"Here at XM, every programming decision we make is about generating compelling content and a value proposition for our listeners."
—-Jon Zellner, SVP Programming, XM Satellite Radio
XM Satellite SVP Programming Answers Our Questions and Then Some
XM Satelllite Radio SVP Programming Jon Zellner is a radio veteran who offers a few brief words about the differences in programming philosophy between satellite and terrestrial. Who does the dude think we are... Wikipedia?

What is the scope of your job at XM?
I work with our Senior PDs, PDs, MDs and on-air talent for all of XM’s music channels. I manage the programming relationships with some of our distribution partners, including DirecTV, AOL, Starbucks, the airlines (United, Airtran and Jet Blue) and cell phones (Cingular, Alltel) and handle music-related aspects of some of our sports partners like the IRL and MLB. I also work closely with marketing and [Sr. Director Label Relations] Steve Kingston on the dozens of festivals, concerts and external music-related initiatives we broadcast or send people to cover. I also interact with many other departments inside the building, including programming operations, broadcast operations, marketing, customer care, PR and more on a variety of issues related to music programming. With over 800 people in the building, it’s very different than working at a radio station.

Talk about your programming team at XM.
The music programming department at XM is made up of some of the most talented, passionate and knowledgeable people in the radio industry. The one common theme among all 100+ people in this department is our love of music. Kurt Gilchrist, who spent many years at KHMX Houston, oversees the Decades channels. I have two Sr. PDs for Country: Ray Knight oversees the classic country channels and [former WMZQ MD] Jon Anthony, who is based in Nashville, handles young country. I have three Senior PDs for Rock: [former Z-100 and WXRK N.Y. PD] Steve Kingston oversees the alternative channels and also manages our record label relationships out of New York; George Taylor Morris handles classic rock and AAA and Lou Brutus does our active rock channels. Dion Summers, who spent time with Radio One in Baltimore and Clear Channel in Miami, oversees the Urban cluster; [former WBTS Atlanta PD] Mike Abrams handles the dance and some of the hits channels; [former WLVE Miami MD] Trinity does a phenomenal job with our jazz and classical channels; Kenny Curtis, who hosts mornings on XM Kids, oversees the specialty and comedy channels and our most recent SPD is Jesus Salas, who spent many years with Univision and SBS in New York and Miami. The SPDs work closely with the PDs and MDs in their cluster, but I try to make myself available for any issue relating to any music channel and I like being as involved as I need to be with channels and their initiatives. Being able to learn from some of the best minds in other formats has been very rewarding for me.

What are the differences programming satellite radio as opposed to broadcast radio?
The biggest difference is that every programming decision a terrestrial radio PD makes is for Arbitron. Here at XM, every programming decision we make is about generating compelling content and a value proposition for our listeners. ”Tune-out paranoia” is something we don’t deal with. We encourage our listeners to jump around the dial knowing that if we turn them on to something else, they’ll not only come back to the channel they came from, but they’ll have more reasons to continue as a subscriber because they’ll see more value from our platform. Encouraging an XM subscriber to investigate other content helps us and I encourage all XM PDs to think like the CEO of the company, not just a one-channel PD. We strongly encourage the exploration of channels offering formats or content not available on local radio. Commercial-free music is the #1 reason why people subscribe to XM. The point is that we want people to experience the channels that are NOT available anywhere else. The passion levels for some of our specialty and niche channels are extremely high and our satisfaction levels hover around 98%...proof that, when someone truly experiences the depth and breadth of XM, they’ll never think of doing without it. Because we aren’t trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator, our channels can offer complete, but very specific, listening experiences. Because of 25-54itis, many radio station PDs make decisions that otherwise wouldn’t make sense from a pure programming perspective. And, our channels don’t need to stray from their format to appeal to a wider audience… Every XM music channel remains true to its format and pure 24/7.

Do you consider it one of satellite radio’s jobs to break records?
Absolutely! Because we have a channel for literally every kind of music, we have championed hundreds of artists long before FM and sometimes even record labels pick them up.  We want to work with the labels on marketing their new artists and turning them into household names. With over eight million subscribers (that’s 16 million listeners), and all the non-subscribers who hear our channels through our distribution partners, we reach well over 45 million music lovers every month and the cumes on many of our music channels are over two million (higher than most radio stations in New York). Plus, we offer endless possibilities with our retail partners, including Best Buy, Circuit City, Target, Wal-Mart and dozens of other locations that sell music and XM radios. [XM Chief Creative Officer] Lee Abrams oversees our exclusive music series, which includes Artist Confidential, Then, Again…Live, Offstage, Artist 2 Artist and Liner Notes. Artist Confidential is XM’s answer to Inside the Actor’s Studio, hosted by George Taylor Morris, where bands come to XM’s state of the performance theatre to perform in front of about 50 of their biggest fans and talk about their career. Recent performers have included Paul McCartney, John Mayer, Linkin Park, Sting, Santana, Coldplay, Ludacris and dozens more. Then, Again…Live is a series where heritage musicians come to XM to re-record the albums that made them famous. We’ve had the Allman Brothers Band do Eat a Peach, Jethro Tull do Aqualung, REO Speedwagon do Hi Infidelity, Cheap Trick do At Budakon, and many others. On Offstage, artists take over their favorite XM channel and play whatever they want for an hour. Liner Notes showcases new releases from new and heritage artists where the artists themselves introduce every song and talk about their inspiration for its inclusion on the album. Artist 2 Artist is where new and emerging artists interview their influences. Hearing Dierks Bentley interview his hero George Jones was the perfect complement to our young country and classic country channels. It’s interesting to note that there are many heritage artists who receive virtually no airplay at radio anymore. Think about The Who, the Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen. We’re the only place to hear heritage rock. Discovery is an integral part of the XM music philosophy and our listeners are very passionate about music they feel they can’t get elsewhere. 

