R.A.P. Interview: Tom Versen

Tom Versen, Director of Production and Creative Services, Sirius Satellite Radio, New York, NY

Tom-Versen-Jan00by Jerry Vigil 

The new year is here. So is the new decade, and the new century, and the new millennium, AND satellite radio. If all goes well, by the end of January, the first of Sirius Satellite Radio’s four satellites will be in orbit, and by the end of the year, Sirius Satellite Radio will be broadcasting 100 channels of programming to the entire continental U.S.. Sirius Satellite Radio (formerly CD Radio) has been in the works for several years, but 2000 marks the year when the switch will be flipped.

It’s hard to imagine the production task that goes with 100 channels of music, talk, news, entertainment and more--that’s the equivalent of 100 radio stations under one roof! Nevertheless, Tom Versen is the man in charge of directing the production at these 100 “stations.” This month’s interview takes a look at what Sirius Satellite Radio is, what Tom’s huge task entails, and what we can all look forward to in the very near future.

JV: When we last checked in with you, it was 1990 and you were at a place called Digital Planet. What’s happened since then?
Tom: Digital Planet was one of the digital cable radio services just like Music Choice or DMX is now. We were one of three at that time, and Digital Planet didn’t survive. Back then, I was a little frustrated with how the whole industry was going. I’ve always been a good follower, but it seemed like everyone I was following at the time was either taking their companies down the toilet or selling them off. So I decided to do something where I was a little more in control of my destiny. I started a production company with my partner at the time, Kevin Cranker. We called it Blue Sky Productions. Kevin had just got canned from Rock 102, so both of us were in the unemployment line. Neither one of us wanted to send out resumes and tapes and work at another radio station that was likely to be sold or change formats, so we decided to try our own thing.

We would fight over who paid for the stamps to send out the last letter to get somebody’s business, but fortunately, after about a half a year of struggling and borrowing money from in-laws to get a studio up and running, we hooked up with Joe Capobianco. Joe is now my current boss here at Sirius Radio and was VP of Programming at Music Choice, so he and I were in the same digital cable radio business at that time. I called him and said, “Well, as you know, Digital Planet went down the drain…” and he said, “I like the work you guys did there. Would you mind doing some of the special programming for us at Music Choice?” I said, “Are you kidding? I’d be thrilled.” So that pretty much made our business. Music Choice was our first really big account, and we were doing all of their special programming.

Then we started networking through agencies and doing a lot of commercial jingles and commercial radio for agencies. We landed a big account with the airlines, and we still have it. We produce for all the international flights; all the music you hear when you’re flying abroad is produced by Blue Sky Productions. And one of our favorite projects, which Blue Sky Productions still produces, is the Dave Koz radio show that’s in syndication and doing quite well in the smooth jazz arena.

Anyway, Joe Capobianco ended up at Sirius Satellite Radio, and because of the relationship I had with Joe, he called one day and said, “Tom, come on out and let’s do this thing.” This is an exciting new bit of territory that we’re getting into, and it seemed so intriguing to me that I just had to do it. I didn’t give up Blue Sky, but I put my current partner in place, my new partner who is Tony Sisti, and came to New York. Tony is pretty much handling the day to day business of Blue Sky Productions right now, and I’m out here in New York working with Joe and a great group of programmers, voice talent, and producers trying to get Sirius Satellite Radio off the ground, which is just under a year away.

Sirius-Logo-Jan00JV: Give us the details on Sirius Satellite Radio.
Tom: Sirius Satellite Radio is a subscription based digital satellite radio broadcasting system. We’re one of two companies licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to do this. We have formed strategic alliances with leading technology companies to build the necessary infrastructure—the satellites and all that—and we’ll continue to get alliances with electronics and automobile manufacturers for the distribution portions. We’re hoping to revolutionize and revitalize in-vehicle entertainment by broadcasting custom-ized world-class programming on up to a hundred channels. Fifty of them are devoted to commercial-free music, and the other fifty channels will be news, sports and entertainment programming.

