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."
The music pop-up channels are produced with the permission and cooperation of the artists, and "we work with the artist and their management about how long they feel they want the channel to be up," Greenstein says.
Neither Sirius nor XM will release numbers showing the audience size for the microchannels, but XM's Logan says that the more successful short-term formats match and even exceed the audience for some of the company's most popular regular channels.
Some of XM's most successful microstations have been built around holidays, such as a three-day Saint Patrick's Day celebration of Irish music called XM Green, a Labor Day blowout of songs about cars and driving called Car-B-Q, and a Halloween channel called Igor that blended scary sound effects with songs such as "Monster Mash" and spoken-word ghost stories. XM last year added a Radio Hanukkah channel that had only the most limited of audiences -- and a painfully limited playlist -- but certainly won points for novelty.
XM just finished a month-long Michael Jackson channel called Thriller and this week started Strait Country, an all-George Strait service that will run through May.
Sirius ran its Strait Up channel back in 2006, and of course the rival services each claim to be the inventor of short-term formats. Sirius started out with intensive music channels and has branched into a Bing Crosby Christmas Radio channel and one that played only the radio dramas written by Oscar-winning movie team of Joel and Ethan Coen.
XM got into microchannels three years ago, when a hurricane took out power in southwestern Florida and Logan called the radio station he formerly worked at, only to find that the station was off the air, muted by the power outage.
"It hit me that we have two transmitters in space," Logan says, so the company launched Red Cross Radio, which both then and in the aftermath of the Katrina disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi enabled volunteers on the ground to communicate with one another and plot logistics even when power and cellphones were out.
But the short-term format idea really has its roots in old-fashioned terrestrial radio, in the AM Top 40 stations of the 1950s and '60s that regularly created themed weekends featuring extra helpings of girl bands, Motown or a single artist.
The satellite services say that adapting that model helps keep subscribers feeling that they are paying for something exciting and unpredictable. But microchannels are also a new way to package entertainment and information for a society that consumes popular culture in short but intense bursts -- from espresso shots to text messages to viral videos, and now to radio formats that delve deeply into a single artist and vanish before some of us even knew they existed.