XM-Sirius merger outlaws alt-country

I was a kid when Springfield, Missouri’s Rock 99 changed its format to adult contemporary. I sat in my younger brother’s room and looked at what we called a jam box. Even then, at an age when everything is a surprise (and hence, nothing is), I remember sitting on the carpet and thinking, “This can’t be happening.”

Looking back, it was own personal Day the Music Died. It was the equivalent of losing a pet. For kids of all ages, at least in that era, the constancy of a favorite radio station was like loyal best friend who was there even when nobody else was. Cold war, nuke drills, Commie fears, it was all just white noise that happened when a thunderstorm knocked Rock 99 off the air.

I naively called the main number for the station to see if it was it was all a big goof. I don’t recall the outcome. I just remember that one day of tuning in and feeling all things good sucked out of the room.

I had not thought about that day in a long time, both because it wasn’t really a life-changing event and because I didn’t have to. These days, I am a satellite radio subscriber. I have had XM on my DirecTV for many years and in the family vehicle for the past year. I considered it to be the best thing that had happened to my radio listening experience since those early days of Rock 99. One station in particular, X-Country (pronounced “Cross Country”) held the #1 spot on my listening dial. The alt-country format was true to the genre. It had all the bands I liked and introduced me to quite a few more.

When the XM-Sirius merger was announced, I didn’t worry much. I figured XM would absorb Sirius’ programming, separate the chaff, and put Howard Stern somewhere all the time. So, imagine my surprise when I turned on X-Country a few days ago and the display read “Outlaw Country.”

“This is not going to be good,” I thought.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a huge fan of all the outlaw country artists. Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash…all of them gave the alt-country scene a foundation on which to build. Without the outlaw country artists, there would be no Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, Robbie Fulks, or any of their contemporaries. I get that and appreciate it. That said, alt-country and outlaw country are different sub-genres of music and deserve two different places on the satellite radio dial. I mean, it’s satellite radio for the love of all that’s holy.

I gave it a chance. Within a couple of days of listening to Outlaw Country on XM-Sirius, I knew it was a lost cause. It felt like the Rock 99 format change all over again. Outlaw Country played the occasional alt-country tune, but more often than not I heard Travis Tritt, Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache,” and a blathering former professional wrestler turned radio personality named Hillbilly Jim talking about how he knows the Kentucky Headhunters.

It’s obvious the Sirius programmers put a lot more emphasis on personalities than music programming. Satellite radio’s main appeal was being able to listen to a lot of music without all the talk. The new format on the X-Country/Outlaw Country forces the listener to endure endless rambling by a bunch of guys who probably wouldn’t know Jay Farrar if he was sitting in the same booth with them.

After giving Outlaw Country a chance, I discovered I was not alone in my disappointment. Internet petitions had cropped up with thousands of digital signatures. E-mail addresses of the programmers were getting hammered. XM’s own forums were on fire. XM’s customer service reps were given scripts from which to read when handling the irate customers.

As one person wrote to XM, “You have no understanding of what X Country meant for its fans.”

It seems silly that people could be so dedicated to a format, but I–for better or worse–completely understand how sad and frustrated listeners are.

Another listener who was basing his car purchase on XM-ready vehicles wrote, “XM has changed its programming and we’ve lost one of my favorite channels, X Country. It’s been replaced by DJ’s who talk too much, don’t play the same kind of music, and use way too much foul language. As a result I plan on canceling my XM subscription and it will no longer play a role in my car purchasing decisions.”

One guy summed it up pretty well when he wrote to XM, “You’ve made a mockery of the music, the artists, and the fans as you’ve replaced X Country with Outlaw and then tried to pass it off as if it was ok. It’s not ok and it shows a complete lack of respect for your customers.”

The main programmer for Outlaw Country responded as diplomatically as he could under fire. He wrote, in part, “I definitely understand the strong connection and feeling of loss you and many other XM listeners have for X Country…but we each have a somewhat different approach to programming. I’m sorry that you’re having such an bad initial reaction to Outlaw Country, but I think if you spend a little time with the channel you’ll hear many of the same artists championed by X Country.”

Methinks Program Director Jeremy Tepper oversold that last bit pretty significantly.

The shame of it, and there is a lot of it to go around, is that the merger did a lot of things right. My metal friends love them some Hair Nation and Liquid Metal. My wife’s pop stations are better. XM-Sirius also has an entire station dedicated to the Grateful Dead (not to mention Jimmy Buffett and Bruce Springsteen). I even went back to Rock 99 times with Classic Vinyl. Still, I miss X-Country more than I can say.

