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SiriusXM's winning niche playlists

The satellite service, which beat FM with its eclectic mix, aims to do the same with digital competitors. It all starts with cool programming and hot personalities.

April 01, 2012|By Alex Pham, Los Angeles Times
  • Norah Jones performs four new songs for a special broadcast on Sirius XM Radio in November 2011.
Norah Jones performs four new songs for a special broadcast on Sirius XM… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — Perched on the 36th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper, SiriusXM Radio Inc.'s glass-walled lobby teemed with 52 buff bachelors, a diminutive Catholic nun and singer Chris Isaak strumming his guitar, a pint-sized white terrier at his heels.

As Isaak crooned songs from his country album "Beyond the Sun," Billy Corgan was in an adjacent studio promoting the re-release of his indie rock band Smashing Pumpkin's first two albums. Minutes later, shock jock Howard Stern sauntered down the hallway from his recording studio to a private service elevator that leads to his ride.

It was just another morning at SiriusXM, which dishes out an eclectic and complex blend of 180 satellite radio channels to almost 22 million customers across North America. Last year, it took in $3 billion in sales and dethroned Clear Channel Media as the largest radio company in the U.S. by revenue.

But in this volatile corner of the media, SiriusXM faces a set of digital music competitors such as Pandora, Spotify, Slacker and Rhapsody that allow listeners to build custom stations to fit their own tastes. Clear Channel also is hitting back with its own personalized digital music service, called iHeartRadio. Those services have grown up primarily on the Web and mobile devices, where Sirius has but a small presence. Now, they're slowly muscling into SiriusXM's stronghold — the car.

SiriusXM plans to beat these newcomers the same way it conquered FM radio — with what it advertises as cool programming and hot personalities.

"Sirius was built for artistic expression through niche programming," said Steven Van Zandt, the E Street Band guitarist and impresario of "Little Steven's Underground Garage," a SiriusXM channel that draws on Van Zandt's selected roster of 4,000 songs to illustrate the history of rock 'n' roll. "I'll play Sam Cooke's version of 'Good Times' and follow that up with the Rolling Stones' version of it. It's a deeper dive than you can get on broadcast radio stations. I've always thought that the depository of our entire musical history will end up on SiriusXM."

Satellite radio developed in part as a backlash to the homogenization of FM radio in the U.S., in which the playlists at a Los Angeles station differed little from those in Santa Fe, N.M., or Pittsburgh. SiriusXM, the result of the 2008 merger of competing satellite radio services Sirius and XM, responded with channels devoted to genres, subgenres and individual singers and bands. (Los Angeles Times Publisher Eddy Hartenstein has served as chairman of the SiriusXM board since 2010.)

Much the way that cable TV has grown through niche marketing, Sirius has five channels devoted to different types of country music, 24 for rock and 19 for Latino music, talk and sports. There are channels devoted entirely to music from each decade from the 1940s through the 2000s. Broadway show tunes have a dedicated channel, as does opera.

Personalities also are key to the formula. Martha Stewart, Jamie Foxx, skateboarder Tony Hawk, controversial shock jocks Opie and Anthony and Sister Marie Pappas share the dial. Add to that a steady stream of guests who flow through its SiriusXM's lobby, such as the 52 bachelors who breezed in for a segment on "Cosmo Radio," on which Sirius partners with Cosmopolitan magazine publisher Hearst Corp., and the atmosphere can get downright surreal. The day Pappas interviewed a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide for her show on the Catholic channel, actor Tom Papa brought in comedian Dave Attell to riff on the evolution of pornography on the Raw Dog channel, devoted to uncensored comedy.

SiriusXM also serves up a broad representation of news and talk across the political spectrum from Glenn Beck to former "Crossfire" co-host Bill Press, plus special events such as a recent subscribers-only Bruce Springsteen concert from the Apollo Theater in New York. The company also takes its sports seriously, including broadcasting live play-by-plays of all NFL, NBA and major league baseball games.

Many of the hosts are refugees from traditional broadcast radio, including longtime Los Angeles DJ Jim Ladd, who landed at Sirius in January after being laid off from KLOS-FM (95.5). Most are happy that they have found a place where they can indulge their niche interests.

For Ladd, that is a radio format called free form, where the DJ has total freedom to play whatever he or she wants. Ladd, whose pioneering work as a free-form programmer inspired the Tom Petty song "The Last DJ," said: "Terrestrial has turned its back on what rock 'n' roll is all about, which is freedom. What was once a creative and rebellious art form has become a boring, repetitive machine. Rock is supposed to be fun. It's supposed to be unpredictable. And it's supposed to be a little dangerous. And SiriusXM is re-revolutionizing rock radio by giving me more freedom than I've ever had."

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