Steve "Phlash" Phelps and Kurt Gilchrist are winging their way through the continental 48 states in just 14 days, making stops throughout in a customized Cadillac SUV as they broadcast songs from the '60s and '70s on XM Satellite radio.
Yesterday was Day 2, and they pulled up mid-afternoon in Owings Mills, at a Tweeter electronics store where XM-compatible equipment can be found. The SUV was covered in logos for the satellite radio service and some of its 101 channels. A red transmitter disk sat atop the SUV, resembling nothing so much as a misplaced giant clown nose. The contraption, filled to breaking with transmission gear, T-shirts, radios and laundry, was garish in the extreme. But Phelps and Gilchrist, itinerant DJs who have found a home with the Washington-based XM, seemed to be having a grand time.
"I wanted to see how fast I could do 48 states," said Phelps, who grew up in Towson. He then gestured at Gilchrist. "And he wanted to do a scavenger hunt. [The marketing department said,] 'Let's do this as a kickoff campaign for our millionth listener.'"
Officials at XM radio, which was introduced in 2001, say they are poised to sign up their millionth customer this fall. The cross-country trek is a stunt, no doubt, but one that serves to remind listeners that in radio, as in so much else throughout the media, the way things have been done aren't necessarily the way they have to be.
It used to be you bought a radio, whether you plunked down nine bucks or $900, and searched for whatever local stations you could find. The big FM stations, when they came in strongly, gave great sound quality. Several AM stations, at night, could be heard from hundreds of miles away. But the best stations often provided a feel of the cities and regions in which they were based.
Now, huge conglomerates that own most stations often pipe in DJs from out of town without telling viewers. Or they might record the hosts' remarks in advance using digital technology to compress how much time they have to spend in the studio.
"AM and FM - hopefully, that's where you get your local stations," says Gilchrist, who handles music from the 1970s. "We're coast-to-coast, and we're proud of it."
XM Satellite Radio, and its chief competitor, Sirius, each promise more than 100 channels, with quality verging on that from CDs. In XM's case, far fewer ads mar the aural landscape than regular commercial radio. More than 30 channels have no ads; others typically have less than two minutes of commercials per hour.
And, supplemental information flows along with the news and songs. The receiver can tell you what station you're tuned in to, what artist you're listening to, and the name of the track, for example. Or it can tell you what news lies ahead - or what traffic snarls, or what weather conditions.
XM creates its own stations, such as Phelps' '60s on 6, for which he serves as the lead host and music director; and others devoted to soul, country, classical, Latin, dance, rap, jazz and Christian music, as well as other formats, such as comedy, talk, kids' programming and rap. DJs are given wide latitude to pick their own roster of songs each day - and the archive of songs tends to be two to four times the size of standard FM music stations. The service also broadcasts existing networks' offerings, such as BBC, CNN, Fox News and Fox Sports, ESPN, CNBC and Bloomberg News.
There are two catches. Like the cable television systems they somewhat reproduce, you have to subscribe to receive satellite radio - typically, $9.99 a month. And, secondly, you have to buy the equipment to receive all those digital bits.
"People want choice in programming," says Chance Patterson, XM's vice president for corporate affairs. "And they want to be able to hear XM wherever they go. That's what we offer them at a very good price."
There is evidence to support the idea of a growing appetite for the pay-for-play approach. And hitting the road, as Gilchrist and Phelps have done, may be the way to stir it up. The Consumer Electronics Association released a study in early August that found that car buyers were a "captive audience primed for many of the benefits satellite radio has to offer."
The trade association, which counts XM and Sirius as members, found 49 percent of car buyers surveyed said they would be willing to pay extra for satellite radio service. Both Sirius and XM are signing up partnerships with car dealers to make their services a part of the standard options packages for many cars.
"You want to make sure to establish a beach-head with the early adopters," says Sean Wargo, director of industry analysis for the CEA. "It's a new concept so it takes some time to educate consumers."
Some complaints have emerged from listeners. Sometimes, in major cities, interference can jangle the signal; on devotees' Web sites, some contend they have had to purchase additional equipment to enhance the listening experience.
It's far to early to say whether satellite radio will prove financially viable. Currently, XM's Web site promises it will break even in late 2004. But it has received a fairly strong critical response. The choices and the quality of the sound are exceptional, narrowly broadcasting to many tastes at once. The future of radio may well best be spotted in the gimmicky SUV making its way across the country.
WBAL's new hire
Officials at WBAL-TV announced yesterday that Michelle Butt, news director of a sister station in Winston-Salem, N.C., has been hired to lead its news department. Like WBAL, Butt's current employer is owned by Hearst-Argyle. And she was the assistant news director at the company's Pittsburgh station, which adhered to a philosophy closely attuned to WBAL's news mantra: "Live, local, latebreaking."
Bill Fine, WBAL's general manager and president, said Butt's experience as a news director familiar with the station's approach commended her above other applicants from larger markets who had as senior roles. "I'm thrilled and excited," Butt, 37, said yesterday during an interview. " 'BAL is a great shop. There's not a lot of stuff that needs to be changed."
The Baltimore station is highly competitive with WJZ-TV for the ratings crown both in news program and overall. The current news director, Margaret Cronan, stepped down earlier this summer to move to Philadelphia for personal reasons. Butt is to begin on Sept. 24.
Print to radio
WYPR-FM has hired C. Fraser Smith, a longtime Sun reporter and radio commentator, to lead its still-evolving news staff.
During his 26 years at The Sun, Smith wrote extensively about politics at the city, state and federal levels. At 65, however, he decided to retire from the newspaper, where he was last an editorial writer specializing on state matters, and to head up to the NPR affiliate's Charles Village offices.
"It just legitimizes our credibility," says Marc Steiner, WYPR's executive vice president for programming. "He's known to many inside the business of journalism as a man of huge integrity, which is important to us."
Smith, the author of books about William Donald Schaefer and the death of University of Maryland standout Len Bias, said his new position would ultimately leave him a bit more time to plow further into a book on the history of civil rights in Maryland. But, he said, he looked forward to refining and enhancing the stories offered by the station's reporting staff.
"The 'YPR audience wants what I think of as a 'Perspective' section of the air," Smith says, referring to The Sun's Sunday section of analysis and opinion. "We want to offer the second level - the quick step back from the news of the day, to tell you what it means. ... It needs to be innovative, creative and informative."
He will continue to write his Sunday column on state politics for the newspaper.
Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 410-332-6923.