Rob Patterson

Out-Of-This-World Radio

I recently tuned in to satellite radio and I'm sold, big time. I'd already pretty much tuned out on terrestrial radio, aside from, of late, Air America (which is sadly and rapidly losing its steam). And I'm even lucky enough to live in a city (Austin, Texas) with some decent options on the airwaves: an adult album alternative station (Triple A, as they call it in the biz) with a fairly open playlist (for commercial music radio) that also supports local music, a fine NPR-affiliated public station and a number of other non-commercial signals of note. But to me, radio hasn't been exciting for a long, long time. And there's hardly room here to say how much I now love radio again as it beams into my car from outer space. Yee-hah! Flying saucers, rock'n'roll.

I chose Sirius over XM -- the two satellite radio providers -- for mainly personal reasons. A good friend programs their Outlaw Country channel (DJ Rig Rocker is his on-air handle) and my other friends Mojo Nixon (who last fall had me on as a guest) and Dallas Wayne are DJs on that channel. I chose Sirius even though XM has Bob Dylan's very cool radio show, and I'm glad I made that choice, much as I bow to all things Bob. And I haven't been as stoked by what I hear on the aural airwaves since I got my first transistor radio for my fifth birthday in January 1959 and tuned in WABC and WMCA in New York City late at night and first fell in love with rock'n'roll, and then again a decade later when freeform underground FM first emerged.

There's one big reason why I'm so taken with Sirius now that I've subscribed. Even though I preset a bunch of channels when I first got my satellite receiver about two months ago, it has barely left what, to my tastes, is the best music radio signal on the planet: Little Steven's Underground Garage. Playing the coolest rock'n'roll from the 1950s up to today, I like everything I hear on it, song after song. When's the last time you heard a radio station you could say that about?

And it's not just the stuff I know and love on Underground Garage that keeps me tuned in, but lots of new bands in the garage rock tradition that rock my world, and tracks from artists I know and like that I hadn't heard in far too long or even ever before (like Jerry Lee Lewis doing "Deep Ellum Blues" as best I've heard that oft-recorded song). If you love real rock'n'roll, Underground Garage is a place you can happily park for hours at a time and never even be tempted to tune out, even with all the other cool options that satellite offers.

Sirius is also bringing back genuine air personalities to radio as well. My favorite is, again, yet another friend who DJs on Underground Garage: Handsome Dick Manitoba, lead singer of 1970s NYC street rockers The Dictators and proprietor of Manitoba's, his bar and music club in Manhattan's East Village. One of the most colorful raconteurs I know as well as a total rock'n'roll fanatic, he brings a richness of real guy personality and fervor for the music back to the airwaves that's been missing for decades, reviving the spirits of such seminal New York rock DJs as Murray the K and Cousin Brucie. Music radio DJs used to be like our buddies; these days on terrestrial radio they are either bland and inoffensive cardboard cut-outs or morning zoo douche bags.

So it's great to hop in the car most every evening and hear an actual pal of mine doing something he sounds born to do, and it sure beats sometimes hearing him holler at me from the cab he was driving as he passed by back in the late 1980s when I lived in and walked the streets of The Big Apple. His garrulous, passionate and informed delivery in his braying Bronx accent is everything that today's creatively bereft terrestrial radio chains and consultants have denatured from the medium, and it sounds utterly wonderful.

The music channels on Sirius -- and I have no doubt XM as well -- are programmed by true tastemakers who treasure the music they present. The people on air -- yes, people, not just voices -- are also just as fervent as well as interesting personalities. Underground Garage also has longtime trendsetter and former Rolling Stones manager and producer Andrew Loog Oldham and veteran Los Angeles music scenester Kim Fowley announcing as well as Kid Leo, one of the true giants of 1970s FM rock radio.

