I’ll be hosting an hour-long show on Willie and his music on MarfaPublicRadio.org at 3 pm central and 8 pm Tuesday. Tune in.
If you’re in Far West Texas, you can hear the broadcast on KRTS-FM 93.5 in Marfa, KRTP-FM 91.7 in Alpine, KDKY-FM Marathon 91.5 and KXWT-FM in Odessa-Midland, 91.3
. Watching the broadcast from backstage was fascinating. Being part of it was beyond fun.
So I was in Houston Friday night, talking the Dallas Cowboys at Brazos Bookstore and spinning vinyl at Leon’s Lounge, as well as hanging with my friends William Michael Smith of the Houston Press and Jack Massing of The Art Guys and sword-fighting with Max Massing. I’d noticed my old player-coach of the Jack’s Auto Repair All-Stars of the Twin Cities Cultural Arts Softball League, Garrison Keillor, was hosting A Prairie Home Companion at the Wortham Opera House in Houston on Saturday. I sent an email to the show and Friday afternoon received an email from Garrison. Long and short of it, and unbeknown to me until about 10 minutes before airtime, I had the pleasure of enjoying a few minutes of conversation with Garrison on his show, which is during the third segment.
I love radio and this program is the best of what radio is
Here’s a link to the broadcast.
Last part of the stories behind the story of my West Texas Music drive, one of 16 drives featured in the June 2012 Texas Monthly Drive issue.
Today, we conclude where it all started, at least for the teenagers known as Buddy Holly and the Crickets.
The Hub City is the largest city in all the Great Plains, and home to Texas Tech University. But for all its assets, the city’s contribution to rock and roll is the one that continues to resonate around the world, even if some of the locals are still uncomfortable with the social implications the music wrought.
THE BUDDY HOLLY CENTER is Lubbock’s all-purpose museum with art exhibitions and traveling exhibits, and music on the patio during summer months. The main attraction, of course, is Buddy Holly, whose life is celebrated in the Buddy Holly Gallery, a permanent exhibit at the center with a $5 admission fee.
Showcases are devoted to Buddy’s childhood with his leatherwork, Cub Scout uniform, and drawings of cowboys and horses, and self-portrait in pencil, and his personal record collection, which includes The Midnighters’ “Sexy Ways” and Larry Williams’ “Slow Down;” his early influences; his rapid rise; Petty’s studio; and to the Crickets.
The Gallery features the writing of Robert Palmer from the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a music timeline from 1929 to 1959, and a touch screen It’s So Easy trivia quiz prepared by the late Bill Griggs, the World’s #1 Buddy fan. It isn’t as easy as Griggs would have you believe.
Sample question: Buddy had a pet cat named Booker T and a pet dog named
b) Reddy Teddy
c) Alonzo, the correct answer
As Holly’s renown grew, his glasses got bigger, although the pair he died with, which are on display, were classic black horn-rimmed frames.
There’s a 15 minute film where Paul McCartney makes clear the Beatles’ biggest influence were the Crickets, Keith Richard discusses the Holly sound, Don McLean discusses “American Pie,” his song about the plane crash that killed Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper, J.I. Allison demonstrates rhythm, and Vi Petty plays Celeste. Gallery admission: $5
An adjacent room with no admission fee is the West Texas Hall of Fame loaded with great casual photos of Holly and Jennings, along with a special shoutout to Bill Griggs, the world’s #1 Holly fan who spent the last years of his life in Lubbock by choice. The Ivy West Texas Music Map illustrated by John Chinn in the center’s hallway shows all the talent who came out of the region. 1801 Crickets Avenue @ 19 th St., 806 767-2686, buddyhollycenter.org
Directly across from the center is the West Texas Walk of Fame, honoring entertainment celebrities from the region (hey, y’all, where’s Natalie Maines?) whose centerpiece is a life-sized statue of Buddy Holly brandishing a guitar.
