Radio DJs trying to turn more onto XM

TV/RADIO COLUMN

September 03, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Steve "Phlash" Phelps and Kurt Gilchrist are winging their way through the continental 48 states in just 14 days, making stops throughout in a customized Cadillac SUV as they broadcast songs from the '60s and '70s on XM Satellite radio.

Yesterday was Day 2, and they pulled up mid-afternoon in Owings Mills, at a Tweeter electronics store where XM-compatible equipment can be found. The SUV was covered in logos for the satellite radio service and some of its 101 channels. A red transmitter disk sat atop the SUV, resembling nothing so much as a misplaced giant clown nose. The contraption, filled to breaking with transmission gear, T-shirts, radios and laundry, was garish in the extreme. But Phelps and Gilchrist, itinerant DJs who have found a home with the Washington-based XM, seemed to be having a grand time.

"I wanted to see how fast I could do 48 states," said Phelps, who grew up in Towson. He then gestured at Gilchrist. "And he wanted to do a scavenger hunt. [The marketing department said,] `Let's do this as a kickoff campaign for our millionth listener.'"

Officials at XM radio, which was introduced in 2001, say they are poised to sign up their millionth customer this fall. The cross-country trek is a stunt, no doubt, but one that serves to remind listeners that in radio, as in so much else throughout the media, the way things have been done aren't necessarily the way they have to be.

It used to be you bought a radio, whether you plunked down nine bucks or $900, and searched for whatever local stations you could find. The big FM stations, when they came in strongly, gave great sound quality. Several AM stations, at night, could be heard from hundreds of miles away. But the best stations often provided a feel of the cities and regions in which they were based.

Now, huge conglomerates that own most stations often pipe in DJs from out of town without telling viewers. Or they might record the hosts' remarks in advance using digital technology to compress how much time they have to spend in the studio.

"AM and FM - hopefully, that's where you get your local stations," says Gilchrist, who handles music from the 1970s. "We're coast-to-coast, and we're proud of it."

XM Satellite Radio, and its chief competitor, Sirius, each promise more than 100 channels, with quality verging on that from CDs. In XM's case, far fewer ads mar the aural landscape than regular commercial radio. More than 30 channels have no ads; others typically have less than two minutes of commercials per hour.

And, supplemental information flows along with the news and songs. The receiver can tell you what station you're tuned in to, what artist you're listening to, and the name of the track, for example. Or it can tell you what news lies ahead - or what traffic snarls, or what weather conditions.

XM creates its own stations, such as Phelps' '60s on 6, for which he serves as the lead host and music director; and others devoted to soul, country, classical, Latin, dance, rap, jazz and Christian music, as well as other formats, such as comedy, talk, kids' programming and rap. DJs are given wide latitude to pick their own roster of songs each day - and the archive of songs tends to be two to four times the size of standard FM music stations. The service also broadcasts existing networks' offerings, such as BBC, CNN, Fox News and Fox Sports, ESPN, CNBC and Bloomberg News.

There are two catches. Like the cable television systems they somewhat reproduce, you have to subscribe to receive satellite radio - typically, $9.99 a month. And, secondly, you have to buy the equipment to receive all those digital bits.

"People want choice in programming," says Chance Patterson, XM's vice president for corporate affairs. "And they want to be able to hear XM wherever they go. That's what we offer them at a very good price."

There is evidence to support the idea of a growing appetite for the pay-for-play approach. And hitting the road, as Gilchrist and Phelps have done, may be the way to stir it up. The Consumer Electronics Association released a study in early August that found that car buyers were a "captive audience primed for many of the benefits satellite radio has to offer."

The trade association, which counts XM and Sirius as members, found 49 percent of car buyers surveyed said they would be willing to pay extra for satellite radio service. Both Sirius and XM are signing up partnerships with car dealers to make their services a part of the standard options packages for many cars.

"You want to make sure to establish a beach-head with the early adopters," says Sean Wargo, director of industry analysis for the CEA. "It's a new concept so it takes some time to educate consumers."

Some complaints have emerged from listeners. Sometimes, in major cities, interference can jangle the signal; on devotees' Web sites, some contend they have had to purchase additional equipment to enhance the listening experience.

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