Opinion » Viewpoint

COMMENTARY: LET'S GET SIRIUS

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If you are not a subscriber to Sirius Satellite Radio, then you may have missed out on one of the biggest stories in Memphis music in the last year. Since July 2, 2004, Sirius Radio has broadcast a 24-hour-a-day, all-Elvis music channel from the plaza across from Graceland in Whitehaven. The Sirius radio DJ booth sits prominently in the middle of the plaza for all of the Elvis fans and visitors to observe, just like back in the day — when radio stations had their DJ booths visible through the window at street level of their buildings.

The all-Elvis format has been successful on many levels. According to Scott Lindy, head of country programming for Sirius, the Elvis station is in Sirius’ Top 10 in customer satisfaction and Top 50 in listenership (out of a total of 117 Sirius channels). When I asked Lindy how they gauged total numbers for listeners for each channel, he said, “It’s difficult because we are adding 30,000 listeners a week and it changes so fast.” He made it clear that at some point, the technology will be in place to determine exactly how many subscribers are listening to each station at any given time.

According to Jack Soden, visitations to Graceland are up 4-5 percent this year. I asked Soden, who spoke at a Sirius T-shirt-giveaway and champagne-celebration First Anniversary party at Graceland Plaza July 2nd, if this increase could be attributed to the new radio station or to the Memphis Convention and Visitor’s Bureau 50th Anniversary of Rock ‘n Roll campaign from 2004. “It’s hard to quantify (the effect),” said Soden. “We had TV product in May. We like to have a dozen things in the marketplace at one time. To single one out is tough.”

Certainly, having a 24 hour a day Elvis commercial broadcasting nationally and internationally from Graceland Plaza with 500,000 visitors a year passing by cannot hurt. The Graceland parking lot has been packed every weekend, as well as on many weekdays this summer. The station plays Elvis music, Elvis interviews, as well as interviews with Elvis-book writers and Elvis’ posse members.

Former Reigning Sound drummer Greg Roberson enthusiastically handles the weekday afternoon shift as “Doc Walker” and never seems to tire of the one dimensional format. Roberson says, “People ask me all the time if I ever get tired of Elvis. That’s like saying, ‘Do you ever get tired of Dylan or Neil Young?’ No! I’m just lucky enough to go to work every day, the bonus is I get to go to Graceland every day. People from all over the world tap on my window. Today I have no idea if I’ll talk to somebody from Poland, East Germany, or wherever. And Elvis brought ‘em all here.”

The partnership seems to be a match made in heaven for both entities — optimal for both Graceland and Sirius, which h benefits from the high profile status of broadcasting from one of the most sought out music destinations in the world.

Soden says, “Sirius came to us.” Graceland merely had to offer the location, a nice coup for the Memphis attraction. Each institution serves the other and this relationship is one of the best cross-marketing situations that exists for a Memphis business.

If this radio channel works so well for Elvis and Graceland, why then isn’t there an all-Memphis station broadcasting from the Stax Museum, Beale St., Ardent Records, the Peabody Hotel, the Chisca Hotel or some other famous Memphis music attraction? It would seem to be a no-brainer — adding another excellent channel of music for a satellite station from another high profile music destination in one of the world’s most historic and visited music cities. Memphis already has one show on XM three times a week, a ‘50s show hosted by Alex Ward called Pink and Black Days. The Memphis produced Beale St. Caravan also is in discussion with XM. Says executive producer Sid Selvidge : “We’ve had discussions with both. Sirius wanted to split our programming up into four parts and it was unsatisfactory. We are in discussions with the head of blues programming at XM. We’re hoping. We’ve got the dialog open.” Beale St. Caravan is already broadcast on the European, Africa, and Asian equivalent of Sirius/XM: World Space Satellite.

Currently a shortage of bandwidth is one problem with new radio programming. Lindy says, “We have to take one (station) out to add one. We have 40 on our list…rockabilly, zydeco. We have only one blues out of 117 channels.” Surely, with the explosion of satellite radio subscribers, this will be a short-term technological challengem and new stations will be added with increased subscribers.

Another issue would be interest from Memphis music stakeholders. Memphis Music Commission President Rey Fleming does not have a satellite radio strategy. Fleming said, “We are not engaged in a discussion right now. It is something we will move to in the near future--although it is very worthwhile. It’s a natural place for Memphis music to be now.” Fleming said that the commission is busy with Suntrust bank lending practices; a summer concert series on Court Square; a tv production that just wrapped (MTV’s My Block—isn’t that the film commission’s purview?); business recruitment to Memphis; and a soon to be announced location for the Sam Phillips Center in conjunction with the University of Memphis.

It is difficult to criticize the commission since it has taken it seven years to accomplish anything positive, and they have just begun a Memphis music concert series. However, it would seem to the casual music observer that a 24-hour-a-day international radio broadcast would do more for Memphis and Memphis music than an ephemeral concert series.

With the disparate stakeholders in the Memphis music community — community radio WEVL; library channel WYPL, which recently moved to an all-Memphis music format; NARAS; the Memphis Music Commission, Beale St. Caravan, which is currently heard on 1000s of stations across the world; and the many independent record labels, clubs, and theaters in Memphis — one would think bringing all of these music entities together to create something truly explosive for all Memphis would be an immediate priority.

In light of the current competition between Sirius and XM, now would seemingly be the perfect time to strike an all-Memphis radio deal with XM, which broadcast from the Stax Museum in January. XM’s people are surely aware of both Sirius’ Memphis location and Memphis as an historic music center. Just ask Jack Soden.

On an unrelated note, the sale of Elvis Presley Enterprises last December to Robert Sillerman is going swimmingly. Jack Soden says, “It’s just great. We went and looked for it , and we wanted a new platform.” Speculation that Soden would leave soon after the sale seems to be just that.

Soden has a Robert-Frostian take on Elvis: “I have been here so long that archives has given me a catalog number! I have a list of things we’ve done and a list of things we want to do, and the list of things we want to do is longer. I am blessed because this is fun…Elvis is fun. We are blessed about our business.”

Soden appears to be extremely happy and at ease with the state Graceland is in and does not appear to be going anywhere. He didn’t even mind the champagne shower he received from the Sirius DJs on a hot July Saturday afternoon. Miles to go before he sleeps…

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