Published On: November 25, 2008

Sirius Radio Hanging On By a Thread With Subscribers After Merging With Unpopular XM Music Content

Published On: November 25, 2008

Sirius Radio Hanging On By a Thread With Subscribers After Merging With Unpopular XM Music Content

The merger between Sirius and XM satellite radio hasn't been a smooth one for the company or for consumers. Mel Karmazin has more or less destroyed a lot of the most popular music programming on Sirius. On-air talent is no longer being heard on the air and subscribers now have to pay more money to get additional tiers of programming.

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Only a terrestrial radio executive could make such a short-sighted move, but amazingly Mel Karmazin - after literally begging to the Department of Justice and then the FCC to allow Sirius to merge with fellow satellite radio broadcaster XM Radio - has basically destroyed much of the most popular joint programming of the new entity in a matter of weeks. On-air talent is nowhere to be found. Subscribers are being asked to spend more to get additional tiers of programming, yet the overall musical and content choices are being merged together with horrific results and less choice for consumers - just what the DOJ and the FCC were worried about as they dragged their feet approving this questionable merger.
To fathom the annihilation of the programming on the new Sirius XM, understand that four out of nine favorite channels on my car's preset list have been literally abandoned. Casualties of the consolidation of satellite radio include Buzzsaw, a beloved hard rock and heavy metal oldies station that played the best music from the genre, including classics from Led Zeppelin, older Metallica, Rush, Van Halen and much more from platinum-selling hard rock artists. Buzzsaw was replaced with - get this - an all-AC/DC channel, while hair metal station Hair Nation was allowed to somehow make the Sirius XM programming cut. Yes, AC/DC is a band that is in vogue right now because of the success of the video game Guitar Hero, but you have to be kidding me with 24/7 coverage of a band that really only plays the same three chords over and over again and solos in the barely inventive blues pentatonic scale. To translate out of music school speak, AC/DC isn't that good a band musically compared to the bands on Buzzsaw, yet when you compare AC/DC's commercial success to the likes of Winger, Cinderella and the other hairspray bands at Hair Nation, AC/DC are gods of rock. This programming begs an interesting question. The new Sirius XM dumps some of the most popular, time-tested classic rock songs in a successful format for obscure '80s hair metal. Do these suits understand that the music of Buzzsaw is played at each and every sporting event in North America every day of the year? Find me one game in any sport of the four major leagues where you won't hear "Welcome to the Jungle." The music of Buzzsaw reaches male Generation X listeners who are in their "buying years" and are traditionally hard to reach. Thanks to this programming move, they are using their cell phones more in the car and replacing satellite radio with music and content from their iPods. When at the office, they stream Internet radio from stations that are far better programmed than anything on the new Sirius XM and are 100 percent free to listen to as well. 
Buzzsaw isn't the only casualty of the ill-fated consolidation of XM and Sirius. My guilty pleasure station Movin' Easy has been replaced on Sirius XM channel 4 with the music of - I'm not kidding - the 1940s. While you have every right to make fun of a married straight man for loving the sweet vocal harmonies of the Carpenters or a smooth rendition of "Breezin" by George Benson, Movin' Easy just worked for me, especially when looking for a mellow groove while driving in gridlocked West Los Angeles traffic. I am not the only person I know in his thirties who loves the genre of soft rock, yet satellite radio consolidation takes away another strong reason why I pay for radio. The Love channel has some of the songs from Movin' Easy, but it is not the same. It's far worse. The channel is not worth my monthly investment when I can make a play list on my iPod that can be called "Movin' Easy" and skip the $14 a month I pay to the satellite radio provider. How anyone in his or her right mind thinks the music of the 1940s demands its own channel is beyond me. A Sinatra channel I can definitely see, featuring all of the crooners of the era with a '40s bent, but all-'40s music on a dedicated music channel at the expense of classic '70s and '80s pop/rock? Only a terrestrial radio mind could think up such a bad programming idea. The same rocket scientist brain trust that saw the stock market go from a 52-week high of $3.94 a share to shares trading today at $0.14 a share. Yes, I said $0.14 a share. If you saw $0.14 on the sidewalk, you might not bend over to pick it up so you could buy yourself a share of the newly consolidated Sirius XM.