We’ll have digital quality sound and seamless coast-to-coast coverage directly to subscribers’ vehicles. All music content will be selected and developed in house by our Sirius team of programmers. Our news and enter-tainment programming will be developed by top line outside sources. For example, we’ve aligned ourselves with National Public Radio, Bloomberg, and the Sci-Fi Channel. We’ve put a partnership together with the Kennedy Center. I went up to Washington and had the opportunity to meet Leonard Slatkin and sit there during one of his rehearsals. I got to talk with him afterwards and shake his hand. This is a guy who is going to be consulting us and giving us the opportunity to pick his brain. I mean, the people that go in and out of the Kennedy Center every day is unbelievable. We’re going to set up a little studio there so we have somebody actually on location to do live feeds or run around with a portable DAT machine and interview whatever star or dancer or celebrity might be there at that time. So those types of relationships are going to be incredibly cool.

The idea is, there’s a place for everything now with a hundred channels. So we can go ahead and do some things that might not necessarily appeal to the masses. And when you have the whole United States as coverage territory, there are enough people out there to provide some quality niche programming to. We refer to it as massing the niches and niching the masses. A lot of classical stations have gone away because they are driven by ad dollars, and certain cities just can’t afford to keep those up and running. Well, if we have a few people in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, and all the way across the United States, then there is a market, and we can do that. We’re not driven on commercial revenue. We’re subscription based. It’s $9.95 a month to get this service.

JV: And this is just for cars and other vehicles, right?
Tom: Yeah, and right now that’s our target. There are some things I’m not at liberty to discuss right now, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we were in homes sooner, rather than later. We learned from our experience with the digital cable radio business that this service needs to be in the car. That’s where people listen to the majority of radio.

JV: When did Sirius Satellite Radio first get started?
Tom: Our CEO, David Margolese, is the guy who had the vision on this and raised all the money to make it happen. We’ve been in business eight years. Just getting the FCC to give us approval to get a digital license took several years. We are one of the first companies in the world to be licensed to broadcast a digital signal. So David has been building this thing for eight years, and now it’s at the point where we’ve just completed the studios in Rockefeller Center. We’re on the thirty-sixth floor of the McGraw-Hill building. We have one hundred thousand square feet of space and sixteen studios. As far as I know, it’s one of the first completely digital plants out there—from the input of a mic to your speakers in your car, everything is completely digital.

JV: Tell us a little bit about the people working the programming end of Sirius Satellite Radio.
Tom: Joe Capobianco is the Vice President of Content, so he’s really the captain of the ship as far as programming goes. There are four directors beneath Joe. I am the Director of Production and Creative Services. Jim Kressler is the Director of Operations. Maria Carchidi is Director of Programming, and Cindy Sicak is our Director of Industry and Talent affairs. There’s a ton of people in addition to us four. We have programmers for every channel and we’ve gone to great efforts to try to hire the best programmers in the world including Pat St. John, who is doing all the classic rock and album rock. Gabe Romero is doing all our Latin music. Jerry Rubino is doing alternative rock. Don Kaye is doing the hard rock. Steve Warren is doing country along with Jim Kressler. Swedish Egil out in Los Angeles is doing the rhythmic stuff. Kenny Washington and Russel Davis are handling the jazz. Then there are people like Sting who are helping to consult in the various formats that they’re interested in. Sting is very much into world music. He’s very much into saving the rain forests, and he wants to do some things with artists that bring attention to those types of things. We brought on M.C. Lyte to work with us in the rap categories, and Grand Master Flash is also signed on with us to help program and be involved in some of the dance music. We have a hundred channels. Fifty of them are music channels, and each of those fifty music channels will have a programmer to develop it and work with Maria Carchidi to make sure that we’re going down the right path.

JV: Tell us about the studios.
Tom: The workhorse is ProTools. We have the NT-5 version with the ProControl that goes along with it. We’re using one of the Wheatstone digital consoles, the D500. We’re using Prophet Systems for our data storage, which has 4.2 terabytes of disc space. That ends up being, as far as we know, one of the largest storage bases in the world. It’s 2.1 terabytes mirrored. I believe it provides ten thousand hours of storage time.

