Short Waves of Activity in the Satellite Universe

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008

Just as the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal became the ultimate water-cooler conversation topic -- if only for a few days -- Sirius Satellite Radio launched Client 9 Radio, a 24/7 all-Spitzer channel, but just for a few days.

And when the new baseball season got underway last week, Sirius's competitor and possible future partner, XM Satellite Radio, offered Play Ball!, a new channel featuring wall-to-wall baseball songs, readings and dramas. Three days after the channel launched, it ceased to exist.

Sirius calls its instant, saturation formats "pop-up channels." XM calls them "microchannels." By any name, they are a reflection of a changed entertainment and information culture, a recognition that the American audience is shifting from loyalty toward permanent formats to sudden plunges into topics and trends that flash onto the collective consciousness and then flit away as quickly as they arrived.

The two pay satellite companies last month won Justice Department approval for their proposed merger; the FCC has yet to rule on the plan.

"The Spitzer story was so in the zeitgeist of the country for a minute," says Scott Greenstein, president of entertainment and sports at Sirius in New York. "We try to be the ultimate aggregator."

"There is a massive appetite for what's hot at the moment," says Eric Logan, XM's executive vice president for programming. "We're trying to reflect the mood of current culture in a way nobody else can. Right now, the core appetite is for the presidential campaign, and we have Fox and CNN channels that cover that, but we wondered if we could take them deeper."

So XM created POTUS '08 (using the acronym for president of the United States), an all-presidential politics channel that launched last September and will continue through this fall's election -- and possibly beyond, Logan says.

But although Client 9 Radio and POTUS grabbed more headlines than most pop-up channels, the bulk of the short-term, saturation channels that Sirius and XM have created have been musical offerings, not talk.

"When you look back, if you're north of 30 or 35, we bought records or went to a concert and it would move you, and for the next few days, you really mainly wanted to listen to that artist," Greenstein says.

So Sirius has enlisted musicians such as Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow and Jay-Z to "take over" channels for several days at a time, playing and talking about their music. And the satellite provider has devoted channels to one artist for weeks or even months -- E Street Radio plays Bruce Springsteen and members of his band, and Rolling Stones Radio, which is running now through April 15, was timed to coincide with the release of Martin Scorsese's documentary about the band, "Shine a Light."

Sirius is also running Radio R.E.M. through today, coinciding with a new album and featuring band members introducing their own music and other tunes they like.

"People don't want to constantly aggregate and update an iPod," Greenstein says. "We're creating channels that aren't just jukeboxes, but are produced artistically, with interviews, live performances and archived material."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company