The XM-Sirius satellite radio merger is shifting the lineups — and in some cases the sentiments — of subscribers.
When Rick Munarriz got into his car Wednesday, he found that, though the XM radio had been tuned to alternative rock channel Fred, the readout said "First Wave," a similar channel from Sirius' network. The 41-year-old Motley Fool senior analyst, who subscribes to both, says, "I thought I was in this bizarro world where everything was switched around. They sort of surprised people. No one asked me what station to keep or what I preferred."
Sirius XM Radio, the company created by the merger approved in July, began broadcasting its new lineup last week on both networks. XM lost channels including Soul Street and alt-rockers Fred, Ethel and Lucy, and got Sirius' counterparts. Likewise, decades-themed channels on Sirius were replaced by XM counterparts.
Leading up to the changes, DJs talked on air about them, emails were sent and new lineups were posted online Wednesday.
Subscriptions to XM and Sirius are still sold separately (each $12.95 monthly). But XM subscribers now get more than a dozen offerings previously only on Sirius, including channels devoted to Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Buffett. Sirius adds Deep Tracks, which carries Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour and Tom Petty's Buried Treasure shows, as well as country stations Willie's Place and The Roadhouse.
These additions and changes work on all current radios and require no additional fees. XM subscribers also can buy a "Best of Sirius" package for $4 a month that includes two channels featuring Howard Stern — signed by Sirius through 2010 — and a Martha Stewart channel, plus NASCAR and NFL channels. Similarly, Sirius subscribers can pay $4 for a "Best of XM" package with Oprah & Friends, talk channel The Virus with The Opie & Anthony Show, and NHL and NBA channels.
"We feel pretty confident we have a fairly unique lineup now of breadth and depth," says Scott Greenstein, chief content officer for Sirius XM.
Regardless, subscribers raised questions. Thousands of comments, pro and con, were posted on XMFan.com's discussion forums. A former XM subscriber, John Colelli, 45, of Syracuse, N.Y., switched to Sirius because he liked its blues channel better: XM's Bluesville "plays mostly old blues, and that is the reason I dropped it years ago." Blogcritics.org's Mark Saleski railed that the company has "shot (itself) in the foot, if not the heart."
Some, but not all, of the 19 million subscribers received e-mails about the shuffle. "I'm astonished by the lack of communication," says Ryan Saghir, 32, who runs satellite radio blog Orbitcast.com.
Subscribers seem to be most upset about the loss of channels devoted to disco and old-school rap and hip-hop, Saghir says, but the company had to make changes. Saghir, a subscriber to both services, adds, "There is still no other audio service that provides the breadth of entertainment in your car at this time."
And there were satisfied subscribers. By adding Sirius' The Grateful Dead Channel to XM, "they gave me more of what I'm paying for," says Brandon Lowitz, 38, of New Rochelle, N.Y. "How great is that?"
Frank Sommo, 57, of New Providence, N.J., was happy to have NASCAR and Sinatra channels added to XM. "Even though the lineup has been compressed, I still feel there is plenty of variety and good programming for the average listener."
And XM Sirius is listening to complaints. On Monday, Greenstein announced that DJ Meg Griffin of the now-defunct Sirius Disorder channel will host a show weekdays and Sundays starting Dec. 1.
Overall, the audience response shows "there is enormous passion for satellite radio," Greenstein says. "We are engaged on a two-way street with our listeners. But listeners are paying us to be the ultimate aggregator of content for them. We want to respond sensibly and smartly."
Other developments include à la carte subscriptions that let customers choose channels from Sirius (prices start at $7 a month for 50 channels; a $15 Gold subscription includes Stern and the "Best of XM" channels). So far, only the Sirius Starmate 5 Dock and Play radio ($130) supports custom subscriptions. New models that receive all Sirius and XM programming are expected to be announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.
Listening to the current subscriber base and creating new user-friendly products are steps in the right direction, says Munarriz, because many who have both services may look to drop one to cut expenses — and some might cancel altogether. "In the near-term, (the new channel lineups) are a mistake when the economy is really sensitive," he says. "It's the right move. It's just the wrong time."