Oh, I am not done with the dissection of the new Sirius XM programming lineup by a long shot. The genius executives, in a cost-cutting measure, have replaced a very good '70s channel, formerly called "Totally 70's," with the Sirius XM station called "70's on 7," which is located on channel 7. Let me tell you, the music mix went from very well done to absolutely ruined in a matter of weeks of post-consolidation bad decisions. On 70's on 7, it's not uncommon to hear "Hotel California" open the hour and then an absolute stiff like "Pinball Wizard" by Elton John, followed by, say, "Roundabout" by Yes and then "Baby Come Back" by Player, to be wrapped up with something completely out of left field from the likes of Alice Cooper. Here is a news flash for the programmers at the new Sirius XM: good programming doesn't mean meaninglessly eclectic, even in a world dominated by the shuffle button on our iPods. A 1970s channel is an oldies format and there are time-tested programming techniques that make one oldies station sound better than another. Sirius had a good one with Totally 70's. Sirius XM has a pile of rotting garbage with 70's on 7 and subscribers will respond by canceling their subscriptions. I can think of a handful of my friends who in the last week who have done the dirty deed of dumping the new Sirius XM for better, free alternatives.
The '80s station - also an XM station ported over to Sirius XM - still features a yammering Martha Quinn of MTV fame going on and on about buying a Hooter's t-shirt for a girlfriend's party in Malibu. Can I be the first person to ask the all-important question of who the hell cares? An '80s format doesn't need personalities that are old enough to be my mother. It needs a well-crafted format of hit records that moves well through the hour. Think the "hot hits" format of top 40 from the era. 
The saving grace of Sirius XM is without question Howard Stern, who brings the only real programming innovation to the ailing satellite radio provider. Stern's uncensored broadcasts are nothing short of excellent these days and they are ultimately repeated all weekend long so that those who love his show can hear what they missed when their cell phones won out over their satellite radios during our morning commute. If Stern were to leave longtime friend and supporter Mel Karmazin, Sirius XM would be basically doomed and I am predicting Stern will do just that at the end of his contract in a few short years. Stern is the ultimate candidate for pioneering podcasting, as cars become increasingly wired for new technology. What if the Howard Stern Show delivered to listeners, for $9.95 per month, a subscription that included the show commercial-free in a format that listeners could skip around and hear what they wanted? The same fee might also include subscription to the often grotesque Howard TV on-demand video service. Only personal/professional loyalty to Mel Karmazin will keep Stern from acting on this lucrative and meaningful new technology or something in the world of new media. Stern is praised or even self-promoted as "The King of All Media," so he is likely to jump from the sinking ship known as the USS Sirius XM, even if his buddy Mel is the captain. 
Sirius CEO Karmazin made passionate promises to the Department of Justice and the FC
C that XM and Sirius would not be a monopoly if allowed to merge, as they would have competition from CD players, iPods, terrestrial radio and other media. What Karmazin failed to see was that consolidation was the death knell for terrestrial radio, as well as for fledgling satellite radio today. The joining of the two satellite providers today has created - to be polite - one absolutely mediocre $14 per month bill that people are starting to cut out of their lives as they save money in their tight budgets for their Starbucks fix. At Starbucks, the caffeine rush makes you feel good, at least in the short term. Listening to Elton John do "Pinball Wizard" makes most people just want to gag. 
Up until the past few weeks, $10 plus dollars a month seemed like a perfectly reasonable investment for mainstream consumers to get access to a vast collection of niche programming, including Howard Stern, tons of sports programming, scores of music channels and far beyond. Now, with popular channels like Buzzsaw, Disorder, Totally 70's, Sirius' 80's channel, Movin' Easy and many other channels gone, the value of the pay-radio model is being questioned at a time when Sirius XM can least afford it. It's a real possibility that if they don't fix their programming problem in the very short term and make their platform, different, nay, superior to all other forms of radio, the media is doomed with consumers. 

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