And it's programmed by "Little Steven" Van Zandt, who's not just guitarist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band but also a made member of the Soprano crime family (playing archetypal Jersey guy Silvio Dante, proprietor of the Bada Bing! strip club, on the too-soon-to-be-departed HBO series). Van Zandt is also a certifiable good guy leftist, organizing Artists United Apartheid in the mid-1980s for the "Sun City" protest single and benefit album. And he's put his money where his mouth and musical heart are by starting an independent record label, Wicked Cool Records, to keep alive the garage sound that is at the core of rock'n'roll's true soul and the Underground Garage aesthetic.

Where else on radio can you hear a guy discussing the finer points of great rock'n'roll music as well as the history of The Mob as he plays music that is, well, wicked cool, song after song? Not on (un)Clear Channel, that's for sure.

My younger sister is a Sirius subscriber and digs the Classic Rewind channel (though I've brought her into the Garage as well). Her two teenage daughters, when not plugged into their iPods, listen to Sirius Hits 1 for the latest new chart toppers (and I pop over there sometimes too for the very same reason).

The point is that satellite radio has something ideal for just about everyone who has some heartfelt musical favorites, as I do -- from the Metropolitan Opera to icky (to my tastes) contemporary commercial country to genuinely hip jazz to reggae along with talk, entertainment, sports, political radio of both stripes and more -- as well a rich cornucopia for the eclectic consumer, also like myself (and I'm happy to know there's much more there I will enjoy if and when I get past being stuck on Underground Garage like a teenager in love). And no commercials, all for only about $12 a month. I call that a bargain.

The targeted channels may be practicing narrowcasting in concept, but the 130-plus channels I get on Sirius is also en toto genuine broadcasting that offers options that appeal across the broad range of most any and all tastes. It offers a stark contrast and appealing option to the lowest common denominator wasteland that commercial terrestrial music radio has become.

Now Sirius and XM want to merge -- together they are some $7 billion in debt with no immediate prospect of profit -- and it looks unlikely that it will happen. The Senate Commerce Committee is skeptical and the Bush-appointed head of the FCC is opposed, as is also the National Association of Broadcasters (who represent the terrestrial radio gang and has been against satellite all along). Given the current anti-regulatory fervor and pro-business slant of the Bush administration and D.C. politics in general of late, this may even seem surprising (guess Sirius CEO Mel Karmazin, the architect of the merger deal, hasn't been paying off, ahem, I mean contributing to the right politicians). The collective opposition alone, given who they are, might offer good reason to support the merger.

But this firm anti-monopolist is indeed in favor of the merger. In a March 19 "Talk of the Town" article in The New Yorker, writer James Surowiecki offered a cogent analysis of the situation that echoes some of my thoughts. Among them are the notions that if you see satellite in competition with all radio, there's no lack of competition, and that the competition satellite could offer might in fact shake up the mediocre lethargy of terrestrial AM and FM radio today.

But my main contention stems from an ironic combo of both my socialist leanings and some very simple capitalist common sense. Satellite radio is an emerging technology, and one that provides a clear public service as well as a different and diverse media option to consumers. And sometimes that's something that government should encourage and support, in this case (with also a libertarian tinge to it) by simply not hampering two heavily indebted start-ups become one company that has a far better chance of surviving and thriving. If it does, we'll all be the better for it.

And in the gung ho big business atmosphere today, why can't the regulators trust capitalism to do one thing it can actually do well? Especially when there isn't a true industry and product monopoly, which satellite radio can't be in this age of countless entertainment options? If XM and Sirius can, within sensible stipulations, merge and actually start making money, the scent of lucre will, as it always does, bring other players into the game.

Yes, I'm also personally passionate because radio -- a formative media force in my youthful development -- has rocked my world again after far too long a time of hating what it has become. And if you also don't like what you hear on the traditional airwaves, for about the cost of an iPod you can buy a satellite receiver. And for what's really monthly chump change, then tune in and expand your radio listening spectrum immeasurably.

It may not be a radio revolution in the making -- but then again, perhaps it might be -- but it is one way you can vote with your pocketbook (just like cable television was) to shake up and likely improve and diversify a medium that has become stagnant and stupid. Plus, if you're anything like me, you'll dig what you hear on some, if not any number, of the channels. Tune in, turn on and rock out.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2007

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2007 The Progressive Populist.