The Airwaves, They Are A-Changin'

The deal is a coup not just for Washington-based XM, but for satellite radio in general.
The deal is a coup not just for Washington-based XM, but for satellite radio in general. (Getty Images)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Bob Dylan -- singer, songwriter, former counterculture figure and voice of a generation -- has added another line to his rsum: radio DJ.

The enigmatic troubadour has signed on to host a weekly show on XM Satellite Radio, the D.C.-based pay-radio provider. Dylan will select the music, offer commentary, interview guests and answer e-mail from listeners during the one-hour program, which will start in March, XM said yesterday.

Dylan's hiring is not just a coup for XM, which is in a fierce battle for new subscribers with Sirius Satellite Radio, but also another score for satellite radio over conventional broadcasting.

XM and Sirius have been wooing big names and making high-priced sports deals to differentiate their offerings from terrestrial radio, and from each other. Sirius is counting on shock jock Howard Stern, who will move to the service Jan. 9, to help it close the subscriber gap with XM, which boasts more than 5 million customers to Sirius's 2 million.

XM's chief programmer, Lee Abrams, said his company talked with Dylan's management for about two years about the Grammy-winning artist becoming a host. XM declined to say what Dylan would be paid for the multiyear agreement. Howard Stern signed a $500 million, five-year contract with Sirius.

Abrams said that Dylan was attracted by the promise of a national audience, a commercial-free program and "total creative freedom" to air whatever he likes. Dylan also will broadcast from wherever he wants.

"This will be a peek inside the mind of one of the most important songwriters and poets of the 20th century," Abrams said. "He's a mystery to most people."

Once an almost reclusive figure, Dylan, 64, lately has attained about as much exposure as an Olsen twin. This year he gave his first TV interview in 19 years on "60 Minutes," and was the subject of a Martin Scorsese-directed documentary series on PBS in September. His memoir "Chronicles, Vol. 1" spent 19 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list last year.

He also appeared in, and provided the musical soundtrack for, a Victoria's Secret TV commercial last year. The women's undergarment chain, in turn, sold one of his promo CDs, "Lovesick," in its stores.

For Dylan, the XM deal might represent a way to reach younger music fans and stay "relevant" with those who have followed him for decades, said Tom Taylor, editor of the industry newsletter Inside Radio. "Great artists want to stay in front of their fans and want to be discovered by new generations," he said. "They don't need the money or the other things, but they do want to keep their hand in and stay current."

Dylan, who performs as many as 100 dates a year, is easily the biggest musical name to host his own radio program. Steve Van Zandt, of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, hosts a weekly two-hour show, "Little Steven's Underground Garage," that's syndicated to stations across the country (including WARW-FM locally). And XM previously signed programming deals with Tom Petty, Snoop Dogg and Quincy Jones.

Taylor said Dylan has a loyal following but has "never been a huge seller. He's a tastemaker, someone other artists watch." As such, his hiring "is a niche for XM. It's prestige."

Taylor added: "It's for the older baby-boomer subscriber. A lot of the early adopters [of satellite radio] are baby boomers. This will put an additional name on the marquee. It's an additional reason to subscribe."

XM and Sirius essentially are battling for the same pool of potential customers -- those who like radio enough to pay about $13 per month and, in many cases, buy a new radio (for about $50) for scores of channels, which are mostly music and mostly commercial-free. Although XM and Sirius have been growing -- each expects to add hundreds of thousands of subscribers this holiday season -- both have recorded heavy start-up losses. Neither has made a profit since the companies first sold their stock to the public in 1994 and 1999, respectively.

Taylor compares the signings of such big-name talent as Stern and Dylan to the rivalry between the old American Football League and the NFL, which fought each other for the best players in the 1960s. The signings make for great publicity, he said, but in the long run, that might not be enough to sustain both.

"Just like in football," he said, "at some point, do you have a merger and have one satellite service instead of two? Some people think that's eventually what's going to happen."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company