Saturday, June 21, 2008

How to merge Sirius and XM and make progressive talk radio fans happy

As the merger between the two satellite radio providers Sirius and XM drag on, it's starting to look like this thing could actually happen. After seventeen long months, this merger could finally be consummated.

The combined company will create more opportunities for programming choices by eliminating redundant channels (i.e. channels that air virtually the same type of content). They promise that this will allow for a wider variety of programming.

There are a few hurdles yet to be jumped, such as the issue over interoperable receivers that can pick up the signals of both providers. There's also the issue of all that bandwidth that they would have at their disposal. Sirius currently broadcasts using 12.5 MHz of the S band spectrum between 2320 and 2332.5 MHz. The XM signal uses the same amount of that band: 2332.5 to 2345.0 MHz.

They are also offering up the idea of a la carte offerings, featuring the best of both services, as well as special packages tailored to fans of music, talk or family-friendly programming, as a way of avoiding the gouging of subscribers and to mollify concerns of monopolizing a huge chunk of the broadcast spectrum.

In addition, there are rumblings from various parties, including the Congressional Black Caucus, to set aside and lease out several channels for minority-oriented, public service and educational and informative programming. As mentioned here the other day, what that would include is still very vague. So far, it could look like a total of twelve channels will be allotted for this.

Since I wrote about XM's planned retooling of its liberal talk channel the other day, there has been a lot of spirited conversation about the issue. Long-term, the question is what will become of the format on a combined satellite provider? Will there be more? Less? Will they make a play for fans of progressive talk, who subscribe mainly to get programming that they otherwise have a hard time getting? How can a combined XM/Sirius make them happy? After all, a merged company may just be desperate enough to do something to attract subscribers. One of these areas is liberal/progressive talk. Hey, it's why you're reading this blog, right? So let's talk about it.

First, let's take a look the political talk offerings of both providers. On XM, the primary news and information channel lineup looks something like this:

121 Fox News Channel
122 CNN
123 CNN Headline News
127 CNBC
128 Fox Business Network
129 Bloomberg Radio
130 P.O.T.U.S `08 (2008 Presidential Election News and Updates)
131 BBC World Service
132 C-SPAN Radio
133 XM Public Radio
The TV news channels listed are straight audio feeds of those services. XM Public Radio airs programming from smaller noncommercial networks such as American Public Media, as well as a morning XM-exclusive show from Bob Edwards. P.O.T.U.S '08 airs news and content concerning this year's presidential election, and is available on an XM receiver without a subscription.

XM politically-oriented talk radio programming consists of:
134 The Agenda (online only, loop of liberal talk show from Joe Solmonese)
165 Talk Radio (mostly conservative and self-help - majority of programming from Premiere Radio Networks)
166 America Right (conservative Talk)
167 Air America Radio (progressive Talk)
168 Fox News Talk (conservative plus Alan Colmes)
169 The Power (African-American Talk)
170 FamilyTalk (right-wing religious talk)
XM also carries most of the audio of WLW from Cincinnati on one channel, which features quite a bit of conservative talk and duplicates some of the offerings of XM Talk Radio. This is part of a deal they have with Clear Channel Communications, which owns WLW. The Power airs an African-American talk format, and is not all political.

All in all, that's four conservative channels to one true liberal channel. I didn't count FOX News, since I could spend an entire other entry talking about that one. We'll leave it out of the equation for now, but make a mental note of it, since it obviously has a blatant bias.

Now, let's take a look at Sirius. For news and information, they have much of the same stuff:
129 CNBC
130 Bloomberg Radio
131 Fox News Channel
132 CNN
133 CNN Headline News
141 BBC World Service News
They also carry:
134 NPR Now
135 NPR Talk
137 CBC Radio One
140 World Radio Network (WRN)
For political talk they offer:
109 Sirius OutQ
110 Indie Talk (all over the map)
144 Sirius Patriot (conservative talk)
145 Fox News Talk (conservative talk)
146 Sirius Left (liberal talk)
161 FamilyNet Radio
OutQ and FamilyNet Radio aren't really political talk, but we'll include it anyway, since they both feature opinionated political talk, in addition to non-political content. They also both kinda balance each other out. So, that gives Sirius listeners two conservative talk channels (plus FamilyNet) to one liberal channel (plus a few shows on OutQ). Conservatives also have FOX News Channel. Liberal listeners may also be attracted to the in-depth and international news programming on BBC World Service, NPR, CBC and WRN. Still, that's not really liberal talk.