I related this story to a friend of mine last night. In turn, he told me that when a new mall opened near his mother’s house, she was aghast the mall did not have a Panera Bread. She wrote Panera Bread and asked, “How could you not open a location here?”

A few months later, my friend asked his mother, “So did they open a Panera Bread?”

Her answer, “No.”

His implication was pretty clear. It’s ridiculous of me to think because I and a few thousand other people are unhappy with the format change that XM-Sirius will change its strategy as it relates to one channel. I knew that already, but when somebody steals your dog, it’s really hard to say, “Well, he was a good dog. I’ll miss him.” You go and get the dog back.

X-Country’s tagline was “In twang we trust.”

I guess not, XM. I guess not.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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24 Responses

  1. Amy says:

    Very well written! I think it expresses the opinion of so many. Perhaps we’re just spoiled because, in the genre of music we all so loved, we did have a say. And now, we don’t- at least not on Satellite Radio. Alas, thank goodness that today there’s other choices out there.

  2. DuggleBogey says:

    This extremely fine stratification of tastes is why I believe that terrestrial radio is dying and satellite radio never really stands a chance against iPods.

    It would be very easy for you to “rebuild” your radio station on a $30 MP3 player set on random play. I suspect that’s what a large portion of your like-minded X-country listeners will do.

  3. DuggleBogey says:

    P.S. I have the same feelings for Lucy, Fred, Ethel and Fungus.

  4. Glen Harness says:

    There’s been a lot of discussion about this on Webb Wilder’s message board (Webb used to be a DJ on the X Country channel). I think they’ve ticked off a lot of subscribers….

  5. Falstaff says:

    You know I’m right there with you. I can’t even count the number of great artists I was introduced to on X-Country that just aren’t on Outlaw Country. Bleu Edmondson, Cross Canadian Ragweed and Wade Bowen cannot easily be replaced by the ramblings of Mojo Nixon. And there’s nothing now like Rogue Calls, which was the best request show ever. There are some stations I really like (I think Lithium is a dramatic improvement over Lucy), but there’s plenty of room on the satellite for both.

    I’m gonna go plug my iPod back in now :(.

  6. Uncle Ted says:

    I wonder how Chuck feels about this, as X-Country was a favorite of his in the truck.

    Nevertheless, I wouldn’t toss this to the death of a dog. In a related story, Delta (with many more customers than Sirius/XM) really pissed off its frequent fliers when it elected to adopt Northwest’s “Coach Choice” select-seat-for-additional-dolloars-purchase program. People protested, loudly, continuing the outrage on FlyerTalk as well as with direct messages to Delta’s marketing dude along with any other executive-type mailbox. Bottom line…a few weeks later, the frequent fliers got their way…no more seat-for-purchase for us.

    Or, send Serious/XM the spider.

  7. Dave Onkels says:

    Brad- Please go to this site I built specifically to capture all of the overwhelming customer concerns from the recent XM Sirius merger. We need your voice to get heard!

    http://voiceofthelistener.com

  8. Schecky says:

    now that this has turned into an alt country discussion, let me recommend imo the best altcntry record of all time – Jolene’s “Hell’s Half Acre”. Thank You

  9. CJ says:

    What’s Alt Country? Is that Pearl Jam covering Faith Hill?

    Anyway… I worry that Flight 26 will never be the same! What does Mrs. Otis have to say about that?

  10. SCSue says:

    Ah – you said it so well! And no, DuggleBogey, I can’t build my own with my iPod and random play. XCountry was THE ONLY station I listened to on XM. One of the greatest attractions was discovering artists I hadn’t heard before – it’s not the same as playing the music I already own.

    I tried giving Outlaw Country a chance – for 3 days. Hearing 3 incompetent DJs discuss putting a couch in a trailer for way too long, I felt like ripping my radio out of the car! Are you telling me Sirius subscribers have been PAYING to listen to this crap!!! Sirius is obviously about their host “personalities” – XM was about the music.
    I’ve cancelled my subscription. I wish I thought petitions would make a difference…

  11. Easycure says:

    I commented on the voiceofthelistener.com website. I sure hope they heed the warnings.

    I miss Fred. This 1stWave channel is much too similar to any old 80’s channel.

  12. G-Rob says:

    Dude, THEY ADDED A GRATEFUL DEAD CHANNEL AND A “JAM ON”!

    The merger is awesome.

