Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sirius-ly messing with customers

Nationwide howls of "WTF?!" could have been avoided
Most people dislike changes and surprises, despite claims to the contrary. Right now, I'm unhappy with the changes Sirius XM made to their programming, despite that fact that I knew changes were going to happen.

The real problem? Sirius didn't manage customer expectations. At all.

When they combined programming after their long-sought merger, they did so in the middle of the week, informing subscribers about the new order by
e-mail. No prior warning and no research to find out what's popular — no one asked me, anyway.

While it was inevitable that channels would be dropped, especially where there were duplicates, some of the changes are dumb. For example, XM's
punkish "new wave" alternative channels — Fred, Ethyl and Lucy — are gone and the Sirius substitutes lack their flavor and edge, instead, adhering to a more mainstream approach.

While it's nice to have Little Steven's Underground Garage, the addition of a 24-hour Springsteen channel, one for the Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville station (programmed by my old pal, Steve Huntington), an Elvis Presley (not Costello) channel, and another featuring jam bands, is overkill for me. Beyond Jazz, which featured fusion and non-traditional "modern" jazz, is gone — and not replaced by any equivalent.

Soul Street, XM's excellent R&B station, was supplanted by Sirius' more conventional version; ditto with XM's alt-country station, "the X," which was replaced by the Sirius equivalent, which seems to rock a lot less. Hip hop fans are even more exasperated about the loss of their channels, too.

There've been quite a few personnel changes. The 50's channel is now manned by a 60s icon (at least in New York), "Cousin Brucie" (Bruce Morrow) who must be a million years old now, since I listened to him when I was a kid, on WABC. Not that big a deal to me, but the guy who used to do the 50s stuff is an authority on the music and was really great the few times I listened.

The 70s channel now has my old pal Ron Parker, who's an excellent Top 40 jock, though he's been shouting and puking a bit too much for my tastes, unfortunately.

Some programming, like Howard Stern's channel, now requires an additional monthly fee.

And every time I get out of my car, when I come back, the tuner reverts to the preview channel. I already subscribe. I don't need a preview!

But it's less about my personal tastes and tics, and more about the way things were done.

The last figures I saw for subscribers (July) had XM with 9.6 million and Sirius with 8.9 million; that's 18.5 million total, now reportedly up to 19.1 million. But they're still losing money — a ton of money:
they reported a $4.8 billion net loss for the third quarter of 2008. Their stock traded this week at 16¢ a share.

Upsetting subscribers is a very bad idea. The company can't afford it. There are
now many other options that didn't exist or weren't as readily available several years ago.

Other problems are ahead. Terrestrial radio is trying to force inclusion of their new "HD" stations onto satellite receivers. Oy.

When my Sirius XM subscription expires in a year and a half, I'll have to consider whether it's worth renewing. A few months ago, I was happy with my XM (that's right; "my XM"), and if you'd suggested I'd ever consider canceling, I would have laughed.

Now, not so funny.

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