Let's take a look at each provider's dedicated liberal talk channels. Here's what's on Sirius Left:

12-3A Thom Hartmann (replay)
3-6A Lynn Samuels (replay)
6-9A Bill Press
9AM-12P Alex Bennett
12-1P Thom Hartmann
1-3P Lynn Samuels
3-5P Ed Schultz
5-8P Make It Plain with Mark Thompson
8-9P Stephanie Miller
9P-12A Mike Malloy

Meanwhile, XM Air America (America Left) carries this lineup:

6-9A Bill Press
9AM-12P Lionel
12-3P Ed Schultz
3-6P Randi Rhodes
6-8P Rachel Maddow
8-10P Thom Hartmann
10P-12A Mike Malloy
12-2A Clout with Richard Green
2-4A Jon Elliott
4-6A Thom Hartmann

So, with the combined XM/Sirius (and let's assume these shows are still in the same place once the merger consumates), here's where we have a little fun. Yes, this is the moment you've all been waiting for. This is one man's speculation as to what could work as far as a decent progressive talk lineup for satellite radio, broken up into three dedicated channels (with half-assed suggested logos to boot!):

Channel 1: "Air America"

This channel would be a straight feed of Air America Radio. That is, if there's still enough people that want to listen to a straight feed of Air America. A dedicated channel would be advantageous to the powers that be there, as they haven't been doing so hot in affiliate clears lately outside of Hartmann and Maddow. They really need to negotiate some kind of deal here to stay relevant.

Channel 2: "Liberty" (or "Truth")

Sirius Liberty was originally the planned name for Sirius Left, intended to go along with conservative counterpart Sirius Patriot. The name was scrapped because the Sirius Left folks preferred the original name. Personally, if the tight-righty crowd likes the name "Patriot" so much (and the opportunity to wag it around in liberals' faces), I think naming this channel "The Truth" would be a pretty good in-your-face to them. This proposed channel would feature non-Air America syndicated talk offerings, mostly from Jones Radio Networks and Nova M Radio. As you can see. they would compliment each other nicely. Here's what a lineup would look like:

6-9A Bill Press
9AM-12P Stephanie Miller
12-3P Ed Schultz
3-6P Randi Rhodes
6-9P Peter B. Collins (the only other live syndicated show available in the slot)
9P-12A Mike Malloy
12-6A Replays or other programming

Channel 3: "America Left"

This would consist of satellite-exclusive offerings and content, along with other fill-in programming. And it would be an effective way of mollifying progressive talk fans turned off by the likes of Lynn Samuels and Alex Bennett. The concept would be similar to channels such as Sirius Stars, Oprah and Friends and Howard 100, which feature exclusive personalities. In addition, a show such as the one-hour Democracy Now could be used to fill in a gap. And the XM-bound Young Turks come full-circle, to the channel resembling their former home at Sirius. Here's the lineup:

9A-12P Alex Bennett
12-1P "Democracy Now" (or other hour-long program)
1-3P Lynn Samuels
3-6P The Young Turks (soon to be on XM)
6-9P Mark Thompson
9P-9A Repeat schedule, or fill with whatever

For weekends, the Air America channel is all covered. For the other two, replays and some original content might work (bloggers, podcasters?). Or go after Pacifica-style independent programming like "Counterspin." They could also seek out web-based ventures such as Head-On Radio or Taylor (gasp!) Marsh. I'm sure they could do it all pretty cheap, and that's the key to all of this - the syndicated outside liberal talk content is available on a barter basis, meaning that they don't have to pony up money for it. They do, however, pay their exclusive hosts such as Bennett, Samuels and Thompson. "Democracy Now" would probably cost some money, though, but that show does deserve a place on satellite radio.

As for the conservative channels on both providers, they can combine to an extent and create at least six channels. Hey, as far as I'm concerned, they could create twenty of these (and they probably could too). The more conservotalk channels there are, the more justification there is to carve out at least a few progressive talk channels. Just for kicks, here's what they would get:
Channel 1: America Right - Hannity, Levin, et. al.
Channel 2: Sirius Patriot successor - exclusive content, more syndicated stuff
Channel 3: FOX News Talk
Channel 4: Whatever's currently on XM165
Channel 5: WLW feed
Channel 6: A mish-mash of syndicated conservotalk also-rans
And then there's Sirius' Indie Talk. Not sure what the longterm concept of this one is, so I'm leaving it out of the equation for now. Let it germinate and see what happens. Sounds like a good idea, but it needs some work.

In addition, I'll leave OutQ, The Power and the religious channels as-is, though each of XM's and Sirius' fire-and-brimstone 'send dem librul heathens to hell' channels could probably be combined into one unlistenable channel.