THE CACTUS THEATER, a block from the Buddy Holly Center, is Don Caldwell’s musical labor of love and the linchpin of the Depot Entertainment District. The Cactus presents live music and musical performances most weekends and many weeknights. The Buddy Holly Story musical has enjoyed several extended runs in this lovingly restored 30s vintage venue.
1812 Buddy Holly Ave. @ 19th, 806 762 3233 cactustheater.com
KDAV AM 1590, one of the coolest oldies radio stations anywhere, welcomes visitors to step inside the radio station and see the disc jockeys in action up close and personal. The station bills itself as the Buddy Holly station, and I gotta say, there’s something about hearing “That’ll Be the Day” crackling over the AM radio while cruising Lubbock’s wide streets that make everything seem right in the world.
1714 Buddy Holly Ave., 806 744 5859 kdav.org/kdav
LUBBOCK HIGH SCHOOL is Buddy Holly and the Crickets’ alma mater as well as the most significant architectural structure in the city. The red-tile roofed, sand brick high school is between downtown and the Tech campus on
2004 West 19th @ Avenue D, 806 766 1444. Call the administration office in advance to request a hall pass to view the Buddy Holly showcase in the hallway
STUBB’S BARBECUE is where folks like Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Terry Allen and the rest of the Lubbock mob played back in the 1970s before all of them, Stubbs included, moved away. The Stubbs barbecue sauce legend started here as did some storied events such as Jesse Taylor’s Sunday Night Jam and the night when Tom T. Hall played pool with Joe Ely using an onion as the cue ball. Underneath the statue of Stubbs in overalls holding a heaping plate of ribs is a small plaque that reads “There will be no bad talk or loud talk in this place” – Mr. Stubblefield’s mantra that was written on his menus and posted throughout his joint. Having enjoyed the establishment in its heyday, it’s startling to see how small the building footprint is today. 108 E. Broadway http://stubbsbbq.com/started.php
Continue on East Broadway to MLK, turn right and continue to Teak and follow the signs to the Lubbock cemetery and the final resting place of Buddy Holly. The simple gravesite is plainly marked. Tradition mandates you leave a guitar pick on the flat headstone. The earth from which Holly sprang from and to which he returned may look hard and desolate, but it’s fertile soil for music makers who sound like Texas.
Friend Joe Gracey passed in mid November, just after his 61st birthday, so his friends and family are throwing a big ol’ bash for him on Sunday, December 4 @ 2 pm at Austin City Limits Live in downtown Austin. Even if you never heard of Joe, if you dig Austin, Texas music and all that is cool about this part of the world, you’re invited to send off one of the tastemakers who made it so.
I am honored to have been asked by his family to write his obituary. God bless Kimmie, Jolie, Gabe, Jeremie, brother Bill, and all his friends and relatives.
After a well-spent life defined by a series of reinventions, each more outrageous and ‘way cooler than the previous one, Joe Gracey has left the building – this place we call earth. Born in Fort Worth on November 14, 1950, Joe distinguished himself as a communicator at an early age. He built his own radio studio in the family attic in sixth grade, mowed lawns to get his first guitar, played in teen bands alongside fellow Fort Worth- ers Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett, and projected gravitas and au- thority as a veteran newsman and familiarity and intimacy as a country music disc jockey for KXOL-AM and FM when the 16 year old wasn’t at- tending classes at Paschal High School. His mother drove him to work at the radio station.
Like many other young Texans of his generation, he gravitated to Aus- tin to attend the University of Texas where he graduated with a degree in American Studies while moonlighting on Austin’s Top 40 radio station, KNOW-AM, and writing the first rock music column for the Austin American-Statesman, immediately over- stepping his assigned category by writing about country and folk music too, focusing on the unique country-rock musical hybrid that was incubating in Austin.
