Monday, May 4, 2015

Time Travel without a Guide (Greg Bell and Sirius XM)

My Antique Radio
An Antique Detrola Radio
It has not been a great week for many fans of Old Time Radio.  But this week seems to be better...fingers crossed.  Time will tell, but this has all the earmarks of a corporate financial play.  Someone was asking for too much money - maybe someone wanted to cut costs.  Not sure what happened on the inside - but it appears to be moving towards a resolution.  That is good news. [NOTE: As of Monday May 4th - it appears that Greg is back on the air - but I am sharing this in case they want to do this again....]

What was the problem?  It all started out with a simple message on the Greg Bell website:

"The RadioClassics program schedules for this week are no longer accurate. The line-up and format for the channel are being revised by Sirius XM, and we will update the schedule as soon as we have the correct information. Thanks for your patience. If you have any questions or comments, please reach out to" - From Greg Bell Media website:

It became pretty clear that there was a problem.  And if you tuned to the familiar XM Channel 82 (as I had a chance this week since I was able to borrow my wife's car - where we have Sirius XM) you were greeted with something different.  Well, more exactly, something missing.  The host of Channel 82 - Greg Bell.  He was gone.  They still had the ads, they still had the vintage ads, and they still had the programs - but there was no guide.  There was no Greg.  And that was the problem.  Many people voiced serious concerns on the Radio Classics Facebook page (where there are almost 2000 members).  There were a number of complaints and threats to drop the subscription.  I am sure that people will do that - unless things get fixed.  Time will tell.

The Radio Classics Channel on Sirius XM 82 is a bit unusual.  The entire programming is based on two hour blocks - that often had a them for one or both hours.  These programs were selected to go together.  Maybe they were tied together to showcase the birthday of a performer, writer or producer of radio. Maybe they were tied together to showcase the anniversary of a program - or an event in US history.  Greg Bell even used these blocks to showcase longer series - like Superman and Johnny Dollar Marathons (5-6 episodes in a row).  

So these programs were not brought together by chance, but curated in the actual sense of the word.  We know this because the station was run by Greg Bell.  He would provide, before and after each episode, commentary about the program, and the actors.  This was wonderful in providing context, especially for people new to Old Time Radio.  And then - the last couple of minutes - we had ads.  I am not sure why there were ads here.  I did not love them.  Some had character - like Big Lou - and others were just annoying - designed to scare who ever was listening. 

But we ignored the ads - and enjoyed the commentary.  From Greg's commentary, we learned what these programs meant.  What was the back story?  Who were the stars?  Who were the recognizable voice actors?  Basically anything that we really wanted to know.  And for someone like me who was learning all about Old Time Radio through this channel, it was as if we had a tour guide to a time travel adventure.  Also, it was like we had a curator or professor who could take us through these episodes and put them in a broader context.

I took my inspiration from Greg as I wrote my own blog entries showcasing Old Time Radio.  Recently, I showcased a number of episodes with the background and back story inspired by Greg's commentary:

And when we forgot what we listening too, we could always go to the show schedules that were online.  When we had road trips, I always had these printed out and ready.  This way we could plan when to listen to XM and when they were playing something we did not like.  In addition, Greg was great about helping people out if they were having trouble tracking down a show.  I sought out his help for a program that was interrupted on my travels up north to Michigan.  It was through work like this that Greg built a community.  People even followed him on a cruise with other Old Time Radio enthusiasts.

It was from Greg Bell's commentary and selection that I became a huge fan of Johnny Dollar;  that I first learned of the brilliance of Norman Corwin - especially the Odyssey of Runyon Jones;  where I learned about special programs brought to radio by the likes of Orson Welles & Blake Edwards; it is where I learned to appreciate the world of radio programming.  And the funny thing is that most of the Old Time Radio programs are available from places like the Internet Archive and other online resources - at no cost.  But if you walk to the proverbial front door of the collection of Old Time Radio programs on the web - where would you start?  What would you listen to?  This is where you need a guide - a tour guide as it were.  And that is what Greg Bell did day after day - help us understand and put in context these great recordings.  And that is exactly what is missing with the new format.

Which leads us to change.  Obviously, the fans of Radio Classics voiced strongly that they did not like the new format.  I was able (I hope) to illustrate that above - these views are mirrored by many who posted.  Another channel we listen to - On Broadway XM 72 - would be awful were it not for the hosts Christine Pedi, John Tartaglia, Julie James, and Seth Rudetsky.  (Actually, it would be very awful without Seth).  

I have noticed recently that with these types of changes, there seems to be this standard approach that is actually making changes more quick and abrupt.  Too many decisions made in implementing change are done in a real authoritarian fashion because of these three commonly held beliefs about our ability to absorb change:

  • Change is hard
  • People complain about any change
  • You will never make everyone happy
So this gives people the right to 'damn the torpedoes' and move straight ahead.  There are millions of decisions like this - New Coke anyone!  I want to write more about change management - especially with the changes in my career (librarian) - but that is for a later day.

But this issue shows me that change can be managed better when they involve the people who are the customers - rather than potentially chasing new ones.  Ultimately, we have a market economy. There are many people who like XM 82 and subscribe just for that reason.  They may walk.  Especially since the content is mostly available for free.  

It sounds like things are working towards a resolution.  But seriously - Greg Bell provides a context for these wonderful recordings that is essentially.  Imagine a museum deciding that most people do not read labels on artifacts - so they are not going to put them up.  From an economic point of view - that might make sense.  But from a mission point of view - it is horrible.  Putting things together with no reason why they were selected is hoarding.  Having something with an explanation of why it is there is curating.  Without a guide - these programs just do not work - and they do not tell us what they can about popular culture in the 1940s through early 1960s.  That is why Greg Bell needs to get back on the air.

I have been a fan of OTR for some time - and a good number of my favorites I first heard via Greg Bell. Taking his commentary out of the equation does not make any sense. I am not sure if this is a financial problem or not - but I hope they get this resolved soon - before summer driving season!  Just a few days ago, Forbes reported that things at Sirius XM are going well - so hopefully they can figure out this problem and restore things to where they were - and loved.

CBS Columbia Square (Hollywood, Los Angeles, California) - October 31, 2013
Columbia Square - Home of CBS Radio during the Golden Years (Hollywood, California)