We have sixteen studios and everything remains in the digital domain. We have two beautiful performance rooms that are equipped with musical equipment, including Baby Grand pianos. So if any artist comes up, we can record him live and do some nice interviews and things like that. And the idea is, if I am in any one studio and something comes up where we need that studio for one reason or another, I can simply go to another studio and bring up the same production I was working on at the click of a button. And that’s cool.

We’ll have all our music stored in this system. We’ll have all our production music stored in it, all of our sound bites. All of that will be readily available for all the producers. I really wanted that to be in place because we’ve got one hundred thousand square feet of space, and if we have to walk somewhere to check out a CD, to get a liner or this or that from an artist, it would be fairly time consuming. This way, everything will be right at our fingertips, and hopefully, there will be no excuse for not doing great production work. That’s the idea anyway.

JV: Are the music channels going to have live DJs?
Tom: We haven’t decided if we’re going to call them hosts or DJs. The channels will be hosted; some of it will be live and some of it not. We’ll probably program about three days to a week ahead of time.  Let’s use Pat St. John for an example. He may program a week’s worth of classic rock. Then he’ll come in and just do the announcements, which will be recorded into the Prophet Systems database. He’ll be able to click on the last song and the last fifteen seconds of it will play back to give him the feel of the song. So it will almost be live, and this way it won’t seem as automated. He will lay down his voice track, and then he can take that little audio byte and move it backward or forward and make it hit a post if he wants to. And he can do it all literally within seconds. We figure a person could probably do a week’s worth of daily six-hour air shifts in about one day or less, six to eight hours. In one day one announcer can do thirty hours because they don’t have to sit there and listen to the whole song, yet they will be into the song because they will be hearing it. And that’s the cool thing about that. It won’t be completely automated. These guys are going to actually be involved in the music. It’s not like they’re going to come in and lay down dry voice tracks without any feel or vibes to the music.

Then, if an artist comes in—Eric Clapton, George Harrison, whoever—Pat can then go into any studio he wants, hit a button, and bring up any music channel from our routing system and go live, and that’s an incredible thing. We can go into any studio, hit a button, and bring up R&B, or we can bring up jazz, or we can bring up classical, and that studio becomes a jazz station or a rock station, whatever we want it to be. Then he can throw some mics on, wait for the song to fade out, then go live—”Hey, we’ve got an in-studio guest, Eric Clapton is here….” As he does the interview, he’s got this screen of music in front of him with thousands of songs, and they play whatever they want. Then when they’re done with that, they can go right back to “automation” I guess, for lack of a better word right now.

JV: That sounds pretty cool!
Tom: It really is. And the receivers are pretty cool, too. Since we’re sending a digital signal to the car, the tuners will tell you what is being played, the artist and the song title. So the announcers or hosts—if they don’t have much to say, don’t have to say anything at all because the listener will be able to look at their tuner to see the song information. We kind of believe people really want to hear less mindless disk jockey chatter. They’d rather hear from informed hosts who are talking about the music and the artists who perform it. So that’s kind of the goal. We don’t have to constantly be giving call signs. We don’t have to say, “You’re listening to Sirius Radio.” Obviously we won’t have commercials, so hopefully there will be a lot more time to put on more music and just talk about the music and the artists that are playing it at the time. “If there’s nothing earthshaking to say, roll another song” will kind of be the motto.

JV: What is the anticipated production job for you and your staff, and how many people will you have helping you with that?
Tom: I anticipate about twelve producers in house during the first year. We’ve got sixteen studios, and I think the twelve will probably become twenty-four over time, and then perhaps thirty-six producers going around the clock, everyone doing an eight-hour shift—twelve doing eight-hour shifts times three.