In 1974, he joined KOKE-FM in Austin, the first progressive country radio station in the world. Blessed with a warm, full-bodied voice with enough of a lingering drawl to leave no doubt where he came from, Gracey be- came an intimate friend to strangers who discovered they could learn a few things about music by listening to the radio; unlike his broadcasting peers, Gracey was fixated on what he said as much as how he said it.
Smart and a smartass both, he was a pillar of a burgeoning music community on the verge of being discov- ered nationally and internationally. He welcomed music fans to some of the most exciting and eclectic music be- ing created as one of the voices who did radio commercials for the storied Armadillo World Headquarters. It was Ol’ Blue Eyes, as he called himself, who coolly and casually opened his microphone so Willie Nelson and his friend Kris Kristofferson could perform an impromptu concert for listeners at home.
Gracey not only played Ernest Tubb and his Texas Troubadours, he took the time to explain ET’s signifi- cance and line out Tubb’s hip bona fides for a generation that had previously ignored their parents’ and grandparents’ music. He turned on music lovers to exotic sounds in their own backyard such as Tex-Mex con- junto music as articulated by his friends Doug Sahm, Ry Cooder, and Flaco Jimenez; and western swing, the almost-forgotten Made In Texas country-jazz hybrid popularized in the 1930s, kickstarting its revival by put- ting Asleep at the Wheel and Alvin Crow into heavy rotation. Gracey played a critical role defining Super Roper Radio, as KOKE was known, demonstrating how the Rolling Stones and Gram Parsons were related to George Jones and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. In that respect, he was as influential as Willie Nelson, Austin’s musical godfather, in bringing the hippies and the rednecks together through the common love of music.
With Gracey as program director, Billboard magazine crowned KOKE-FM as “Trendsetter of the Year.”
Gracey’s trendspotting abilities earned him the role as talent coordinator for the new “Austin City Limits,” now the longest-running music series on American television, when the series started in 1976. Through Gracey, the remaining Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, Flaco Jimenez y Su Conjunto, and Clifton Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Zydeco Band performed for national television audiences for the first time. His byline continued ap- pearing in the Austin Sun and the literary country music journal Picking Up the Tempo.
In the summer of 1977, inspired by his mentor Cowboy Jack Clement, he left KOKE-FM a few weeks before the station’s format switched, and headed downstairs to the basement of the KOKE building where he fash- ioned a four track TEAC recorder and two windowless offices into the funky, duct-taped recording studio known as Electric Graceyland. The studio was the site of some of the first recordings of future blues legends Stevie Ray Vaughan and Miss Lou Ann Barton; The Skunks, Austin’s first punk band; and Tex-Mex rockers Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns. Gracey also recorded the demo that scored the Fabulous Thunderbirds their first record contract and worked the dials for Lubbock songster Butch Hancock and his Dixie’s Bar and Bus Stop cable television music series. He recorded Stevie Vaughan and Barton and the band Double Trouble at Clement’s Nashville studio.
He used Electric Graceyland to collaborate musically with his partner in crime, Bobby Earl Smith, as the Jackalope Brothers. Gracey and Smith also did radio promotion for Alvin Crow & The Pleasant Valley Boys while Gracey often opened shows for Crow with his brother Bill as The Amazing Graceys.
It was during this flurry of recording and promoting that Gracey was dealt the lousy hand of a cancer diagno- sis that eventually robbed him of his gifted voice.
Only 27, Gracey fought the hard fight medically while simultaneously adapting. A Magic Slate kids’ erasable writing tablet tucked under his arm became a Gracey accessory so he could scribble a quick response to any questions and allow him to engage in conversations, followed by the soft, barely-audible rip as he cleared the pad to erase the message once his words were understood.
In 1979, his friend TJ McFarland introduced him to the love of his life, Kimmie Rhodes, a singer-songwriter from Lubbock, as well as a playwright, painter, writer, and all-around creative force.