  13. MGM says:

    I remember the Rock 99 deal. It was a hoax. And just about everyone I knew was duped and moping around about the whole deal. Then at the moment that Rock 99 was to leave the airwaves…they announced that they were simply changing their name. To something totally cheesy like “99 Hit FM” or something like that.

    It was totally lame.

    But then, I was a freshman in high school, so I thought pretty much everything was totally lame. The station was never quite the same for me.

  14. bruce says:

    Think about why Bush’s Justice Department approved the merger, and then think about the programming. Just out of curiosity, is Air America still available. I noticed they’ve added Fox business.

  15. bruce says:

    I guess them boys in washington didn’t like hearing about them boys in oklahoma rolling their joints too long.

  16. bruce says:

    Yep, for the most part, the news content has been watered down; fox business news reigns, cnn is gone?, but it may be that menues aren’t finalized. I’m not claiming it until its true. America Online is missing from the “news and talk” listings. And that’s why Justice Departments approve mergers, and don’t give me that redneck crap about markets dictating programming. X-M cross country had millions of listeners. I would’n’t be surprised if there was a trucker’s strike.

  17. bruce says:

    I finally found the “menu” I think. Air America is gone. Sirius is going middle of the road, and cross country was too strong for the advertisers. What was that song? bleep you, we’re from Texas. Gone, gone, gone. Where will we ever hear the likes of it again?

  18. Da Goddess says:

    Just keep hoping and praying they come back around to original format and programming. If not, send them eel sandwiches with old mayo and gritty mustard.

  19. Zen Hikers says:

    Great post. I agree completely! X-Country was the No Depression channel I always dreamed of. So sad it is gone.

  20. Clint Wright says:

    I have not listened to an FM station for more than 5 minutes for the past 3-4 years. Now, XM has joined ’em. It was consolidation then and it is consolidation now (XM and Sirius merger). Pattern? How hard can it be to program a good alt-country radio station? At least I have KPIG.

  21. Todd says:

    I want to cry a river of whiskey tears. Robert Earl Keen is like my Elvis Presley and the only radio station that would have him on a regular rotation has been taken over by a bunch of longwinded blowhards. I know they “appreciate” alt-country but Outlaw Country has now been turned off of my radio in protest. I urge others to not listen to it either. Maybe someday, but hearing Tony Bennett sing Cold Cold Heart just doesn’t do it for me. Give me REK,Chris Knight, Restless Kelly. I’m in freakin Nashville and have to listen to pop radio country. For the Love of all that is Holy! Please. Is there nothing we can do?

  22. Frank says:

    It’s been said numerous times above already. X-Country was different – heck it was *unique* as far as I can tell. It was like a KEXP Seattle (thank you iTunes) for grown ups. I spent a couple of hundred bucks on music by artists I hadn’t heard of prior to stumbling across X-Country in a rental car while on a cross-Colorado drive a couple of years back. There was nothing like it on air, satellite, internet or FM (damn sure ’bout the last). WFUV in NYC sometimes touches upon its genius, but only for an hour or two at a stretch. Outlaw Country is dumbed-down, imbecilic talk trash in comparison. And yes, you can hear Waylon and Willie loads of other places on the dial, i.e Roadhouse and Willie’s Place. However there is hope, at least when in range of the internet. Check out Radio Free Texas (radiodfreetexas.org or on iTunes Radio under ‘Country’). Don’t know how you’re gonna listen to it while you’re drivin’ (lordy how I will miss you X-Country on those long, lonely cross country drives), but it’s something. That is until someone comes along and screws it up. For now, though, there’s some hope.

  23. Sparkle says:

    It’s been two months now and I’m still missing X-Country mightily. It was the sole reason I chose XM over Sirius 4 years ago and all 3 of my XM radios were glued to it. I’ve not cancelled my subscription, despite my initial compulsion to do so, hoping upon hope that when the rumored lineup shifts happened this month, they would find a spot for X-Country on the dial somewhere. But I’ve given Outlaw a fair chance and frankly, it sucks. I long for the quiet dignity of DJs who respect the music and their audience, who are there to share their latest fabulous music finds, not their recipe for pound cake or to hear themselves talk. Jessie Scott is a genius programmer and her talent is sorely missed. A special loss for me is that there is NOWHERE on any radio dial to hear a regular dose of zydeco music… I so looked forward to my hour with Texas Fred every week. In any case, I know I’m not alone in my discontent and disgust with Sirius XM, but that doesn’t help much. Sigh.

  1. March 8, 2009

    […] made no secret how I feel about the XM Sirius merger. It ruined X-Country and nearly forced me to cancel my subscription. But then I found Jam On, […]

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