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Gay Programming Steps Out On Satellite and Digital

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, June 10, 2007

Acaller rings up the "Derek and Romaine" show for some frank advice. The man says he'd had a random sexual encounter with a stranger and they got to talking and it turned out that the partners were cousins.

The question: "Can I marry him?"

"Honestly, I think you can," says Derek Hartley, co-host of the frisky, freewheeling talk show that airs on Sirius Satellite Radio's OutQ, the first among several new radio outlets dedicated to programming for a gay audience.

Hartley -- a former movie reviewer from Fredericksburg who came to radio from a gay Web site -- and Romaine Patterson -- an activist who started working with gay political groups after her close friend Matthew Shepard was killed in an anti-gay attack in 1998Ö -- offer a distinctly different brand of radio. Their nightly show features segments such as "Shocking Confessions," when callers tell stories absolutely none of which can be related in a family newspaper, or "What's Your Gay Problem?," when the hosts dispense relationships advice that would result in an instant loss of license on old-fashioned broadcast radio.

But OutQ is not just about pushing the boundaries of what can be said on the radio. The channel, which launched in 2003 as radio's first all-gay programming stream, includes hourly reports of news for and about gays, Broadway show tunes, dance club music, a talk show with Michelangelo Signorile and a celebrity-oriented morning show.

"The biggest benefit I hear people say they get from OutQ is that if you're a gay person, here is a place you can go to hear people who speak honestly and passionately about what it's like to be gay," says Sirius's vice president for talk and entertainment, Jeremy Coleman. "So whether the topic is depression or gay porn, there's a tremendous relief we have in being able to speak very openly."

While Sirius's paying audience may value explicit language and extremely frank discussion of sexual topics, different standards apply on broadcast radio, and a campaign by Clear Channel Radio to expand the kinds of programming heard on free, over-the-air radio has produced a new format called Pride Radio. Heard on a dozen HD stations -- the new second channel of programming available free on AM and FM to owners of digital radios -- and on the Web sites of nearly two dozen Clear Channel stations around the country, Pride Radio is also programming aimed at a gay audience, but the approach is vastly different from OutQ's.

"As a member of the community, I set out to reach myself," says Jared Cohen, 24, who created Pride Radio as part of the radio giant's Format Lab project. "I thought about the music my friends and I listen to and what we hear in the clubs. It's music that's always a little bit ahead of the mainstream."

Pride Radio is mostly music, delivered without DJs -- like almost all HD stations in this early phase of the new technology, Pride Radio airs without ads. The tunes are not the hard-edged dance numbers often heard on OutQ, but rather a more rhythmic version of the upbeat pop that might be heard on an FM pop station.

"There's only so much bumping and thumping at 180 beats per minute you can take," says Cohen, who adds that the playlist of Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Prince, Gloria Gaynor and other dance standards is supplemented with tunes from gay artists as well as bands that draw large gay followings, such as Scissor Sisters and the Gossip. If OutQ is primarily a talk channel, Pride Radio is "a musically driven channel that you can shake to," Cohen says. But Clear Channel is moving to add personalities to its gay programming, starting with "Ryan & Caroline," a mix of music, celebrity gossip and entertainment news that airs both on Pride Radio and as a two-hour Sunday night show on half a dozen Clear Channel FM stations (the company's Washington outlets do not air any of the gay-oriented programming).

In cities where Pride Radio has been available for a while, the response has been better than expected, says Jen Austin, a DJ at Clear Channel's KDMX in Dallas who does a pop music show on FM and a gay-oriented show on the local version of Pride Radio.

"The only negative feedback is from a few members of the FM audience who hear our promotions for Pride Radio," says Austin, 33, who is active in Dallas's gay community and is the author of a book, "Coming Out Christian," on combining her faith with her sexuality. "The gay community has received us well, though they've warned us about stereotypes in our music choices. And they're right: We don't want to be just the stereotype, playing Madonna and Donna Summer. We're going to break some rules and play Soho's 'Hippy Chick' right next to Fergie or Amy Winehouse." The move toward programming aimed at gay listeners reflects the growing sense in the media industry that gays are an uptapped market. In radio, where stations with formats appealing to black or Hispanic listeners regularly top the ratings in many big cities, the idea of discovering a large minority to target with niche programming has captured the attention of many executives.

"This is not much of a hot-button issue anymore," Austin says. "It's more of a valid lifestyle, and it's ready to be talked about, so I think we'll hear Pride Radio on terrestrial radio soon."

Cohen says Clear Channel executives are eager to expand Pride Radio, especially in the face of market research in which about six in 10 gays said they identify more with their sexual orientation than with their ethnicity. "This has the potential to be as big as Latino or urban radio," Cohen says.

At Sirius, some big sponsors have embraced OutQ, including Orbitz, Subaru and Coldwell Banker, and while Sirius won't reveal audience numbers, Coleman says the channel draws a large audience that is about a quarter to a third straight people.

"OutQ is insanely popular with people who are gay," he says, "and while I do get calls from subscribers who say they're offended that we have a gay channel, I don't know of anyone who has dropped a subscription because of it. I talk to them and they realize there's 130 stations and they can take their pick."

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