They married in 1984 and settled in Briarcliff where he helped raise Kimmie’s sons from a previous marriage, Gabe and Jeremie Rhodes, and their daughter, Jolie Morgan Goodnight Gracey. A family band emerged with Gracey playing bass and Gabe, a talented producer in his own right, who absorbed all the nuances of the elec- tronic recording art from Joe, playing guitar.
Kimmie and their neighbor Joe Sears started writing plays together and Gracey joined the fun as an actor, playing the part of the skeleton barkeeper in the play “Windblown,” and the role of the clown in “Small Town Girl,” in addition to other performances.
He also worked the audio console at nearby Pedernales Studios for a number of years and in 1996 was at the controls for Nelson’s groundbreaking album, Spirit, which inspired Nelson to redefine his live sound. Gracey and David Zettner built the small, simple recording studio in the back of Willie’s Luck World Headquarters saloon where Willie liked to hold court and make music at the spur of the moment, which yielded the albums, Picture in a Frame, Willie’s 2003 album of duets with Kimmie, and the Grammy-nominated collaboration be- tween Willie and Ray Price, Run That By Me One More Time.
Rhodes and Gracey’s shared love of food and fine wine (he learned how to keep boudin warm on his Cadillac’s engine returning from a trip to visit Clifton Chenier in Lafayette, Louisiana), along with numerous European tours by Rhodes launched another career for Gracey – food writer – as championed by their friend Colman Andrews, the editor of Saveur magazine, for whom Gracey did several pieces. Joe and Kimmie also taught cooking classes together. Their food adventures and Kimmie’s continued popularity in Europe eventu- ally led to the couple’s renovation of a small 1,000 year old stable-farmhouse in the Languedoc province of France.
Gracey never stopped creating, and he started a blog, Letters from Graceyland (Graceyland.blogspot.com) to share his latest adventures with readers.
Cancer-free for 30 years, the beast reentered his life in 2009. The bad news was accompanied by good news though. Doctors at M.D. Anderson Hospital would embark on experimental surgery that led to a partial resto- ration of his voice. But the new cancer was joined by other cancer, leading to several months of treatments in Houston. Afterwards, Joe and Kimmie were able to spend some weeks together in their French place again with friends and family before returning to Texas one last time.
Sickness never defined Joe’s life. It was an irritant and obstacle to be overcome so he could pursue his many interests. He defined it; it didn’t define him. And although so much of his professional career revolved around music, his life was much more than that too, as his extensive network of family and friends that spanned the globe would attest to.
They all knew that Gracey’s presence could never be ignored. He was not the kind of person to let that hap- pen. Which is why despite his unplanned departure, he wanted his friends, family, and all the strangers he never met to hold close to their hearts the advice he dispensed whenever he signed off from another shift on the radio:
“Drink lots of water, stay off your feet, and come when you can.”
Joe is survived by his wife Kimmie Rhodes Gracey, daughter Jolie Gracey Musick and husband Jason; sons Jeremie Rhodes, Gabriel Rhodes and wife Carmen; grandchildren Louis and Ruby Rhodes, Isaac and Isabella Bryson; brother Bill Gracey and wife Cathy; nieces Christy and Kate Gracey; and, Louis’ mother, Jamie Rhodes.
The family is grateful for the loving care and attention provided by M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Nobelity Project (www.nobelity.org) or M.D. Anderson Can- cer Center (www.mdanderson.org).
A public celebration of Joe’s life will be held on December 4, 2011, at 2:00 p.m. at the Austin City Limits Moody Theater, 210 W. Willie Nelson Boulevard, in downtown Austin, Texas 78701. Y’all come.
How San Antonio’s Clear Channel Communications is ruining radio in your townand in the rest of the country.
