There have been a couple of things that I have failed to pick up on when they came out. One, believe it or not, was cellphones. When they were becoming more popular in the 90s and even the 2000s, I told people I would never have one. “If it was really that important,” I would say, “they can call me at home. And if I’m not there, they can leave a message.” That lasted until I got my first cellphone and, as they say, the rest is history. Now I cannot imagine not having one.
The second thing was satellite radio, in particular SiriusXM. For 16 years I worked in the radio industry as a DJ and a music director and I felt some loyalty to the industry, that it would be incredibly wrong to buy satellite radio and violate a personal bond with broadcasting and the radio industry as a whole. Hell, the radio station was free and, as long as I could put up with the DJ that came on every 20 minutes or so, I continued to listen. For the last few years, however, I have been an aficionado of satellite radio and I sincerely doubt that I will ever return to “terrestrial” radio.
As a former radio DJ, I knew the ins and outs of the business. I also knew how the music actually got on the air that we played for our listeners. As a music director, I would chart the requests we received each week, monitor the new music added to the station, try to predict what we would add to the station’s playlist and offer suggestions as to the new music we would add. Sometimes, especially in Album Oriented Rock (AOR), those songs were more predicated on the artist rather than any great musical achievement (in this late 80s/early 90s, this meant a lot of crappy music from Aerosmith and many others instead of truly groundbreaking work from bands like Nirvana and Faith No More). But there was a dirty little secret that does still exist, even in the programming of stations today.
Back in the 1950s Alan Freed, the legendary Cleveland DJ who coined the term “rock & roll,” was the man whom artists and record companies needed to sway to guarantee their single or album’s success. Through his radio programs in both Cleveland and later in New York (where he added television), Freed passed along to the youth of the 1950s (probably our mothers and fathers) what was supposed to be the best music in the United States. Freed himself was responsible for “breaking out” such artists as Bill Haley & the Comets, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino (Freed was partial to black artists, who would often write and perform songs only to see white artists cover them so they were “acceptable” to the white audiences, according to the record labels). The ability that Freed had to “make or break” careers came with a hefty price, however.
In 1958, Freed was accused of accepting money from the record companies to play and promote certain songs, known as “payola” (a mix of the words “payoff” and “Victrola”) and, to a lesser extent, accepted credits as an author or producer on some of the songs he was playing on the air, which was a conflict of interest if true (this was also the case for a man named Dick Clark, but that is a story for another time). He was immediately fired from his spot at WABC in New York and lost his television gigs also in 1959, although there was no law on the books that made what he did criminal.
In 1960, that was changed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and, in a true miscarriage of justice, Freed was convicted on two counts of commercial bribery in 1962 (once again, despite there being no laws on the books at the time the alleged crimes were committed). Given a small fine and a suspended sentence, Freed would be blackballed by the major players in the music community; he would bounce around at smaller stations across the U. S. for the rest of his life, passing away in 1965.
While many would like to think that Freed was the only case of “payola” that has ever existed in the world of music, that isn’t the case. Although many DJs knew about the rules (the FCC put a punishment of a $10,000 fine and/or a year in prison for accepting payments from the record companies), there was a way around the new laws.
Instead of paying off the on-air talent themselves, record companies began to woo those with the power to get the music on the air with special “freebies” that, for all practical purposes, only looked like “promotional” tools. How many times have (or did) you dialed up a local radio station because they were giving away free tickets to a concert or an album or CD? How about special “concert trips” where you were whisked to a far-away show? These were the new “payola” (as some of these “freebies” ended up in station employees’ hands), just this time around those in charge decided to look the other way.
In the 1980s and 1990s (and even today), this was still the way the game was played. The record companies would call up one day a week (usually on a Monday, as Tuesday was the day adds were done to the station’s playlist after the labels released the latest albums) and try to woo you to play the latest music from the label’s artists. Using the “promotional” tools at their disposal, the A&R people would do everything short of sleeping with the DJs and music directors (although I heard of that too) to get their records on the air.