What is it like programming a national, as opposed to a regional, station?
I have always believed that compelling radio will win out every time over less compelling radio that happens to be local… That being said, when I programmed FM, I had mandatory live local relatable breaks hard scheduled every hour. It is imperative that local radio stations reflect their community. Scott Shannon once told me that if you’re in a big market, sound small and if you’re in a small market, sound big…good advice for anyone programming in Top 10 markets who may forget that it’s all about winning in the suburbs. And for small-market PDs, making the radio station sound larger than life is important, but there are ways of doing that while still showing up at the county fairgrounds for a chili cook-off. At XM, we don’t try to be local; we try to bring the country together and take ownership of the fact that we ARE a national service. But there have been instances where XM has brought local programming to the nation. When the tragedy at Virginia Tech happened, we carried local programming from three radio stations in Roanoke. Being able to hear the morning show on K-92 talk to local and regional citizens brought information and healing to many XM subscribers who live far away. Bottom line is that we can certainly talk about local and regional events, but we don’t try to hide the fact that we’re a national service.

What are the considerations in programming blocks without commercials?
We can schedule between 16-20 songs an hour. But, since we aren’t worried about “quarter hour maintenance,” we don’t have to think about up-tempo songs at the top of the hour, new music going into stop-sets, etc. We simply schedule for flow. I know PDs like Ben Smith on “Fine Tuning” and Mike Marrone on the “Loft” spend an inordinate amount of time looking at every segue and ensuring that the music fits well together, sounds balanced and creates the perfect environment for what the channel is trying to achieve.

How important are on-air personalities for your channels?
Great radio stations and channels offer much more than music…They are living, breathing entities and what’s between the records is sometimes more memorable than the music itself. Regardless of how many iPods have sold, they don’t offer three things radio can: the element of surprise, discovery and companionship. This is what makes the listening experience complete and turns listeners into fans. At XM, there are some channels where air personalities are part of the architecture. Our Decades channels sound like the great Top 40 radio stations of their time. Most of our marquee or mass-appeal channels, for the most part, have personalities who don’t get in the way of the music. From sitting in countless focus groups over the years, I always remind my staff that radio (even satellite radio) is a secondary activity. It complements something else you’re doing. One-on-one communication is crucial. DJs aren’t giving speeches and addressing a crowd…they’re talking to each and every listener individually. So, I would say that the XM personalities are what make our channels the most memorable.

Who do you consider satellite radio’s main competition?
 I believe that XM competes with any entertainment company that creates audio content. In our space, there are three types of companies left…the creators of content, the distributors of content and the companies that sell the hardware. We understand that we don’t necessarily need to sell our own hardware for people to experience and enjoy our content. XM reaches over 15 million people through DirecTV. We reach over 10 million people over three major airlines. We reach another 20 million people online through AOL. And, another five million through Cingular and Alltell cell phones. I believe that as our awareness level continues to grow and more people experience satellite radio, our brands will become necessities for anyone purchasing a car. The biggest obstacle is the misperception that getting satellite radio is difficult. When XM comes with the vehicle or is made available through satellite TV, online or on a cell phone, these turnkey experiences will help solve the perception of difficulty in acquiring our service. I do believe that the iPod is a competitor for both terrestrial and satellite radio, but I maintain that radio in some form will always have a place because it offers three things the iPod does not: surprise, discovery and companionship. Even on shuffle mode, there are no surprises on your iPod because you programmed all the songs. Music makes up about 80% of what people love about their favorite radio stations. The other 20% is where the iPod cannot ever compete. That’s why it’s so crucial for radio of any kind to insure that their product is compelling and entertaining beyond just what music is getting played.  

Do you counter-program to your competition, be it other satellite stations or terrestrial radio? 
My theory on radio competition has always been to be as knowledgeable and aware as possible of what everyone else is doing, but not to let it get in the way of creativity, originality and pure common sense. I think research is an excellent tool, but too many radio companies and PDs let it dictate new directions rather than confirm or deny existing suspicions that are already apparent and sometimes obvious. The “blind leading the blind” is all too common in business today where someone makes a decision because flawed research told them to do it and then their competitor follows instead of listening to their gut.  Radio (satellite and terrestrial) needs to re-invent itself to stay relevant with the next generation of music fans. Young people today are far less enamored with radio than we were. PDs need to challenge themselves to find the time to do their own focus groups and brainstorming sessions, and try new initiatives that offer something unique and compelling to audiences looking for and expecting more.  That’s why we view members of the XM Nation as “fans,” not “listeners.”

Mestel walks like a man. (10/22a)
And Q3 figures look good as well. (10/21a)
A Swift return to #1. (10/22a)
The Rumours are true. (10/22a)
Could she be this year's left-field anointed one? (10/22a)
Bring your umbrella.
Mulling possible surprises.
Why not wear a mask indoors?
What drugs will help us get there?

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