IF YOU HAVE NEVER HEARD OF A SAN ANTONIO COMPANY called Clear Channel Communications, it’s because you aren’t listening. From its unlikely nerve center in south-central Texas, this once modest, family-run owner of a handful of radio and television stations has exploded into a media giant, dominating radio like no single entity ever has before. Unleashed by government deregulation in 1996, founder Lowry Mays shelled out billions for properties like Jacor Communications and Tom Hicks’s AMFM, formerly the biggest radio conglomerate in the country. Today one of every ten commercial radio stations in the United States belongs to Clear Channelincluding six stations in Dallas-Fort Worth, eight stations in Houston, seven stations in San Antonio, six stations in Austin, six in El Pasoa total of more than 1,200 domestic channels in some 250 markets. Its closest rival, Cumulus Broadcasting, has 240 stations. (Texas Monthly’s parent company, Emmis Communications, owns 23 radio and 15 TV stations and is another of Clear Channel’s competitors.)
Clear Channel’s manic, multimedia shopping spree didn’t end there. Last year it also bought SFX Entertainment, which owns the majority of the outdoor amphitheaters in America, including the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater near San Antonio, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion near Houston, and a minority interest in the Smirnoff Music Centre (Starplex) in Dallas, as well as dozens of theaters and other performing venues. This instantly made the company’s subsidiary Clear Channel Entertainment the dominant concert promoter in the United States. And wait, there’s more: Clear Channel now has the second-largest number of billboards of any company in the United States, nineteen television stations, and nine hundred radio and TV Web sites. The company, which was founded in 1972, has doubled in size every eighteen months over the past five years.
All of this may sound like harmless, run-of-the-mill media giantism in the early twenty-first century. Unfortunately it’s not, especially the way the Mays familyLowry and his sons, Mark and Randall, the company’s iron triangleplays the game. In fact, they give new meaning to the phrase “control of the airwaves.” Their size and aggressiveness have given them unprecedented say not only over what you hear on the radio all over the country but in how music is sold, promoted, and performed. As the big guys on the blockwho dictate programming at 1,200 stationsthey are more responsible than anyone else for the cookie-cutter state of radio, where more and more stations sound the same, no matter where you go.
That may be good for business, but it almost certainly isn’t good for listeners. I love radio and its ability to be local, immediate, and mobile in a way that other media cannot. There is nothing more “local” in origin and impact than a hometown radio disc jockey or talk show host. But Clear Channel is changing that, bringing to the airwaves the hard, bottom-line logic of the fast-food franchise, and I don’t think it translates. Radio doesn’t need its own version of Wal-Mart. A listener in Tampa doesn’t necessarily want to hear the same oldies that are popular with listeners in Seattle, nor are classic rock, news talk, modern rock, or hot country all the same coast to coast.
Clear Channel doesn’t see it that way. In place of local hosts, the company is syndicating personalities such as Bob and Tom on their classic-rock properties or Kidd Kraddick on contemporary-hits stations they own in Texas and in other states. Some of these choices have been dictated by the company’s acquisitions. To achieve “synergy” from its purchase of Premiere Radio Networks, Clear Channel needs to employ the syndicated radio personalities that came along with it. A perfect example is Clear Channel’s hometown flagship station, WOAI-AM, which has altered its news-talk format by replacing locally hosted talk programs with the syndicated Dr. Laura, Rush Limbaugh, Phil Hendrie, and Art Bell, all of whom were part of Premiere Networks. That may have improved the station’s efficiency and affirmed Clear Channel’s synergy, but it has compromised WOAI’s ability to function as a true voice of its community.
Another practice that sacrifices local content to national business considerations is Clear Channel’s cross-promotion of radio and its entertainment properties. Traditionally concert promoters have worked with radio stations to promote events through giveaways and plugs that go beyond traditional advertising, a practice that benefits not only the stations and the concert halls but also the music acts. Clear Channel has made this arrangement proprietary: Its radio stations give priority to Clear Channel Entertainment-promoted concerts over non-Clear Channel ventures.
