- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

It has long been suspected that every DJ is a frustrated musician. But who knew that rock stars were frustrated DJs?

With the recent debut of the weekly show “Theme Time Radio Hour” on XM Satellite Radio, host Bob Dylan has joined a growing company of rock star moonlighters, including: Tom Petty, the host of XM’s weekly “Buried Treasure”; Steven Van Zandt, whose “Underground Garage” is syndicated to various terrestrial radio stations, including locally on WARW-FM on Sunday nights, and occupies its own Sirius Satellite Radio channel, where singer Joan Jett is among the hosts; and Sex Pistol Steve Jones (heard weekdays on Los Angeles’ KDLE-FM).

Collectively, rock radio’s already-famous new breed is bringing a whimsical aesthetic to the medium — an approach to both the culling and presentation of music that is more idiosyncratic than is the norm on most commercial radio stations.

It’s ironic, in a way: As terrestrial radio faces a gathering (if not yet grave) challenge in the form of satellite subscribers, and as new technologies such as the IPod force some programmers to embrace more inclusive and unpredictable “Jack” formats, here comes a bunch of oldsters, bringing with them the reborn spirit of underground FM.

What gives?

At a basic level, says Tom Taylor, editor of Clear Channel-owned Inside Radio, it’s late-career elbow grease and gumption.

Or maybe just gumption: The ease with which digital recording technology allows one to transmit from, say, a home office or a tour bus suggests that disc-jockeying is a decidedly easy paycheck for Messrs. Dylan and Petty.

At any rate, “Many of those boomer artists are very good businesspeople,” Mr. Taylor says. “Artists are always looking for ways to remain relevant. There’s a sense of proving yourself yet again — to see if you’ve still got it. That’s what made them stars in the first place.”

Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming at Edison Media Research and the former radio editor at Billboard magazine, says there’s a rudimentary, glamour-driven dynamic at play here. It’s the “belief held by many programming directors that even if these rockers-turned-radio-personalities don’t sound professional, they are still more compelling than traditional DJs,” he says.

The same rationale led programmers, roughly a decade ago, to hire comedians, including Steve Harvey, who took what seemed then like a step down from TV to radio; in retrospect, the multimedia move paid off, with Mr. Harvey finding modest success in movies.

The presence of rock-star DJs is not exactly new, Mr. Ross points out.

The pioneer rock-star-turned-DJ (not to be confused with the pioneer DJ-turned-rock star, the Big Bopper) may, in fact, have been Ringo Starr. In the early 1980s, the ex-Beatle hosted “Ringo Starr’s Yellow Submarine,” a show featuring musical selections and reminiscences.

The trend continued into the ‘90s, Mr. Ross says, with artists as varied as soul legend Isaac Hayes, pop rocker Greg Kihn and country chanteuse Holly Dunn taking to the airwaves as DJs.

Rock stars are by no means automatic successes in the DJ chair. Broadcasting is an art that demands mastery like any other, and fame can carry you only so far. Ex-Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth recently proved disastrous in the morning slot vacated by Howard Stern. And, last year, Micky Dolenz of the Monkees was let go from New York’s WCBS-FM, where he spun oldies, just hours after celebrating his 100th show.

While rock-star DJs are not quite the stuff of breaking news, their near-exclusive migration to outlets such as XM and Sirius may be a sign that satellite radio providers are in urgent financial need of something: Famous faces — or, to be more precise, voices.

From where Bonneville International Corp.’s Joel Oxley is sitting, XM’s claim of more than 6 million subscribers is not as impressive as one might think. It is a nationwide figure, he says. Compare it to Bonneville-owned news channel WTOP-FM (103.5), which reaches more than 1 million listeners weekly in the Washington area alone. (Bonneville owns three other local stations.)

The satellite companies, already saddled with high marketing costs, have made long-term deals with, for example, car manufacturers and the Major League Baseball Association that have yet to yield significant profits, says Mr. Oxley, who allows that a company like XM may eventually see revenue in the billions if it reaches its goal of 25 million subscribers.

In the meantime, they turn to the likes of Mr. Dylan and Mr. Petty in the hope of peeling off a chunk of the stars’ trusty audiences.

“Satellite radio got a lot of publicity in its early days just for playing music that wasn’t readily available in every market,” Mr. Ross says. “That got [XM and Sirius] some early users, but it didn’t get them anywhere near break-even. So now you’re seeing them ratchet up the star power.”

Of course, it’s not just rock stars who are being lured into orbit: It’s Mr. Stern, whom Sirius plucked from broadcast syndication to the tune of $500 million over five years, and Oprah Winfrey, who in February signed a $55 million deal with XM for an Oprah & Friends channel (which will compete with Sirius’ 24-hour Martha Stewart channel).

“The pressure is on satellite providers to start producing profit,” says Mr. Oxley.

And, to paraphrase that ex-DJ Ringo Starr, they need a little help from their famous friends.

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