Deejays slip bonds of Earth

Satcasters frees playlists from radio consolidation

The wave of consolidation that has swept the terrestrial radio business in the past decade has left scores of dejected and disillusioned DJs in its wake. But a lucky few have found a home in the skies, programming for the 120-odd fledgling satellite-music stations of XM and Sirius.

And the ones who made it out feel as though they’ve stepped into the studios of Radio Nirvana.

Instead of programming a few dozen focus-grouped pop songs week in and week out, they’re working from an unlimited playlist, spinning B-side tracks or entire albums if the mood strikes them.

“This violates every rule that exists at what they refer to as ‘alternative radio,’ ” says XM jock Scott Struber of his new-music satellite channel XMU. “We’re adding 300 songs a week — songs that are viewed by the terrestrial formula as dangerous and unfamiliar.”

Satcasting jobs are still in relatively short supply. Sirius and XM are the only players in the market so far, and between them they program about 120 different stations of music (generally with one DJ per station), plus another 80 of talk, news and sports radio. The satcasters say salaries for DJs and production directors are comparable to terrestrial.And the gigs are a dream come true for those who can get them. Struber, who once worked at Miami Clear Channel station WZTA, says that at his old radio jobs he was playing no more than 50 different songs at any given time, with a total of seven to 10 new tracks being swapped in and out each week.

In his new job, he has a trove of 85 full albums to work with in each rotation, and he can play any track he likes off those discs — or the whole record, for that matter.

In recent shows, he’s played the new Radiohead CD “Hail to the Thief” end to end, and he put nine tracks from Jurassic 5’s new release “Power in Numbers” on the air.

It wasn’t always so bad at the terrestrial stations, satellite DJs say.

When most of them got their start in the business — in the ’70s and ’80s — radio was still mainly a fragmented, mom-and-pop business, since federal rules prevented owners from buying up more than a couple dozen properties nationwide.

That all changed in the blink of an eye with the Telecom Act of 1996. The law lifted almost all restrictions on station ownership, and paved the way for the creation of giants like Clear Channel, which today controls more than 1,200 stations.

As terrestrial-radio giants gobbled up more outposts, they focused on delivering the biggest mass audience possible to advertisers. That meant playlists had to appeal to as broad a listenership as possible.

Radio vets say the change was so neck-snapping for the industry that it was felt almost immediately inside the DJ booth.

“We made jokes about the sales manager chasing you down the corridor, but there was some truth to that,” says Sirius VP of Music Content & Programming Joel Salkowitz. “So much of what happens in radio is driven by ‘can you sell it, and how cheaply?’ ”

Satellite radio doesn’t feel those forces as acutely, since its main revenue source is subscription fees.

Sirius charges roughly $13 a month for 101 commercial-free music, sports, news and talk streams; XM subscribers pay $10 a month for a similar offering, with some commercials.

The radio satcasters are aiming to model themselves after successful subscription services like HBO, where a lack of ad- and ratings-driven constraints have resulted in a host of innovative, compelling shows.

“Here’s the deal: there are no rules,” satellite jock and terrestrial vet Jessie Scott says. “There’s no one sitting over you and saying you can’t play this, or you have to play that. If I get something in and there are eight cuts on it that I like, then I play eight cuts on the air.”

As appealing as all of this may sound to a DJ still toiling in terrestrial radio, there is one overriding caveat: Satellite radio is still far from a stable business, and its employees are casting their lot in with a still-unproven model.

The companies spent hundreds of millions each in building up their hardware, and while both XM and Sirius are boosting their subscriber rolls by the day, neither is expecting to break even in the near future.

XM has been faster into the market than its rival: it already has nearly 500,000 subscribers, compared with Sirius’ 100,000. Each has cut deals with several automakers (including Audi, Ford, BMW and Chrysler) to install its hardware in cars, and the two expect to push their collective subscriber number over a million by the end of the year.

The companies — both of which are publicly traded — have taken a roller coaster ride on Wall Street over the past couple of years. XM has climbed to a recent high of more than $12 after trading in the low single-digits for months; Sirius has also gained in recent weeks as investors become increasingly convinced it will weather the storm.

Still, XM jock Mike Marrone admits the uncertainty inherent in a new business model has been a source of worry.

“I had some concerns — I think my wife had a lot more concerns,” he laughs. “This is the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life; I’m doing an entire station by myself. But that’s part of the thrill of being in on the ground floor.”