This has prompted a number of complaints by competitors in both radio and the concert business. Though many of the detractors have declined to voice publicly their dissatisfaction lest they offend Clear Channel, one Denver concert promoter, Nobody In Particular Presents, has gone to court accusing the San Antonio company of monopolistic and predatory practices by preventing the promoter from hiring touring musicians. They say that some of those musicians fear losing airplay on Clear Channel radio stations if they don’t work with Clear Channel Entertainment concert promoters. The company denies these allegations. One independent concert promoter says he’s found it almost impossible to work out promotion arrangements with Clear Channel radio stations because of Clear Channel’s policy. Sometimes the company takes this practice to absurd lengths: It once hyped a Michael Bolton show on a modern-rock station even though it likely hurt the station’s credibility with its audience.
Competitors who try to subvert Clear Channel’s control end up paying a price. A Washington, D.C., radio station that bought $3,000 worth of tickets for a Wango Tango concert in Los Angeles to give away to listeners was hit with a lawsuit by the concert’s promoterClear Channel Entertainment, of courseclaiming that only Clear Channel stations could give away tickets to concerts it promotes, no matter where they are.
The way Clear Channel makes its will known to its far-flung holdings became apparent in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack. In the week following the disaster, corporate headquarters circulated a list of songs it felt would not be suitable for airplay. Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” or AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” were predictable choices. But other songs on the list, such as John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride,” Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” and anything by Rage Against the Machine makes one wonder what their programmers have been drinking. According to Mark Mays, Clear Channel’s president and chief operating officer, Clear Channel did not dictate such playlists to its stations. “As always, programming decisions are made locally by each station manager and program director,” he says.
Meanwhile, ticket prices for concertsan industry in which Clear Channel Entertainment now controls about half of the business in the U.S.are at an all-time high. I realize the company has to justify the inflated price it paid for SFX, but when consumers have to subsidize it with $7 service charges added on to each ticket purchased or $4 for a twelve-ounce bottle of wateras was the case this summer at the new Verizon Wireless Amphitheatersomething is wrong with the picture. No wonder overall concert revenues were down 12 percent earlier this year at concerts by the top fifty touring acts, according to Pollstar magazine.
Mays says the criticism about Clear Channel is coming largely from disgruntled rivals who can no longer compete. “No one likes change,” he says in an interview at Clear Channel’s cool, casual corporate headquarters in the Quarry Market area in San Antonio. “How would you like to be the Z102 guy who gets fired because he’s being replaced by Bob and Tom? It is our responsibility to provide compelling programming to our listeners, and that requires changewhich is always difficult.” Mays insists that Clear Channel is practicing good business and not playing out of bounds. The number of stations Clear Channel owns isn’t the issue, Mays contends, so much as the diversity of what is heard over the airwaves. He is emphatic in his belief that Clear Channel promotes more, not less, variety in radio programming. And Clear Channel is delivering the goods so effectively, he says, that those eating its dust are not happy about it.
“There is no question in my mind that the consolidation has increased the diversity of programming,” Mays says. “If we were a stand-alone operation, we would not be able to operate in the diverse number of formats that we do today.” Clear Channel’s success, he explains, is based on running each of its divisions as a separate entrepreneurial business unit under a centralized financial management umbrella. “We have created a platform that is very unique and very different for the business we’re inoperating like a little company with big resources.” He says his stations have plenty of autonomy. The lawsuits, Mays says, are just part of doing business. “Because of our ability to compete and be successful, someone is going to be upset about it.”
As much as I was impressed by my visit to Clear Channel’s officeswhose atmosphere suggests a small, successful family operation where the boss’s door is open to every employeeI still don’t buy Mays’s argument that the company’s approach is ultimately not bad for listeners. The bigness beyond the building is too hard to shake. The gargantuan scale of Mays’s “convergence, consolidation, and synergy” is on the verge of tipping that delicate balance between art and commerce that has characterized radio for the past half century. That is not a good thing. Since radio first came into existence, listeners have always had a clear option if they didn’t like what they heard: Change the channel. But what choice is there now, really, when everywhere I go it’s Bob and Tom?
