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Satellite Radio Listeners Rankled By XM-Sirius Merger

Subscribers cry foul over dropped stations as programmers streamline the new service

November 21, 2008 9:06 AM ET
Now that the Sirius-XM satellite radio merger has gone into effect, the programming has merged as well. And many longtime listeners are not pleased, crying foul over dropped shows and channels that some say they didn't know were going to to be changed. Sirius XM, however, says the newly combined network had to weed out redundancies, and in many respects improved the listening experience for its 19 million subscribers. "We are doing the most responsive and responsible aggregation of content to create what we think is the best radio on radio," says Scott Greenstein, Sirius President and Chief Content Officer.

But when Tiffany Bridge, a Washington DC XM subscriber, got into her car earlier this month, she discovered that her indie rock channel called Ethel had been rechristened Alt Nation by the combined network. "The first song they played was by Lily Allen, which is OK but outside the format," she says. "Then the obnoxious DJ comes on and I thought 'Oh God. They have a chatty DJ now.' Before there was no yammering. This guy yammers." By the time Bridge had arrived at work, she says, "I had this sinking feeling that my beloved XM was gone."

Certainly, many of Sirius' pre-existing subscribers reported being happy to start receiving XM programming such as Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour, Tom Petty's show and Willie Nelson channel. New to XM listeners are the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Buffett channels, as well as BBC Radio One. But blending programming necessitated cutting some channels out of the combined network's lineup. Some listeners were aware that changes were coming, others complained that they had no advance notice and were confused by the new lineups. In the days since the merger has gone into effect, they say, there is a noticeable difference: the DJs talk more, often over songs, and there's more repetition in the playlists.

A vocal group of subscribers sounded off online, in blogs and directly to the network. Satellite radio, they said, was becoming just a little bit more like FM radio — effectively defeating the purpose of paying for it. "Early on we worked tirelessly to try to differentiate ourselves from FM," says Lee Abrams, XM's founding programmer who left the network before the merger. "I've noted some reverting back to the FM playbook which we tried to burn and destroy and rewrite. The overall feel is a little more traditional and I would prefer it to be exotic and experimental."

XM fans have mourned decisions like dropping the Soul Street show and its host Bobby Bennett, the folding of four distinct Latin stations into one, and the renaming of stations like Ethel as the less-distinctive but more-descriptive Alt Nation. One name that vanished temporarily from the combined company's personnel list — to online howls — was the popular New York DJ Meg Griffin of the now-defunct Sirius Disorder freeform channel. On Monday Sirius XM responded to those concerns and gave Griffin a more substantive role on the alternative rock channel, the Loft. Lou Reed and Hal Wilner's New York-themed show as well as David Johansen's "Mansion of Fun" will also appear on the Loft.

Some of the programming decisions certainly make sense — there is no reason, after all, to have two channels that play the same fare. "It seems like a prudent business decision on behalf of Sirius XM: they're saving money on programming," says Motley Fool analyst Rick Munarriz, who has subscribed to both for years. He says he had no idea what programming changes were coming (even though DJs had announced them on the air), and wasn't always thrilled with what he heard. Still, saving money ought to be a top priority: Sirius XM has $1 billion in debt and its stock has lost 91 percent of its value this year, and now hovers at an abysmal 15 cents. "This isn't a time when you do something new," adds Munarriz, "definitely not something that may alienate people already on your side."

Sirius is the second largest radio company in terms of revenue, behind only Clear Channel. Subscription growth has slowed, but they are track to have 20.6 million subscribers by the end of next year, according to a company spokesman. The company claims that the programming decisions were largely not made with financial considerations in mind — and that the haters are outnumbered by the silent majority of happy listeners. "There are people who didn't like the Beatles or Elvis when they came out," says Sirius' Greenstein. "There were de minimis complaints, I mean minor. The ones that did complain were loud and had a lot of time on their hands to do it." Presumably because they weren't listening to the radio.

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