Although I left radio in the late 1990s, I still felt a tremendous bond with the industry, so much so that when Sirius satellite radio – and then XM – came about, I was about as “anti” as you could get.
The satellite radio industry began in 1990, when the FCC assigned frequencies for satellite radio (using digital sound) to use, even though there were no satellites in the air at the time and no one broadcasting in that format. In 2001, XM became the first satellite radio service and, in early 2002, Sirius joined in the battle. After spending billions refining their products and fighting against each other, the twosome decided to merge in 2007 and SiriusXM Radio came to life. As of this summer, SiriusXM can boast of roughly 28 million subscribers.
In the end, it was my lovely wife’s frustrations with terrestrial radio that brought about the changeover to satellite. After a particularly lengthy drive – in which she had spent much of it looking for a suitable radio station to listen to – we began to discuss getting satellite radio. Because we didn’t always know the stations when we were traveling, we thought that having a set schedule of stations to pick from would be more suitable to our lifestyles. As such, in 2010 we installed a SiriusXM receiver in our vehicle and the difference was immeasurable.
Normally when dealing with radio, you can find one station in each of the formats in a given “metro” area or city: a Top 40 station, a Classic Rock station, a news/talk station, etc. With SiriusXM, you can pick pretty much any musical genre or era and have a place to go. Want to listen to Frank Sinatra? There’s several channels, including hits from the 1940s and 50s and a “Siriusly Sinatra” dedicated station. Feel like some rock music? There are almost two dozen stations there, covering everything from the 1950s to today. Country music has six channels, Christian music three…as you can see, it covers everything.
Then there is the pleasant respite from commercials that SiriusXM gives the listener. For the most part, every station on the SiriusXM dial is commercial-free radio (save for simulcasts of radio and/or television broadcasts). This means that you won’t be jumping around the radio dial, trying to find some music when your favorite radio station goes off on a five-minute commercial binge (like television, radio goes to commercial breaks at the same times – 10, 25, 40 and 50 minutes past the hour, in most cases). About the only reason you’ll leave a station is because you want to hear something different.
You need more? How about the vast libraries that the SiriusXM stations have put together. Due to the advent of digital music, the SiriusXM libraries play virtually anything that has been digitized for listening consumption. Because they also haven’t been corrupted by radio “consultants” nor the radio conglomerates (in one city my wife and I lived in, two radio groups controlled 15 stations that were in town), they will play things that you won’t hear on terrestrial radio; instead of hearing “Stairway to Heaven” for the third time in a week, you might hear instead a deep cut from Rainbow (grossly neglected in terrestrial radio, along with many other artists).
Finally, there are the host of specialty stations that SiriusXM delivers that would never appear on terrestrial radio. Channels that focus on the music of Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Pitbull, the Grateful Dead…these are all artists that have their own dedicated stations on SiriusXM (especially my favorite, Radio Margaritaville and Jimmy Buffett). There are also “limited engagement” stations that have featured Billy Joel, Tom Petty and Elton John in the past year. If you would like to listen to nothing but Howard Stern 24/7, there’s a place for that, as there is for the sports fanatic.
For the hour I spent in my vehicle today, here’s where I bounced around: I started with Buffett, then moved over to the Hits station that played the latest from Fall Out Boy; after getting my son out of the car, I moved over to Octane, where Tesla was doing “Little Suzi” before dropping down the dial to First Wave (the 80s British synth pop era) and hearing the Human League. When I got home, I’d worked my way through the alternative stations, which had told me that one of my favorites in Florence and the Machine were about to play, before getting “back to the beach” on Radio Margaritaville. Tell me you could find that wide a range in terrestrial radio.
After once thinking that there was nothing better than terrestrial radio for as long as I did, I can now confidently say that there is no way I would ever think about not having SiriusXM in my vehicle or on my computer. The reasons listed previously should be enough, but there is also the ability to make up your own playlists (called MySiriusXM) that puts the cherry on top of the sundae. There are some questions about its compensation methods to the artists (something that I might get into sometime), but there’s more enjoyment than you’ll ever get out of terrestrial radio through the SiriusXM satellites circling our planet.