Our job is really the imaging. With fifty music channels and fifty incredibly talented programmers who have a vision of how they want this to sound, they will come to us for everything that plays between the songs. We have a really cool opportunity to cross promote the channels. Since we’re the same company, it’s not a problem for us to cross promote if something is pertinent on a rock channel that might be associated with the classic rock channel. For example, Babyface might have a song on our urban channel that’s being played on the smooth jazz channel. Well, if we’re doing an interview with Babyface on the smooth jazz channel, we can say, “Hey, if you’re a big fan of Babyface, you can tune in to Smooth Jazz channel 25 because Russ Davis has him on for an entire hour right now, talking about his music and speaking with him live in the studio.” So I think we’ll produce those types of promotions often, which is really going to be fun.

And the playing field is just wide open to any type of special show that somebody wants to do. For example, something you might want to air at lunchtime every day—Lunchtime With the Beatles—or something like that. We’ll put those types of shows together. We’ll be creating and developing new long and short form special programming. Around the holidays there will be lots of holiday specials. There’ll be anniversary specials for Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival. We’ll be covering events like the Grammy Awards, the Emmy Awards, and so on. We’ll be doing everything that goes between the music. It’s quite a lot.

As I look through my notes everyday, I can just see the excitement on all the programmers’ faces. They go, “Man, I want to do this,” or “Listen, I want to have this artist up every day.” So that artist comes up, and we’ve got to interview him then edit that down and make lots of really cool little short form or even long form pieces for the programmers to use. I may have a file folder for each category of music. The country guy comes in and says, “Oh look, there’s something in my folder.” Maybe I had Garth Brooks in the studio, maybe I had Trisha Yearwood in, maybe it’s Randy Travis. We would do an interview and then take that whole interview and cut it up for short little interesting, compelling bites that the hosts can draw from and put right before a song. “Hey, we had Randy Travis in the studio. Here’s what he had to say about this song,” and there’s that clip. Or maybe we’ll make a little fifteen-minute mini-special out of it if it’s incredibly good. Our job will consist of those types of things. Now, multiply that by fifty and you can imagine the workload.

JV: Will IDs be a big part of the imaging work? Are the programmers thinking about IDs? Do you really need IDs?
Tom: We’re discussing that. I think not. First of all, people are paying $9.95 a month, so I’m not certain that we have to constantly tell them that they’re listening to Sirius Satellite Radio. But I have mixed emotions about that because on one hand, if there’s somebody new getting into somebody’s car as a passenger, occasionally it might be nice for us to say “Hey, you’re listening to Sirius Satellite Radio.” It won’t be a case of, “Hey, you guys have to say the call letters every time you open your mouth.” It might just be, “In the Sirius studio today we have Elton John…,” and you can present it that way. I don’t think it has to be an in your face kind of thing. It will also be on the digital readout constantly, so if they look down at their radio, they’ll see our little logo, “Sirius Radio now playing Beatles Help.” So a small amount of mention will be there, but it won’t be a constant. Basically, you’ll hear a song, and even though its info is being shown on the display, just to add that human element, you’ll hear the announcer or host say what the song is, who the artist is, maybe he’s in your town now, any kind of pertinent information, something interesting or compelling about the music, the song, the artist, or an interview, and that’s basically what you’ll hear.

JV: Are you guys going to have any competition?
Tom: There is one other company. There are two of us out there. The other company is called XM. The FCC granted two licenses, one to us and one to them, and we will have one company competing for the same audience. Research indicates there is plenty for both of us out there. We do have different programming philosophies. Our philosophy is commercial-free music. They are subscription based also, but their music programs will have commercials. That’s pretty much the difference between the two companies. Another difference is that all our programmers are in house, and we’re hoping to be in constant touch with our audience and listeners through our website. It seems like XM is pretty much streaming traditional radio onto their service with the commercials and that kind of thing, so we’re hoping that will give us a little bit of an advantage. They’ve got commercials because part of the ownership, I believe, is Clear Channel. So what they’ll do is take their superstations and rebroadcast those. However, I think they will also have some commercial-free music.

JV: What’s the latest you’ve heard about the status of XM Radio?
Tom: They’re about a year behind us from what I know. They are, I think, now constructing their satellites, and I don’t know how far along they are. Our first one is scheduled to launch the middle of January, and as of today it’s still on schedule. I think XM is still getting theirs built. It seems to me that they are substantially behind us as far as ready to go. Our studios are done. I don’t even think they’ve started construction on any kind of studios yet.

