All-Elvis radio? It’s now or never
There are those who say that pop-radio stations play the same set of songs over and over again and all sound alike -- a statement that is both true and not true of Sirius Satellite Radio’s Elvis Radio.
It’s all Elvis Presley all the time, culled from a vast library of 2,700 songs but presented in a way listeners have never heard before -- and one that may be a harbinger of radio’s future.
Elvis Radio, one of more than 130 channels on Sirius, may be the first station to transform what is normally a short-lived publicity stunt into a full-time dial fixture. As such, the all-Elvis station is widely viewed as an early litmus test for the ultra-niching that may lie ahead in satellite and digital radio, which offers listeners hundreds of channel choices.
“When Sirius asked me if I wanted to program a channel committed solely to Elvis, it was a no-brainer,” said Scott Lindy, a veteran of traditional radio and now Elvis Radio’s programming director. “Everybody has an Elvis connection. I don’t care who you are or where you’re from, you know who Elvis is. This is no gimmick, we’re not going away.”
Broadcast daily from Presley’s former home, the popculture mecca of Graceland, the one-note station celebrated its first anniversary earlier this month, timed to coincide with Elvis Week, the 28th annual commemoration of Presley’s death.
In observance of the event, the station aired live interviews with the King’s music and film collaborators, friends and confidants, and then finished off the week with a candlelight vigil and procession.
For the satellite radio industry, Elvis Radio is part of a marketing strategy to get paying customers inside the tent. Although there’s no hard data available on ratings or how many subscribers Sirius has gained through niche programming, observers see it as a smart experiment.
“It’s the same thing cable television faces when they’ve got 400 channels to program,” said Dick Bartley, who has a syndicated oldies show for ABC Radio Networks. “It’s a fringe idea. Everything can’t be mass appeal, and you’ve got to fill it with something.”
Sirius began its commitment to resurrecting the Presley sound by negotiating its way inside the gates of Graceland, building a brand-new studio there and signing up about half a dozen DJs consumed by the Elvis mystique or who knew the pop superstar personally. So if you want to know what Presley was thinking before he went on stage in Saginaw, Mich., in 1977, these are the guys to ask.
“I’m not bragging, but I’m an Elvis expert,” said George Klein, one of the station’s DJs. Presley was the best man at his wedding, and Klein served as a pallbearer at his friend’s funeral. “I’ve got a world of information on Elvis.”
The station’s DJs are more than storytellers, they’re stage performers too, said Lindy. Their studio’s huge window looks out on Graceland’s main plaza, where hundreds of Presley fans look inside the “fishbowl” to watch the spinning of songs including “Guitar Man” and “Kentucky Rain.” In fact, a few of Graceland’s 600,000 annual visitors are invited inside the studio to talk about their Presley moments and memories.
“We get people here from Japan, the Middle East, Europe and Africa who have made it a point in their travels to see the place that Elvis lived,” said Lindy. “We recently had someone from Poland we put on the air and we had to find a translator.”
The channel’s regular playlist is between 800 and 900 songs, which by way of comparison is more than double, and maybe triple, the playlists of most top 40 stations. Many of Elvis’ songs have multiple versions -- live, studio, even rehearsal takes. For instance, the station has 15 different cuts of “Hound Dog.”
But although the station is proud of its rare treasures, it makes sure the big hits are frequently played for the average fan.
“The worst thing in radio is you don’t want to lose a listener,” said Klein, who had a part in several Presley movies. “If they go down the dial, it’s hard to get them back.”
Since the 1970s, a number of AM and FM stations across the country have dabbled in oneartist, all-the-time schemes by riding the playlists of such rock icons as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. But these solo efforts, which rarely lasted more than several weeks, were typically launched to draw attention to a station as it prepared to switch from format A to format B.
Satellite channels, of course, aren’t under the same commercial constraints as a terrestrial station. They don’t have to attract advertisers, just consumers willing to pay a monthly subscription fee of $10 to $13 for a variety of commercial-free music. And for that purpose, niche stations might just work.
Between Sirius and its main satellite competitor, XM Radio, the companies claim some 7 million subscribers. That figure is expected to rise considerably in the coming years as satellite technology improves and its receivers become common options in automobiles.
“If you put enough ultra-niche channels together, instead of just generic-sounding ‘70s music or ‘90s music, you’ll attract passionate fans,” said Tom Taylor, editor of the trade publication Inside Radio. “That’s what satellite has got to do.”
Ratings numbers are hard to come by with satellite radio, but Sirius has been happy enough with the launch of Elvis Radio to inspire thoughts of rolling out other one-artist stations. The names being bounced around? The Beatles, Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones. In fact, Sirius unveiled an all-Rolling Stones channel earlier this week that will play five decades of the rock band’s hits for about five weeks. The move is largely seen as a mutually beneficial promotional vehicle for Sirius and the Stones’ new tour and album “A Bigger Bang.”
Sirius already has “Radio Margaritaville.” Although not strictly a single-artist change, the station overflows with Jimmy Buffett songs. It also plays James Taylor, the Beach Boys and Harry Belafonte. Meanwhile, at XM Radio, “Frank’s Place” showcases a wealth of Sinatra recordings, blending in the likes of Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald.
But in terms of one artist, one station, Presley is first out of the gate, ahead of the Stones and others. Observers attribute the King’s triumph to his extraordinary merchandising power. You don’t see many Stones fans with anything like the Elvis Jailhouse Rock Cotton Ball Holder for bathrooms available for $4.99 on www.shopelvis.com.
“There’s just enough Elvis crazies to make it work,” said Bartley, who has been doing his oldies show since the 1980s. “And I mean that in the nicest way.”
But just because a channel works for Elvis doesn’t mean there’s going to be a stampede of imitators as, say, with his music career. There’s a pretty short list of performers who have what it takes to sustain such an enterprise.
“You need depth and quality to support this kind of thing,” said Bartley. “Who has it? Maybe the Beatles. Maybe the Stones. Maybe Elton [John]. I mean, that’s about it.”
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Elvis Radio at a glance:
Location: Graceland in Memphis, Tenn.
Playlist: Usually between 800 or 900 songs, but there are more than 2,700 selections in the vault.
* “The Elvis Radio Vaults”: Rarely heard songs, hard-to-find recordings and vintage tracks.
* “Elvis Soundtrack Songs”: The best of Elvis’ movie music.
* “Elvis IQ”: Raise your E-quotient hourly as Elvis Radio DJs dish out interesting tidbits about the so-called King of Rock and Roll’s life and times.
* “Celebrity Hotline With George Klein”: two-minute snippets from Klein’s chats with celebrities, headline makers and Elvis experts.