A Demographic of One

5:15 PM -- I have some advice for Lee Abrams.

Abrams is the programming chief for XM Radio, the satellite radio network that's changing the way people listen to news, music, and talk in their homes, offices, and particularly their vehicles. I profiled Abrams, a longtime FM-radio guy who helped launch the career of a roster of once-"alternative" bands such as Yes, for Wired a couple of years ago.

XM has been wildly successful in attracting a rapidly expanding base of subscribers, many of whom are cult-like in their devotion to the broad, unfiltered offerings you get for a relatively small subscriber fee. (Disclosure: I'm one of them.) Along with its rival Sirius, though, XM has spent hundreds of millions to attract superstars like Oprah Winfrey (XM) and Howard Stern (Sirius). The company lost more than $149 million in its last reported quarter, prompting the resignation of board member Pierce Roberts, who said he believes XM is overspending and faces a cashflow crisis unless it reins in costs to get to break-even.

Here's my idea: Increase revenue by letting people program their own music channels.

XM already has a huge array of music channels, from R&B ("The Groove") to jam bands and prog-rock ("XM Music Lab") to French hip-hop ("Air Musique"). As I type this I'm listening to an ambient-dub number called "Absorber," by The Lithium Project. It's safe to say you can't find that anywhere else on your radio, including on Sirius.

It's also safe to say that XM may never reach profitability by continually expanding and reshaping its programmed channels (or by signing one-person brands like Oprah). So, for an added fee (say, five bucks per channel), they could allow people to craft their own channels, programmed especially for themselves. An audience demographic of one, listening to pre-selected tunes broadcast exclusively for your personal listening pleasure.

Here's how it would work: you tell XM what sort of music you're into. For my wife it might be Joni Mitchell, her peers and her followers -- James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Rickie Lee Jones, Shawn Colvin, Tori Amos, etc. etc. For me it might be ambient pioneers Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, and their legion of collaborators and imitators.

XM's software guys create an algorithm that takes your stated parameters and finds similar music from related artists, and programs a channel 24x7. It's like an iPod with no storage limits, no 99-cents-per-song, and no time spent programming it for yourself -- with the added unpredictability of the algorithm seeking out related artists you haven't heard of. (This concept, of course, mirrors the "Long Tail" economics that Wired editor Chris Anderson has been exploring for a couple of years now.)

The economics are simple: The added cost of multiplying channels on XM's satellite signal is, or will soon be, virtually zero (if millions of subscribers ordered up their own channels, bandwidth could be an issue -- but rapidly advancing compression technologies will take care of that soon enough). XM gets an added revenue stream to offset rising costs. And subscribers get their own personal music channel.

Lee, call me. We'll talk.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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