XM signs Bob Dylan for a weekly radio show

December 14, 2005|By JEFF LEEDS | JEFF LEEDS,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Bob Dylan shocked his fans 40 years ago by embracing the electric guitar. Now he's stunning a few more by embracing another technological innovation: satellite radio.

The singer has signed on to serve as host of a weekly one-hour program on XM Satellite Radio, spinning records and offering commentary on new music and other topics, starting in March. The famously reclusive 64-year-old performer said in a statement yesterday that "a lot of my own songs have been played on the radio, but this is the first time I've ever been on the other side of the mike."

Lee Abrams, XM's chief creative officer, said he had been courting Dylan for such a program for a year and a half, and that the program would offer fans a close connection to the rock legend. "We want to make it as comfortable for him as possible," Abrams said, adding that the show would emanate from "a combination of home and hotel rooms and buses. He'll really be in his element."

For Dylan, the arrangement is the latest illustration of the way he has put forth a more public profile in the later stages of his career.

Already this year, Dylan participated in the release of No Direction Home, a documentary about his career development directed by Martin Scorsese. That followed the release last year of his memoir, Chronicles, Vol. 1.

The deal also reflects the latest salvo in the rivalry between XM and its smaller competitor, Sirius Satellite Radio, as the two still-unprofitable companies head into the crucial holiday-shopping season scrambling to woo new subscribers with a mix of new programming deals, price cuts and new device rollouts. Sirius is preparing for the arrival of its highest-profile on-air host, Howard Stern, in less than four weeks.

The hiring of Dylan underscores a key component of the two rivals' similar strategies. Each is trying to draw new consumers with a blend of programming that attracts a broad audience - like major-league sports events - and talent that appeals to smaller but extremely devoted segments of fans, as is the case with the arrangement with Dylan. XM said it now has more than 5 million subscribers and is aiming to exceed 6 million by the end of the year; Sirius claims roughly 2.2 million subscribers and expects to exceed 3 million after the holidays.

Dylan's move also comes as an array of other stars are signing on to use satellite radio to maintain a link to their fans - at least those who subscribe - and broaden their reach by creating programming beyond their own songs. Eminem and Jimmy Buffett have offered their brand names to designated channels on Sirius; XM has tapped Snoop Dogg to produce programming on one of its rap channels, the Rhyme. (Dylan's program is to air on XM's "deep album cuts" channel.)

Such offerings have bolstered the profile of the two companies, each of which offers more than 100 channels representing music niches, as well as news, comedy and sports programming - all for a $12.95 monthly subscription fee.

"Even if there was no competitive situation," Abrams of XM said, "we'd still chase Bob Dylan."

Jeff Leeds writes for the New York Times News Service.

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