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Inside SiriusXM’s 24/7 Beatles Channel

How programmers are finding countless ways to reexamine the Fab Four’s legacy

Programmers on SiriusXM's Beatles channel discuss how they keep finding new ways to present the Fab Four's catalog.

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“Beatlemania is a temporary state of mind that can only be accurately described by the state of one under its influence.”

This snippet from an old news report was re-broadcast earlier this summer on SiriusXM’s “The Beatles Channel.” Once the phrase “temporary” is removed, it serves as a mission statement of sorts for this 24/7 bastion of Fab Four–focused programming. The maniacs have the wheel, and their madness is contagious.

The Beatles Channel, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, has an expansive mission. First and foremost, it hopes to broaden the Beatles’ narrative to encompass nearly everyone whose orbit they touched in any way. History is written by the winners, so how did the singers who were swept off the charts by the Beatles’ British Invasion fare? You knew that John Lennon was murdered, but did you know that James Taylor lived just a block away and heard those fatal shots from his window?

Peter Asher, who A&R’d for the Beatles’ Apple label, now helms the SiriusXM channel’s show From Me to You; even with his personal experience in the Beatles’ extended family, he still finds himself learning new things from the channel. “When I talk about being in the studio at Abbey Road or a conversation I had with George Martin or one of the Beatles, then I’m occasionally able to throw some particular light on something for which I was present,” he says. “But certainly there are things I didn’t know. You meet people who studied the Sixties much more seriously than we studied them when we were in them. They’ll correct me when I go, ‘I guess I did this then’ — ‘No, no, no, that was recorded on Tuesday, the 22nd!’ Well done.”

“I think that even the intense fans, you can never know all,” adds Bill Flanagan, host of the show called Northern Songs. “You can’t know everybody’s perspective.” Listen to the Beatles Channel, though, and you’ll start to get close.

Adding all that context is crucial if you hope to revisit music that is well known already and maintain an audience’s interest. It’s also a key way for the channel to separate itself from various competitors — a Pandora Beatles station, for example, or Spotify’s playlist “This Is the Beatles” — which serve up a steady stream of the Fab Four’s music but fail to provide any background or additional information about how, when or why this music was recorded and how it was received.

“In a culture that’s emerging of playlists and randomness and algorithmically generated music, it’s interesting that at the end of the day, when you do something like this, you realize how this is not able to be duplicated algorithmically,” says Scott Greenstein, SiriusXM’s President and Chief Content Officer. “Take the greatest computer coder ever, the guy who invented ProTools, you’re still never gonna be able to program a Beatles channel this way. There’s a clear delineation:  Certain things can’t be done other than by hand with people that artists trust.”

But any single-artist programming endeavor presents a challenge: How do you keep generating new content based around a finite catalog of 206 usable titles? Even Flanagan was initially skeptical that a weekly program would be able to keep Beatles fans hooked. “Really, two hours a week?” he remembers thinking when presented with the idea of co-hosting a call-in show. “You don’t think we’re gonna run out of ideas? They’re like, ‘Nope.'”

Finding extra sources of variety helps: On the Beatles Channel, canonical songs are mixed with selections from solo catalogs, hard-to-find B sides, covers from a wide variety of genres — Count Basie’s rendition of “All You Need Is Love,” for example — and even songs by non-Beatles that former Beatles contributed to in some way.

Hosts are free to organize shows around themes of their own choosing. “At some point I had an idea for the alphabetical format,” says Asher. “By restricting yourself to one letter of the alphabet, you think not only of songs, but people and places and events and stories all connected with your letter that week. It’s an apparent restriction that actually enables you to wander more widely.”

Flanagan has experimented with several through-lines. “Just yesterday, one of the producers said to me, ‘People don’t realize how many non-Beatles records Ringo has been the drummer on,'” he recalls. “So that sent us off on a show about, Ringo played on this Clapton record, this Joe Walsh record, this Howlin’ Wolf record. There’s a show I don’t think anybody has heard before: 16 or 18 songs by various famous artists from Stephen Stills to T Bone Burnett to Tom Petty where the drummer is Ringo Starr.”

Some shows are organized around grander themes. “One of my favorites was called the ‘Let It Be’ moment,” Flanagan explains. “It was about the fact that at the same time that ‘Let It Be,’ a secular hymn, came out, Simon and Garfunkel did ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water, ‘ James Taylor did ‘Fire and Rain,’ then George [Harrison] did ‘My Sweet Lord,’ Billy Preston produced by George did ‘That’s the Way God Planned It,’ and then John answered the whole thing with ‘God,’ which was kind of a hymn for atheists. Suddenly you have a show that’s basically a theological argument from the Beatles in 1970 and 1971.”

“If we do a show like that,” Flanagan adds, “the next week we’ll do a fastball straight over the plate — 20 great Beatles songs from 1965.”

Northern Songs and From Me to You are just two of the channel’s many offerings. Flanagan also co-hosts The Fab Fourum, a call-in show, with Dennis Elsas; on a whim, Priscilla Presley once hopped on the phone to share her own memories of the Beatles stopping by the house to meet her former husband, Elvis. For the lyric-heads, there’s Speaking Words of Wisdom, for which the acclaimed Irish poet Paul Muldoon reads lyrics aloud. Dark Horse Radio focuses on the work of George Harrison; it’s overseen by his widow Olivia.

The Harrison estate’s involvement is not unusual — the surviving members of the extended Beatles family are closely connected with the channel. “We don’t want to do any channels in which the artist isn’t highly active,” Greenstein says. “We’re not in the rent-a-name business, or ‘let’s just license stuff.'”

Paul McCartney even participated in a deep-dive, documentary-like segment that aired recently on Derek Taylor, who served as the Beatles’ press officer for a time and also helped out with the occasional lyric.

After a year working on the Beatles Channel, Flanagan now understands how “you can do the Beatles 24/7 and not run out of subjects.” “It’s just an endless well,” he explains. “It’s kind of the Big Bang that a million planets were formed from. So you have all these planets that you can reflect on — how the Beatles shaped them, their relationship with the group.”

“We’ve done some 50 Northern Songs shows,” he continues. “Every week I think, ‘I’m out of ideas. There’s not gonna be any more.’ [But] this world keeps opening up. When you’ve done all the obvious ideas, something new presents itself.”

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