Satellite radio BY JOE NICK PATOSKI December 19, 2003
All I wanted for Christmas was satellite radio, but I couldn’t wait.
In October, I broke down, got one, had it installed, paid $156 for a year’s subscription, tuned in and turned on. Now all I want for Christmas is a satellite radio in every car and in the house and a lifetime subscription.
See, I’m a radio nut. As a kid, I walked a mile every Wednesday to KFJZ 1270 in Fort Worth to get the Top 40 survey hot off the presses. I’ve remained involved with the medium ever since. (For starters, I’m a regular Monday guest on the Kevin & Kevin show on KGSR-FM). So when I say satellite radio has changed my life, you need to understand what kind of life it is.
Until satellite, my fixation with radio meant knowing way too much about Rush, Sean, and all the frothing right-wing shouters who dominate the AM band and being too intimate with the tics of Brad Messer, Jim Bohannan, Carl Wiglesworth, Jim Rome, Tony Bruno, and La Ranchera de Monterrey. (Disclosure No. 2: I am not a Libertarian). Now, with 100 channels to choose from, those characters have vanished from my life. So have bad infomercials for miracle joint medication.
Instead, I channel-hop from three jazz stations, an all-jam channel, channels dedicated to nothing but the blues, folk 24-seven, bluegrass, and global hip-hop to various shades of contemporary and alternative rock, country, reggae, and world music, National Public Radio, Public Radio International, Bloomberg, and the BBC. Not long after I got satellite, I drove from Austin to Houston to Fort Worth in the same day. I could’ve just as well gone on to Amarillo.
In one 15-minute stretch, I heard Doug Sahm lamenting about not going back to Austin anymore, John Coltrane blowing “My Favorite Things,” OutKast doing their version of the same song, “Jet Song” from West Side Story, and the latest news from Radio New Zealand. I even finally “got” French chanteuse Edith Piaf as she warbled her way through “Accordeoniste.”
My obsession began in 1999 when I cornered Mark Cuban, then one of two founders of Broadcast.com, a collection of radio stations on the Internet, after he gave the keynote address at South by Southwest Interactive.
“I love hearing all these different radio stations from all over the world online,” I told him. “How can I do that in my car?”
Cuban related how the Federal Communications Commission had licensed two companies to establish satellite radio networks, which would broadcast from outer space to the whole nation and give listeners a far broader selection of choices than existed on the AM and FM bands. Theoretically, it was the radio equivalent of subscription satellite television.
Cuban and his partner Todd Wagner subsequently sold their business to Yahoo! and became billionaires. I followed up Cuban’s tip, invested heavily in the two licensed companies, Sirius and XM, and lost my ass when the high tech bubble burst.
Since then, both XM and Sirius managed to stay solvent, launch satellites, develop receivers for consumers, and in the past couple of years become real radio networks. XM has the lion’s share of the market — 1 million subscribers to Sirius’ 150,000 — largely because it had a one-year jump getting product into stores and has stayed ahead with innovations such as a device that allows listeners with Sirius radios to dial up XM, too. The FCC has ordered both companies to develop radios compatible with either service.
Still, tech glitches, the considerable expense of buying and installing a satellite radio, and my bad financial bet kept me away until I was offered a next-to-nothing deal for a Sirius Plug & Play radio this fall. Three hundred dollars later, it’s a brand-new bag.
Although it has considerably fewer subscribers and costs more ($12.95 compared to XM’s $9.95 monthly tab), Sirius’ 60 music channels are commercial-free; XM’s music channels run two minutes of advertising per hour, still considerably less than over-air stations. Sirius’ talk stations include two NPR streams, a PRI stream, “liberal” talk streams, and the only gay-lesbian radio channel in the nation.
Plus, since I vote with my pocketbook, the considerable investment by Clear Channel, the San Antonio-based company that has choked creativity in radio, in XM and the involvement of Lee Abrams, the radio programmer credited with turning free-form progressive rock radio into a highly structured, highly profitable format known as AOR (“album-oriented rock”) 30 years ago, sealed the Sirius deal.
