Andrew Wilkow one only had the seconds between playing one alt-rock single and the next to tease listeners with his political opinions. Now the former radio DJ has hours to fill with his takes on the issues of the day.
Wilkow is one of the longest-serving opinion hosts on SiriusXM, the satellite-radio broadcaster. “We are not bound to the seven-minute segment, then get to the break-sports-weather-trafffic- and-commercials,” says Wilkow, who hosts a three-hour program on the company’s Patriot channel, devoted to conservative opinion. “I have the time to lay it all out and prove it to people, if they want to fact check me.”
SiriusXM may best be known for offering two channels devoted to Howard Stern as well as dozens of sundry musical formats, but the company, controlled by John Malone’s Liberty Media, has also amassed a collection of skilled opinion hosts and news anchors. ABC News’ Dan Abrams and CNN’s Chris Cuomo have launched new programs on the service, as has Oliver Knox, the current president of the White House Correspondents Association. Kristen Soltis Anderson, the noted pollster, has also joined the lineup. And at the company’s Progress channel, devoted to progressive opinion, two former Clinton aides, Zerlina Maxwell and Jess McIntosh, have moved their “Signal Boost” show to a weekday hour from a roost on Saturday mornings.
The Trump news cycle has goosed the fortunes of cable-news outlets like Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC. It has raised new subscriptions to The New York Times. But it is also spurring activity at SiriusXM, where ad sales associated with the company’s opinion channels are on the rise. Ad sales at POTUS, billed as SiriusXM’s non-partisan politics channel, rose 14% in 2018 over the prior year. They have increased 17% at Patriot, the service’s conservative outlet, and a noticeable 50% at Progress, the progressive channel. The company did not offer specific amounts of ad revenue for each channel.
Politicians are paying attention as well. Progress host Mark Thompson has in recent days spoken to Sen. Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Cory Booker, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Meanwhile, Maxwell and McIntosh recently interviewed Stacey Abrams.
Executives at SiriusXM say the hosts appeal to subscribers because they deliver something often unavailable on TV: depth. TV “is a formatted medium and people’s conversations can only go so far and so deep, and it lends itself to a kind of sound-bite conversation,” says Megan Liberman, the former Yahoo News chief who is senior vice president of news, talk and entertainment at SiriusXM. “They do some really great interviews, but it doesn’t have the same kind of free-flowing nature that radio does. We have interviews that are 15 to 17 minutes long, not two or three.”
On one recent morning, Maxwell and McIntosh were holding forth on another broadcast of “Signal Boost,” dispensing unapologetic encouragement to liberal listeners and interviewing an attorney who has tried to bring neo-Nazis to justice. The duo – both of whom hail from the world of politics – carried with them a palpable energy, as if they were on a mission. “I came in February of 2017 with the intention of making it a place where people who felt like they were part of the resistance could come for marching orders,” says Maxwell, who is senior director of progressive programming at SiriusXM, speaking about Progress. “We have lived up to that in a lot of ways.”
No matter their political leanings, hosts from across the SiriusXM spectrum agree on at least one thing. They believe they are curating a better grade of discourse than is available elsewhere.
Listeners “are craving certain things, and not ideologically driven talking points,” says Michael Smerconish, a veteran talk-radio host who also leads a weekend hour on CNN in addition to a program on SiriusXM. “There are many of us who are just sick and tired of having ceded the ground to the loudest voice, to media and elected officials.”
Liberman suggests the company may have announcements in the works regarding other personalities who will lend their voice to the various channels. And she says she’d like to bring more women into the programming lineup.
In the meantime, everyone works to get along – no matter their political view. At Fox News and MSNBC, the partisan opinion hosts who work primetime don’t have to encounter one another after pontificating for the right or the left. At SiriusXM, however, conservative and liberal opinionators all work under the same roof, so to speak.
“We are still colleagues,” says Maxwell. “I’m never going to make it personal.” In the current news cycle, after all, there’s plenty of other stuff to discuss.
(Above, pictured: Senator Kamala Harris visits SiriusXM host Mark Thompson)