JV: Now, will people have to buy a different tuner to get XM, or will the same receiver pick up both Sirius and XM?
Tom: The FCC had suggested to both companies that we shouldn’t try to be exclusive and have partnerships with our own car companies, this, that and the other. That’s going to be a hassle down the line. Standard equipment will have an AM button, an FM button and a satellite button. If you want Sirius Satellite Radio you subscribe to us. If you want XM, you subscribe to them. That’s what my money says will happen.

Right now each company is aligning itself with its own partners. Ford is one of our big partners, and starting next year, Ford vehicles will have the radio that will be able to get this service. Now, another way to get it to just go buy a radio. We have receiver developer agreements signed with Alpine, Delphi Delco, Panasonic, and Recoton. Those are some of the people that are building the chips into their radios that will be able to pick us up.

There’s an adapter. The satellite dish is about the size of what you would have on your car for a cell phone. You stick that on the roof of your car, and if you have a cassette player or a CD player, there’s an adapter that you can just pop in that picks up the service as well. So there are three ways to get it. You buy a car that has it, you go buy a new radio to put in your car, or you buy an adapter for one hundred fifty bucks that converts your cassette player or your CD player into Sirius Satellite Radio.

JV: How many satellites will be launched for this service?
Tom: We’re launching three satellites, and we’re having a spare on the ground. Two of them will be covering the entire United States, and the third one is up there as a spare basically. So if one for some reason gets knocked out, there’s another one already up there. Then we’d launch the fourth one.

JV: Well, this certainly is new millennium radio. I guess the big question is how much will it revolutionize radio as we know it?
Tom: I just hope we revolutionize radio a little bit. I hope there are enough people out there to make it work. I think we only have to have about two million subscribers to become a viable business, or one point five, and just in New York City alone we could get that. So I’m really hopeful that it will catch on. Take a look at truck drivers who drive coast to coast for a living. There’s three million truck drivers out there that could enjoy this seamless coverage without worrying about what station they have to tune into all the time.

I guess the question is will people pay ten dollars a month. The research that I get says yes, people would gladly pay ten dollars a month to not hear commercials in their music. If that’s accurate, it’s around thirty-three percent of all automobile drivers who will subscribe to this service. That’s a big dent in traditional radio I would say. But it’s three to five years away. We’ll roll it out in 2000. It will be a slow rollout, and the first year we hope to get a million subscribers. By 2001, 2002, then it will start becoming very exponential.

Cable TV was a good example. In the very beginning it was a hard sell for them to get people to pay for TV that was traditionally free. Now, we’ve got that advantage; we know that people are willing to pay for quality programming. And what does cable average? Forty bucks a month? So if they pay for that, our CEO says people will pay ten bucks a month. And it’s not going to be like every month they have to write a check. We’ll do deals just like the Internet—either billed automatically to your credit card or give us three hundred bucks and you’re cool for three years, along with all the deals you can make with all the millions of cars that are leased every year. Maybe it will be hidden in the package price of the lease.

I just turned forty-one years old, and I stopped listening to music channels on the radio and started listening to all the talk because I got so tired of hearing the same songs. Our programmers are all talking about having thousands of songs in their libraries, and that excites me. And the younger demographics really love this because of all the new music, the alternative, the rap, the hip hop, the reggae, all the channels we can provide that traditional radio can’t. Eighteen to twenty-five year old kids are really high on the surveys as people who absolutely will subscribe to this service.