Sirius has two Plug & Play models you can insert into “docking stations” at home and in other cars, but the signal from the Audiovox I purchased first was getting “stepped on” by all four of the available frequencies one tuned in to in order to pick up the satellite signal. When I complained to Sirius, I was offered the Kenwood Here2Anywhere Plug & Play. The signal conflict is resolved because the Kenwood has a direct FM modulator, though the smaller screen makes it more difficult to read what’s playing, which is one of the biggest plusses of both satellite services.
Eventually receivers on the market will be cheaper and pick up both Sirius and XM signals, which the FCC has mandated. It’s going to take several years’ worth of new cars with factory-installed satellite radio for the concept to be fully embraced.
As much as I have come to enjoy Talk of the Nation, The Splendid Table, The Savvy Traveler, Whad’ya Know, and Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! — all fare from NPR and PRI not heard on local affiliate KUT-FM — the music channels are the big difference. The six hip-hop stations have exposed me to nuances of the street that have previously escaped me with solid jocks stringing the mixes together. The five dance channels, particularly the rave channel, are guaranteed uppers whenever I need an audio pep pill. The three classical channels and the jazz, swing, show tunes, and bluegrass channels are my top choices for sonic wallpaper as I cruise.
Sirius has turned me on to Jet, a hard-banging band from Australia; Krishna Das’ grooving chant “Kashi Vishwanath Gange” on the Horizons world beat channel; cool dance remixes of Nina Simone; and Iggy Pop redux now that he’s in heavy rotation with Sum 41 on several channels. I’ve heard more Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, Ramones, Sex Pistols, and Clash in the past month than I have in the last decade. Then there’s Lou Reed’s live, barn-burning version of “Rock N Roll,” Lucinda, Chris Duarte, Omar, Lou Ann, Wayne the Train, and Marcia Ball more than once.
It’s not perfect. I’m already burned out on “Take Five” on Pure Jazz, and anything by the Pet Shop Boys. Although the Radio Mexicana channel and Planet Hip-Hop do a good job covering contemporary Latin sounds, there ought to be room for a Tejano channel like there is on XM. The talk channels could use some fine-tuning. The audio feeds from Fox, CNN, CNBC, and the Weather Channel don’t translate well, and as engaging as the BBC is, the UK POV isn’t always my cuppa tea.
Satellite radio won’t kill terrestrial radio. Even though I’ve found several variations of what I’d describe as KGSR’s adult-alternative format on Sirius, including Organic Rock, the Trend, the Bridge, Folk Town, and the Border, none has a Kevin & Kevin, Jody Denberg, a Sam & Bob, a Dudley & Bob, or a Buck on sports. Truth is, traffic reports, news, weather, and local flavor just can’t be done effectively from national headquarters in New York or Washington, D.C., where XM broadcasts from.
Similarly, as much as I enjoy NPR and PRI programming (caveat: Morning Edition and All Things Considered are not part of NPR’s Sirius package), I still prefer Aielli, Ray, Monroe, Trachtenberg, Ferguson, the departed Dan Foster, and the rest of the KUT music gang programming my sounds. They’re shining examples of why Austin radio doesn’t sound cookie-cutter if you know where and when to listen.
Local will always trump national with me. I do hope satellite puts pressure on Clear Channel, which owns one of every 10 commercial terrestial stations in the nation, including KVET-FM, KVET-AM, KHFI, and Z102, to ditch their cookie-cutter programming mentality that envisions a KISS-FM in every city with the same jock as host instead of emphasizing programming that reflects the city they’re broadcasting in.
But if they don’t, that’s not my problem anymore. I like what I’m hearing when I’m driving. You don’t have to take my word. Log on to www.sirius.com and www.xmradio.com and check it out. Just remember, the first listen is free. The subscriptions aren’t.