For months now I’ve been meaning to write something about how cool I think XM Radio is. The satellite radio service came with our new car, and when the free trial was up in January, I not only subscribed but bought a second receiver for our other car.
If I had written this even a month ago, the review would have been glowing, despite a couple of customer-service gripes I had. Dozens of commercial-free music channels, Tony Kornheiser’s radio show from D.C., full-time ESPN radio — which means I never have to hear Mark Madden’s voice on the Pittsburgh affiliate ever again — interesting talk radio — including Air America — every Major League baseball game, Big Ten football and basketball radio broadcasts, traffic and weather conditions specific to Pittsburgh. What’s not to like?
Do I listen to everything available? Nope. But the dozen presets I have programmed in my car all get regular listens, and the Music Lab was chief among the music stations. That’s where XM featured its jam bands, and that’s where I spent most of my time, if I wasn’t listening to Kornheiser.
That’s what I would have said a month ago. Today, three days after XM yanked the Music Lab from its lineup, I’m finding that there isn’t as much to be happy about.
XM does a nice job of organizing its music channels by genre. There are stops for classic rock, classic alternative (what I call 80s music), acoustic rock, college rock, punk, metal, etc. And while you’ll find the odd Grateful Dead or Allman Brothers song on one of the classic rock channels, the Music Lab is like one-stop shopping for lovers of hippie music. And they got deep into the catalogue, boys and girls, playing stuff that has never and will never see the light of day on over-the-air radio.
And now it’s gone. OK, not exactly gone — it’s been relegated to XM’s online service, which makes it difficult for me to listen unless I buy a laptop and haul it around in my car.
From what I understand, here’s why the change occurred. As part of an agreement that XM has with Clear Channel, which was a big investor in XM at the service’s outset, a number of XM’s music channels must be programmed by Clear Channel, the conglomerate that owns nearly every radio station in the country, and according to an arbitrator’s ruling last year, those starions also must also carry commercials sold by Clear Channel.
I’ve said this before: Clear Channel = Pure Evil.
So XM is now duplicating some of the formats carried on the CC channels, in order to continue offering more commercial-free music channels than Sirius, its only competitor. And with limited bandwidth — jesus, don’t even ask me to explain how that works — XM has dumped some of the programming that offered a real alternative to terrestrial radio (programmed largely by Clear Channel drones) in favor of … say it with me, kids … the same kind of crap I can find on regular radio.
Examples? With the recent change, XM now offers five channels that play today’s hits; in other words, five stations that play what I can already hear on way too many regular stations in Pittsburgh or any other city in the United States. On XM, I can also now hear five stations that play contemporary country. And, living up to the fantasy of any good Yinzer, XM has three classic rock channels, because one station playing Styx and Boston just isn’t enough.
So where do I go when I want to listen to moe., Phish, Umphrey’s McGee, Galactic, Ben Harper, Robert Randolph, String Cheese Incident or Keller Williams? I won’t find my bands on commercial radio, with the occasional exception on WYEP, which isn’t commercial radio, here in Pittsburgh. I guess I have to start carrying CDs in my car again.
The change also makes little sense from a programming standpoint. If you take a cruise through a recent copy of Relix magazine, you’ll find a huge, diverse group of bands and musicians, and ton of people who are interested in them. Putting a jam-band station on the air would be practically brainless, and it doesn’t need to eat up any more bandwidth than XM was using already.
Ask the folks at Sirius — they still have a hippie music channel.
The whole idea behind satellite radio is to be different, to provide an alternative to what I can get for free. If no real alternatives exist, then what is the value of a subscription radio service?
The topper has nothing to do with XM, but it doesn’t help the situation. Kornheiser’s radio show ends next week, as Mr. Tony starts to rest up for his Monday Night Football gig starting in the fall. With no Kornheiser, and no hippie music, the question, albeit couched in a different context, is worth repeating: What exactly does XM offer that makes it a worthwhile investment for me?
I’m not the only one who has a problem with this. Look here, at an MSNBC column written a few days ago, about why this sucks. In the meantime, I’m still waiting for a response to an email I sent to them two days ago. I asked them the same question I just posed here; they seem to have no answers for me.