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for February 1, 2002

Getting Into XM:
XM Radio's Mike Marrone

by Sean Carolan

Mike Marrone programs "The Loft", a channel at XM Satellite Radio. When ALTROK ran its fairly tepid earlier piece on the service, Mike's visceral rebuttal to me bore the mark of something a bit more genuine than simple corporatespeak, so I've asked him to join the fray and speak freely. XM now has 30,000 customers, and they're shooting for 350,000 by the end of 2002; passionate programmers like Mike may be the reason they make it after all.

ALTROK: You've been spotted on more than a few cutting edges over the years, at FM106.3, then Rykodisc radio, then iCast, and now here at XM; should we expect by now that, whenever the new new thing comes along, you'll be riding it like Slim Pickens in "Dr. Strangelove"?

Mike Marrone: You left out a few things, maybe I should send you my resume!

Seriously, Coyote Radio in New Mexico was something I remain very proud of. We had 100,000 watts, the biggest stick in the state and something like 3,500 ACTIVE songs in the library. The jocks were free to choose their music through a computer module in the control room, which gave them plenty of freedom, yet allowed me control so everything would rotate nicely -- and we finished 11th out of 43 stations in the Albuquerque market after one full ratings period. Unfortunately deregulation hit and we were bought by Simmons from Salt Lake who turned the station into an Arrow. The first song they played was "We Built This City" and I went into the bathroom and threw up. Honest.

That's when I saw the writing on the wall and got out of radio and headed up the promotion department at Rykodisc. When streaming music was just beginning I convinced Don Rose [president and founder of Rykodisc] I could put a web station together for the label out of my infamous basement studio. We were the first label to do that, and we played music from any label, not just our own.

To answer your question -- finally! -- I always seem to be just ahead of the curve that would allow me to cash in and make a lot of money! Many people in the Alternative Radio field, for example, came to the party late for the grunge cash-in, and made a boatload of cash. But most of us who were there at the beginning, working for peanuts and the love of the music didn't.

From a personal standpoint, I have always been very "restless" musically. I get board easily and refuse to believe that the general public is as gullible or narrow-minded as the Arbitron ratings would have you believe. Of course, I am continually proven wrong. Just turn on any commercial FM radio station for evidence.

ALTROK: Tell us a little bit about what made your eyes pop out when you first caught a glimpse of XM's facilities.

Mike Marrone: Literally everything, the second floor has to be seen to be believed. But the one thing that totally blew me away was the attitude and vibe of the place. There are amazing people at XM. A "who's who" of radio in EVERY format. To a person, they all came up to me during my interview/tour and said how great it would be to have me join their team. It was funky, informal, exciting and everyone was having fun. I felt like I was finally "home."

ALTROK: You have carved out a niche at XM with your channel, "The Loft", which is a very nice collection of music that, while subdued, remains interesting and intelligent. Having chosen a direction, is it yours to program, is it focus group driven, or is it some happy medium in between?

Mike Marrone: There are no focus groups, no call-out research and XM has a NO INDIE policy. ["Indies" are independent record promoters, who've been at the center of recent payola scandals. -Ed.] I program The Loft. I report to Dave Logan and Lee Abrams and I listen to their advice, but they also listen to mine. The station will always be evolving, especially considering these are the early days. We will listen to feedback from our "customers." Remember that the people who sign up for XM are not just listeners, they have an investment in the company. They are paying money out of their own pocket to listen to our programming.

ALTROK: Obviously, a different method of delivering content like satellite radio requires a whole new philosophy to go along with it. What's different about programming an XM channel versus a standard radio station?

Mike Marrone: Most everything is different. There are no commercials on The Loft. State of the art equipment and cutting edge technology can be found in some segments of the terrestrial radio world, but the philosophy of XM is very unique. The two biggest examples I can offer are:
1. We encourage listeners to tune around the XM dial.
2. Traffic reports to Programming! ["Traffic" is the department that schedules breaks, including ads. -Ed.]

ALTROK: Speaking of standard terrestrial radio, I'm betting you think it's doing a pretty good job of killing itself all on its own. If there was one thing you could warn the standard radio industry about XM's appearance on the scene, what would it be? This is your invitation to talk a little trash...

Mike Marrone: I would find no personal satisfaction from "talking trash" to terrestrial radio at this time. I don't think that even after XM is successful and accepted it will put terrestrial radio out of business, no more than cable television put the networks out of business.

As far as a "warning" to terrestrial radio, I wouldn't assume they would take it seriously. After all, isn't it true that no one will ever pay for television or bottled water? I also seem to remember a AOR programmer in the early 80s tell me that The Cure, R.E.M. and all those other "blue-hared groups" would never sell any records.

ALTROK: And while beating the XM drum, there's something appealing there that has you committed to it, and I suspect it goes beyond simply drawing a paycheck from it. What makes your day at XM tick?

Mike Marrone: I work with and for amazing people. There is a wealth of practical programming and musical knowledge in the building that is truly staggering. It's almost like working at a convention every day. Think about it: I can sit at my desk and call up over a million songs. I feel we are re-inventing radio as an art form. It is very exciting.

ALTROK: At the end of the day, what would make you, as a motivated listener, choose to switch to XM? Besides the part about regular radio sucking, that is.

Mike Marrone: To quote those great philosophers, Devo: "Freedom of choice." I have had an XM tuner in my car for about five months and since I got it installed I have not listened to a CD in the car, or anything other than XM even once. I know I work there and all, but you know me. I still am driving my beat-to-shit 1990 Mazda and I will not take my wife's car because we don't have XM in it yet. I have an hour commute to work that was driving me crazy until I got XM. Now I ride in the slow lane with a smile on my face the entire way. I make excuses to go "out to the store" more often, I even clean my garage all the time! I have to get a Plug and Play for the house real soon.

©2002 Sean Carolan

All material ©2001-2014 Sean Carolan, except as noted.


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