JV: Assuming satellite radio does take off, what affect do you think it might have on the music industry?
Tom: Maybe I’m being naive here, but for the last twenty years in radio, in many cases I’ve witnessed artists asking programming directors in the major cities, “What do you want? What can I write that you will play?” Now, to me, that’s the wrong way to approach music. To me it’s like, “Hey, play and write what comes from your heart and moves you. Then, if it moves everybody else, you’ve got something there.” Now maybe that’s being naive, but I think we can help because if somebody comes to us and they go, “Listen, we’ve got this song and we’re pushing it on alternative….” Well, maybe our alternative guy decides it’s not quite alternative but rock instead, but we’ve got a place for it. The point is, we can say write from the heart and you know what, we have a place for it. Hopefully, artists will be able to say, “Hey, I can start doing what I really want to do. I want to write that six minute song because I love this guitar solo.” We won’t have to do a radio edit or cut out the sax solo because it’s too long and loud or whatever, and we can actually throw that stuff up on the air. And like I said, there is also a place for those plain hits, but it will be your choice what you listen to as opposed to somebody telling you what you need to hear.

There was a time back in the day when jocks used to go in and pull their vinyl for their show. They’d go, “Man, I’m gonna do a show!” and they’d come up with a theme and pull out their own music. Those days are gone, but maybe this can bring that back.

I’ve got to share a funny story with you. I was in Pat St. John’s office probably two months ago right before I came on here, and he knows I’m a Little Feet fan. I love Little Feet. I was in there clacking about how I never hear this stuff anymore. A couple of days later he admitted he was a big fan of Little Feet as well. He shouts out the door to me, “Hey, Tom. Come in here for a second.” He’s got his feet up on the desk, and he’s leaning back with this puzzled look on his face. He’s looking at a couple of Little Feet CDs, and he says, “Look at this, Tom.” He goes “Dixie Chicken, eleven minutes. Fat Man in a Bathtub, eight minutes nineteen seconds, and Time Loves a Hero, live version, thirteen minutes.” He looks at me and says, “So what. I’m going to play all three of them back to back.” And it just cracked me up.

But that’s the kind of stuff that I think really hits the spirit of what we can do and what I hope we can bring back to radio. We can play all this great music that isn’t heard any more. We can put it on and make some sense out of it, and that’s the thrill. That’s why I came here to do this. I was out in San Diego in shorts and a tee shirt with a production company that’s doing wonderfully, but to have an opportunity to work with this caliber of people and this mindset…. And it’s rampant. I mean, every programmer, everybody is so excited. They’re going, “look at this! I can play this one!” because there’s a place for it. With that many music channels, there’s a place for everything. Of course, if you want to hear the hits, we have a ton of hits channels, but if you want to experiment and spread out and hear some of the stuff you haven’t heard on some of the great albums, it’s there too.

JV: Well, you can bet the entire industry will be keeping an eye on you guys in the new year. Any parting thoughts for our readers?
Tom: I need help. I can’t do it all myself for God’s sake. Where are all the guys who know ProTools, have a little engineering background, and have a wide musical background? Probably in the springtime, I’m going to be looking for about a dozen people.

JV: No problem. When do you want them to start sending those demos?
Tom: They can start sending them now. I guess my main concern is that I don’t want to get somebody who says, “I do pop and that’s it.” I mean, if Leonard Slatkin is in the studio, I need somebody who can go down and talk to this guy about classical music or who at least will learn or be prepared to learn. I know there are going to be experts. I’m going to take advantage of that, but I just want to try to find as many people who love a broad range of music that they won’t mind country. They’ve got to love country, jazz, rock, and that’s unique, finding people who have a real broad love for music.

I would love to have someone who has ProTools experience, and I would love people who have a creative hat on who can help me develop new special programming and just come in and have some fun. That’s the kind of people I’m trying to find, and I’ve got about six months to do that. And I need people who are okay with start-up companies. It’s an incredible amount of work. It’s not eight to five and you’re gone. We’ve got to get this done. We’ve got to get seven thousand songs in each format. We’ve got to help everybody, so that kind of attitude and spirit and vibe I would welcome. Letters and e-mail are welcome. I love the e-mail. If they drop me an e-mail now, I’ll probably respond in about five words. I’ll say, “Hey, I love it. We’re going to be looking in about three months, so in three months we’ll do a formal interview, or if you’re in New York, stop by and we’ll have a quick talk.” It will be that type of thing right now, but come springtime, it will start heating up.

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