WASHINGTON — For music fans tired of the sameness throughout their AM and FM dials, XM Radio may seem like a gift from heaven. Or at least 22,000 miles overhead. Beaming 100 channels of music, news and information from a pair of satellites--dubbed "Rock" and "Roll"--hovering over North America, XM Satellite Radio hopes to do for terrestrial radio what cable television did for viewers who once had only ABC, NBC and CBS to choose from.
The service debuted in San Diego and Dallas earlier this week, and will be available in the Los Angeles area and the southern half of the U.S. in three weeks. Nationwide coverage comes in November. "The timing is pretty good for something like what we're doing," said Lee Abrams, chief programmer for XM, which offers 71 channels of music and 29 of news, sports, comedy and talk.
Abrams said the company is banking its $1.4-billion investment on the passion of music fans who aren't getting what they want from traditional radio, or who seek something new, good and different. "When they hear something as pure as what we're going to give them, they're going to freak," Abrams said.
According to industry research, half of all commercial radio stations are playing one of three formats--country, adult contemporary or news/talk/sports. It's a world where Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline can't elbow past Shania Twain and Garth Brooks on country stations, Bob Dylan apparently hasn't written a new song in 25 years and new bands can't get airtime without the imprimatur of MTV's "Total Request Live."
XM, on the other hand, is offering a channel featuring only unsigned bands from around the country, hosted by Pat DiNizio, lead singer of the band the Smithereens. The service features five Latin channels, including rock en espanol , tejano, Caribbean and a Spanish Top 40. It has 10 rock channels, from the head-banging Liquid Metal, to Sarah McLachlan and Sheryl Crow on XM Cafe, to XMU, which programmer Scott Struber described as "the best-funded college radio station in the country." There's an uncensored hip-hop channel, another offering old-school rap, four dance channels, six for jazz and blues, six country, and even separate channels for movie soundtracks and Broadway show tunes.
"That's the magic of 100 channels. We have something for everybody," Abrams said. A channel lineup and samples are available on the company's Web site (http://www.xmradio.com). Genres that don't have enough fans to sustain a dedicated radio station in one city may have millions of aficionados across the country, an ideal market for XM's nationwide reach.
"They're sick of 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning, on a college station when 10 people hear it," said "Native" Wayne Jobson, who programs the Joint, XM's all-reggae channel, with Junior Marvin, former lead guitarist for Bob Marley and the Wailers. Jobson had hosted a two-hour reggae show Sunday nights on L.A.'s KROQ-FM (106.7) from 1991-1998. "We're going to be celebrating the deep, deep tracks," Jobson added. "They don't want to hear 'Jammin" for the 10,000th time, or 'No Woman, No Cry."'
But XM's programming isn't all fringe. Its lineup also features Kiss, the pop station known in Los Angeles as KIIS-FM (102.7), as well as Lite, New York City light rock station WLTW-FM, and 13 other stations in its "hits" category.
Because the success of all the stations is linked, they'll cross-promote each other, with rock DJs telling listeners to check out that music's roots on the all-blues channel, for example.
XM had planned to launch Sept. 12, but postponed after the terrorist attacks. For $9.95 a month, the service offers CD-quality sound, uninterrupted from coast to coast. Subscribers will have to buy satellite-ready radios from audio dealers, costing about $150 more than standard AM-FM sets.
"We have to sound different and fresh," Abrams said. "People are paying for this--if it's more of the same, people aren't going to buy it." To expand the smorgasbord, the service also offers NASCAR radio, featuring races, news and interviews; BBC World Service; Open Road, a talk channel for truckers; CNN Headline News; and Babble On, XM's talk station for the under-21 crowd.
XM's sole competitor in the field, New York-based Sirius Satellite Radio, is scheduled to launch by the end of the year. For $12.95 a month, it plans to offer 50 channels of commercial-free music and 50 of news and information.
"Your average consumer still doesn't know about satellite radio," Sirius spokeswoman Mindy Kramer said. Sirius (http://www.siriusradio.com) is content to let XM educate consumers, for the time being. By next year, when Sirius expects satellite radio to catch on, its service will be fully operational.
Both have agreements with stereo and auto manufacturers; for example, General Motors will install XM-ready radios in Cadillacs this fall, and in 20 other models next year. For Tuesday's debut, XM President and Chief Executive Hugh Panero told his programmers to launch their channels with selections that reflect their "spirit and passion," the way MTV opened 20 years ago with the song, "Video Killed the Radio Star." So the '60s channel played the Beatles' "Revolution," XM Cafe played "Satellite" by the Dave Matthews Band, and XM Comedy played George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" (you can't say on radio or television). "We are about every artist, across every genre," Panero said. "We're here to sort of say, 'Radio is alive and well."'