So there you have it. I just created three liberal talk satellite radio channels and six primarily conservotalk channels. I gave the edge to conservotalk programming because there's just so damn much of it on the market. And it keeps the crybaby conservative crowd from bitching. I don't care, since I don't have to listen to it if I don't want to. Sounds pretty reasonable, right?

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to go pat myself on the back. Leave a comment and let the world know what you think of all this.


Casey Buck said...

This sounds like a pretty good idea; everybody wins. Plus, if you're turned off by one progressive talk show, you can flip stations to another one.

Though as you said, is it really worth it having an all-Air America channel anymore? It may have worked 2 or 3 years ago, but with their recent talent hemorrhages, they've been vastly reduced. Outside of Hartmann, Maddow, and some of the weekend shows, the rest is simply filler.

As for Peter B. Collins, he used to be on the original Sirius Left, back when that channel had programming from the former i.e. America radio network. His show is currently on a few small West Coast markets, and could certainly use the extra exposure that he would get on satellite radio.

FSL said...

Makes sense. But can we expect Mel Karmazin and the wing-nuts that dominate broadcasting (terrestrial and satellite) to do what makes sense? They haven't so far.

I hope the merger gets shot down. Both companies have been as mismanaged as, well, Air America Radio. They got themselves into a bidding war for talent and exclusive programming. Not only did this drive up their operating costs, it left each with an incomplete service and with potential customers waiting to see what happens before signing up. They promised innovative niche programming and didn't deliver. Instead they are concentrating on the same formats as terrestrial radio. They promised interoperable receivers and didn't deliver. Why should anybody expect them to keep any promises they make to get the merger approved? On top of all that, developing technology will make satellite radio obsolete in 10 years or so.

Given all that, people are most likely to sign up for satellite (i.e., pay) radio when they can't get what they want from terrestrial radio. There is no shortage of wing-nut talk any where in the country. For the audience interested in progressive talk, PT could be satellite radio's "killer app."

I agree that a dedicated Air America channel no longer makes programming sense. But the lack of one, could be several nails in AAR's coffin. The network might make a deal to keep themselves on the bird. Actually, with one company holding a satellite radio monopoly, pay to play might become the norm for syndicated shows across the board. Money always trumps audience appeal.

Three liberal channels might give additional exposure to local hosts like Jay Marvin, and to additional national hosts like Leslie Marshall and Doug Basham (who have had trouble getting traction in the syndication market). Extra channels could be a "laboratory" to develop new talent (as happened with The Young Turks), functioning as Democracy Radio 2.0.

As we saw in the recent primary season, the political left comes in different flavors. Multiple channels could provide an opportunity to move away from one-size-fits all liberal talk: Develop a channel of true progressive talk for elite "brie and chablis" progressives; another channnel of liberal talk for blue collar, working class, union member, "beer truck" traditional Democrats (what i.e. America started out to do, a format to target the "what's the matter with Kansas" demo that's been co-opted by the neo-cons and by Rush and company); And maybe even a channel targeting young, left-leaning listeners (who have recently become involved in politics).

Whatever else happens, please, no requirement for minority, education and public service channels (regardless of lack of audience interest). We've seen how well this has worked in cable TV. This is a complete waste of bandwidth. Besides minority-programming is over-represented on terrestrial radio in most markets. Radio, including satellite radio, should be programmed for people who listen to the radio, not for people who want to be on the radio.

Lu Cifer said...

You are SO on the money! Democracy Now! BEYOND deserves a national satellite audience! Amy Goodman is probably 1 of what, a dozen or so, REAL journalists left! It's just SO sad how far we have strayed from the REAL LIBERAL VALUES this national was founded upon (flawed as they were, ie. most founders were WHITE MEN SLAVE OWNERS WHO WANTED TO BE *FREE*!) most notably the concept of the FREE PRESS. It SICKENS me to no end how progressive/liberals poo-poo left wing radio! Other than that, plus the big name blogs (like Kos, Firedoglake, Atrios, etc), and the 1 or 2 people on TV like Olbermann who are NOT on the GOPuke payroll, what the HELL else is out there SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER?!?!?!!?!?

jafedorko said...

Here's another obvious question: if Alex Bennett and the unlistenable Lynn Samuels can get paid to broadcast, why couldn't the merged entity sign Sam Seder and Marc Maron for timeslots? I imagine the price would be fairly reasonable, the facilities (especially for Seder in NY) would be there, and once they're back on the air they would immediately become more viable to get picked up for terrestrial radio like The Young Turks and, oddly, Opie and Anthony did.

C'mon, SIRIXM. DO IT!!!

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