegrass channels -- including at least one targeted specifically to truckers -- XM and Sirius share other formats. Popular music not only is divided into the most obvious formats, but there are niche channels devoted to the hits of every decade since the '30s, acoustic and heavy-metal favorites, and the influence of specific artists on other singers ("Frank's Place" and "Hank's Place" on XM).

Other channels are devoted exclusively to blues, Broadway show tunes, reggae and other world music, folk, rave, classical, jazz, hip-hop, soul, NASCAR and show business gossip. Two of the three comedy channels on XM go out uncensored.

If XM and Sirius can endure the pressures of the marketplace -- Wall Street has yet to jump on the bandwagon -- listeners won't be the only ones rewarded.

Artists will benefit in several different ways, including having their names and song titles appear on the tuner when their songs are played. Besides being paid royalties for music that otherwise might never have been heard, they should experience a boost in album sales and concert dates as a result of their exposure to a potentially huge audience of uninitiated listeners.

"We service both companies with CDs on all our clients for radio airplay," said Mark Pucci, an Atlanta-based publicist for alt-country acts. "I've scheduled XM interviews for both Eliza Gilkyson and the Flatlanders. The artists I represent are rarely heard on mainstream radio, so any opportunity to gain airplay and visibility is worthwhile.

"Also, the programming and on-air jocks are just so much more receptive and knowledgeable about this music."

Chicago-based singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks is among the many exciting performers typically lumped together under the Americana, or "roots-rock," banner. He's blessed with an imaginative writing style and authentic country voice, but his music is rarely heard on mainstream stations.

"As someone who has never been called a Pollyanna, I have to confess that I think XM and Sirius are near-miraculous developments," he said. "They're a deus ex machina for fringe acts, like me, who have been puttering along for years, and the best publicity tool that's come along since I started putting out records.

"If XM and Sirius conduct proper ad campaigns, I don't see what can stop them. The stinking irrelevance of radio is no big secret."

Nonetheless, Fulks raises the same note of caution as those who have been around long enough to have witnessed both the blossoming of FM in the mid-'60s, and, 10 years later, its deflowering by media conglomerates in the '70s.

"The airing of my music on digital TV already has spiked my sales and produced a lot of word-of-mouth response," Fulks continues. "I don't think commercials would kill satellite radio, but its being co-opted by the labels surely would. Even if we get a few good years out of it, though, won't it be great?"

Well, yes.

Gary Dretzka

Until last fall, Gary Dretzka covered Hollywood and digital technology for the Chicago Tribune. He has embarked on two book projects, while also freelancing for the New York Daily News, Las Vegas Weekly, Screen magazine and other publications.

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