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Radio Heads

Two satellite companies are waging a multi-billion-dollar space war to make sure radio doesn't suck anymore

They tell you horror stories. They’re radio people, so they really like to talk, and if you get four or five of them clustered together in a semicircle, you’ll start to wonder whether you’ve ambled into a DJs Anonymous meeting. ”I had gotten to the point in my career where I was done with radio,” says Scott Struber. ”I was absolutely fed up.” ”I played a Jackson Browne song one too many times and I finally just said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,”’ says George Taylor Morris. ”It just made me start to not like music that I’d loved.” ”Country music went to s – -,” says Eddie Kilroy. ”They started making this sissy music, so I just decided to go back to the ranch in Texas.”

They remember it now with a wince: how they were forced to repeat ”Sweet Home Alabama” or ”My Girl” or ”Bye Bye Bye” so many times that working as a jock began to feel like a cruel behavioral experiment. Consultants whittled their playlists down to a miserable 200 songs – or less. Focus groups decreed a song to be sweet or sour after listening to 15-second bites of each tune. ”I actually had a consultant say these very words to me: ‘There are only three Elvis Costello songs you ever need to play,”’ says Mike Marrone. ”I went, ‘Excuse me?”’ Struber tells a story about a Deer Hunter-ish program director who had his on-air personalities sit underneath a heat lamp: If a DJ veered away from the advertiser-sanctioned patter, even just a smidgen, the lamp clicked on and beads of sweat started pouring down the jock’s face.

”I ended up going through 17 radio stations prior to coming here,” says Phlash Phelps, who spells every F-word with a ph. ”I got p-h-i-r-e-d from every single one of ‘em.”

The here where Phlash finally washed ashore, along with Mike and George and Eddie and a lot of other soldiers from the rock-bottom American radio wars, is a place called XM Satellite Radio.

XM is one of two companies attempting a high-risk rebel assault on what they see as the crusty, hyper-consolidated empire of the airwaves. Both XM (broadcasting from a sleek converted printing plant in Washington, D.C.) and Sirius Satellite Radio (beaming out of a busy hive in a midtown Manhattan high-rise) are coming to you this summer with the same core sales pitch: American radio is ph – -ed up, and we want to phix it.

Visiting either of their offices can feel like docking on the Planet of Misfit DJs, but these are misfits with deep pockets. So fervently do they believe in their we-want-the-airwaves creed that each company has amassed an investment of nearly $2 billion behind it. To quote from ”Satellite,” one of those lovely Elvis Costello ballads that never get airplay: ”The satellite looks down right now….” Yep, above your head there are five satellites floating in orbit – three belong to Sirius, two to XM – and they’re already taking shots at the imperial fortress that the zealots winkingly refer to as ”terrestrial radio.”

So what exactly does a billion-dollar rock & roll space race sound like? Well, it sounds like walking down the hallway at Sirius or XM, which in turn sounds like strolling through a huge record store run by Willy Wonka: Every time you pass a cubicle, you get a fresh whiff of sonic candy. Emmylou Harris…Miles Davis…Hatebreed…a swelling Mahler symphony…Blur…the O’Jays…Run-DMC…Wilco…Uriah Heep…Merle Haggard…Norah Jones…Vicente Fernandez…Cassandra Wilson…Frank Sinatra’s ”Summer Wind”…Pete Shelley’s ”Homosapien”…Bobby Womack’s ”Across 110th Street”…R.E.M.’s ”Harborcoat” (definitely wouldn’t make the usual playlists)…Pantera’s ”F – -ing Hostile” (definitely wouldn’t pass muster with regular-radio censors)…Elvis Costello’s ”Beyond Belief” (definitely wouldn’t pass muster with that evil consultant). You might wander into Junior Marvin’s studio at XM; Marvin used to play guitar with Bob Marley & the Wailers, and now he presides over The Joint, XM’s reggae channel. Marley’s ”Waiting in Vain” is on the air, and he turns up the volume during a sweet, lilting guitar solo. ”That’s my solo,” Marvin says. ”That one made my name.”