Author: McNeal, Brian

Thank God for Satellite Radio?

(Editor’s Note—What began as a simple request that Brian consider writing a monthly Welcome column has blossomed into a full-blow collaboration between the CBA and Many thanks to Mr. McNeal.)

Many of us can remember the days when driving any long distance without a tape player in the vehicle was sure to present some surprises and also some disappointments.

Surprises, because sometimes you'd actually get to hear something absolutely wonderful, creative and different. You'd get treated to radio programming you would not be able to hear if you stayed home because very few markets overlapped by design.

Disappointments, because when you finally found a station that provided some entertainment that suited your tastes, you soon drove out of range and then the never-ending dial searching would begin anew.

Then along comes a technological knight in shining armor for the radio listener – the invention of satellite radio. Find a program you like and keep it with you for a hundred miles, a thousand miles or yes ... coast to coast, or even beyond our borders. As far as you could drive with no signal loss.

But, maybe, just maybe, we were a little too hasty in claiming our knight had shining armor. Is it what we really wanted? Is it what the bluegrass community needed? Or should this luxury come with a warning tag?

In the beginning we at least had two satellite companies vying for our attention. The good old American way ... honest competition. However, times being what they are, we now have only one company and no market competition. Has that made it better?

One thing that has always been misunderstood about the radio world is the use of charts to position songs according to supposed popularity and that then determines the amount and timing of airplay for each song on the chart.

That system began with popular music and became known as Top 40 radio. And it works pretty well when one radio station is competing against another, or in many cases against several other stations for listeners within a given market.

But wait, remember we have only one (1) satellite radio company and they aren't competing with anyone. They have a market all of their own. So why do they need to limit their play list by the use of charts?

If you only listen to satellite radio, you may not have any idea of what you're missing! There are thousands of artists and songs floating around that are every bit as good as what gets on the (satellite) air. Some would argue, and possibly rightfully so, that there is actually better music out there that’s not getting played.

As a person from inside the industry, I know that there are professional, award winning artists who very seldom or never have their music played on satellite radio, not to mention those that are still trying to make a name for themselves but who have music equal in quality and every other respect to the music that does get on the charts.

The problems with charts and the use of them to determine airplay are multiple and we won't go into them all here but the concept of using charts to determine airplay is outdated. It was developed in a different time and for different reasons. It was developed when the average person listened to the radio in 15 minute blocks. How can that concept ever work for a world where the satellite programming is listened to in an office eight hours a day or on an all day drive? The station may be playing what they think are the most popular songs but do you really want to hear them again and again, day after day? Do you ever wonder what songs are out there that you don't get to hear – especially when you've heard the same song for the 3rd time in the same day or the same song at the exact same time two or more days in a row.
Satellite radio, as far as bluegrass is concerned, is missing the golden opportunity to spread our music to the masses. What they're doing is presenting bluegrass as if it were already the most popular genre in the world and every listener knows all there is to know about it. But we know that is not the case.

There are new listeners to our music every day. Some will be hooked forever and some will be discouraged from ever sampling it again. Why? Because we all have a personal idea of what is and what isn't good music. What does or doesn't excite us musically is as different from one person to the next as the number and position of freckles on our faces. So when a new listener stumbles into the bluegrass channel and hears something not to their liking it’s channel change time for sure! Now what happens if that same person comes back in a day or so and hears the same song because of the limitations of too few songs on the play list? Forever in that person's mind is the image that bluegrass is something to be avoided because their limited exposure had a negative impact.

Surprises and disappointments in satellite radio come to the regular listener too. Depending upon your own personal preferences, they may be one way for you and exactly opposite for another.

22 different channels dedicated to a Rock/Pop derivative.

4 different country formatted channels.

1 bluegrass channel.
Even Jazz and Classical music (both of which would have similarities to bluegrass in mass appeal) have two and three channels respectively.
To me, only one bluegrass channel is a big disappointment. So why do we say thank God for Satellite radio in the bluegrass community? Well, it's a start but it can be a lot more if we as a community don't get complacent and think that it is all it's ever going to be. Just like anything else that is new and innovative, it's use dictates it's benefit or it's detriment to the world.

We in the bluegrass community have an opportunity that none of our founding fathers or bluegrass pioneers had in the beginning. We can put our music and all of it's variants literally into the ears of millions with satellite radio. But it will take all of us in the community to recognize, first, it's potential, and then, second, the dangers of letting it continue with no intervention.

Thinking of satellite radio as just another private industry, another cog in the machine, is our first mistake. We need to think of this as a tool – a spaceship in the middle ages, a microwave oven to a caveman.
A really good way to help our problem would be to find a way to add a second bluegrass channel to the lineup. What will it take? A Rockefeller to finance it, or just a visionary to see it's potential?
A second good way to help that scenario would be to locate that channel outside of the Nashville headquarters. A West Coast based bluegrass channel in Los Angeles would open the doors to countless opportunities, not only in the programming side, but in the sales side of the business as well. What will it take to make that happen?
Dear Santa,
This year for Christmas, could I please have two bluegrass channels on my satellite receiver?

Have a great Bluegrass Day and Merry Christmas...HO! HO! HO!

Brian McNeal
Prescription Bluegrass

Posted:  12/22/2012

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