TOPICS > Nation

Bob Edwards of XM Satellite Radio Compares Satellite and Broadcast Radio

March 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: So, when does your show, the “Bob Edwards Show,” air?

BOB EDWARDS: Eight a.m. Eastern and then it’s repeated the very next hour, at 9 a.m. Eastern, and then repeated again, 9 p.m. Eastern.

TERENCE SMITH: Monday through Friday?

BOB EDWARDS: Monday through Friday.

TERENCE SMITH: What drew you to satellite radio?

BOB EDWARDS: I checked out satellite radio when this building was still under construction, as a curiosity, and it didn’t seem like it had anything to offer me then. But then, when I was no longer to be the host of Morning Edition at NPR, the CEO of XM, Hugh Panero, sent me a letter offering an interview program, a daily interview program, and that sounded great. Interviews are what I do. And he said all the right things. He said maybe they don’t want to listen you anymore but I sure do.

And just made me feel very good, and here I am.

TERENCE SMITH: When you say you “checked it out” and saw nothing for you in it, what do you mean? Did you actually get a receiver and start to listen to it?

BOB EDWARDS: No. There’s no news, and I was thinking primarily of news rather than doing interviews. That hadn’t occurred to me, as an interview program. But now he was offering to start up a public radio channel and to have this program, my program be a part of that, and I wasn’t thinking that way earlier.

I was thinking news and I was thinking interview program, and there it was.

TERENCE SMITH: What other considerations went through your head in terms of reach, audience, impact, et cetera?

BOB EDWARDS: Well, I knew I was giving up a big audience, a very big audience, and for a place that has a small audience at the moment, but the potential for a vast audience, perhaps even a bigger one than the one I left. Because I’ve been here before.

Thirty years ago I joined NPR when it was still very young, it was only in its third year, and maybe a million listeners, started Morning Edition of course, in ’79, when it had no listeners, and ended up with 13 million weekly listeners.

That is a very exciting thing, to be a pioneer, and to watch a network grow and prosper and, and gain the confidence of an audience.

And here I am again, in the third year of XM, when it’s still new and doesn’t have a very big audience – 3.2 million subscribers at the moment – and it’s the same feeling. Let’s see what this can be.

And how many people get that chance again? It’s exciting.

TERENCE SMITH: How many of those 3.2 million do you think are listening to the Bob Edwards show on any given morning?

BOB EDWARDS: I don’t have a clue. I do not know and it’s the one thing that troubles me. I would really like to know that, because in public radio we had this infrastructure of member stations across the country —


BOB EDWARDS: — and I would go out once a month to do fundraising at those stations and meet the audience. I would know I had an audience and I would know who they were and I would get to know them personally.

And we don’t have that here with a national signal but no local outlets. So it’s different and takes getting used to, and I don’t know how you determine you have an audience that way.

TERENCE SMITH: So you might have exchanged an audience of 13 million for 1,300?

BOB EDWARDS: Oh, at the moment, yeah, but potentially, maybe 13 million or more.

TERENCE SMITH: What’s the key to that? You mentioned that twice, potentially, that it could be very, very big.

What, in your view, as somebody who knows a lot about this business, is the key? What does satellite radio have to do to become that mass mainstream media?

BOB EDWARDS: People have to find out what satellite radio has to offer. To put it better, the satellite radio people have to tell the people of America what they’re offering and convince them that that’s what they want.

I think once people know what XM is offering them, they will, you know, scramble to buy a radio, and to have this monthly subscription, which is of course not unlike being in public radio. At least listeners were supposed to be subscribing; not all of them did.

But the product is there. I mean, what satellite radio has to offer, you can’t find in commercial radio.

You know, 80 commercial-free music channels. All of these talk-channels we have; the public radio channel we have; Major League Baseball. There’s so much here that — and, in such contrast to commercial radio, which I believe is void of creative energy, ideas, and is just greedy, just greedy.

These 20-minute blocks of commercials, people are tired of that and need an alternative. They have one in public radio. Now they’ll have another in satellite radio.

TERENCE SMITH: Although you do have commercials on the talk channels.

BOB EDWARDS: On talk — yes.

On the streamed channels, but not on the public radio channel, not on the 80 music channels.

TERENCE SMITH: Uh-huh. So is the hurdle getting people to pay for something they previously considered to be free?

BOB EDWARDS: That is one road block; yes. But of course, we see it happening in television. Twenty years ago, the question was asked: Who’s going to pay for television when they’re getting it for free? Well, today, people pay, and the same thing will happen in radio.

TERENCE SMITH: How is this different from what you’ve done in over-the-air radio?

BOB EDWARDS: Well, I was doing a news program.


BOB EDWARDS: So that’s very much different. And having to update a program for multiple feeds throughout the country.

This is an interview program. There’s not the urgency of breaking news. I can do a longer interview. In fact that’s what I do. The longest interview I could do on the air for Morning Edition was eight minutes.


BOB EDWARDS: Now I can interview someone for up to an hour. So it’s a freer, more open, more relaxed and enjoyable conversation. The program’s really about conversation.

TERENCE SMITH: Is it a different atmosphere here? Let’s say XM as opposed to NPR.

BOB EDWARDS: Yeah, but it’s the same as early, early NPR. It’s very exciting, very new, and a lot of fun, and that’s what NPR was like 30 years ago.

Now, mind you, I enjoyed every day at NPR, but as we became better, as we became a major source of news for people, we took that very seriously, as we should, and while it was still worthwhile and wonderful being there, it wasn’t as much fun. You know, it’s okay to have some fun in the office, in addition to doing a good job.

But we took ourselves very seriously after a while and there was a difference in the sound and in the independence of the person at the microphone.

And I have that back now and it feels good. And I have the experience of the 30 years in order to use that independence judiciously, wisely, but also to have fun.

TERENCE SMITH: You don’t know the number in your audience, but you must get some feedback. Do you have any sense of who the audience is and whether they’re different than the NPR audience, either in age or anything else?

BOB EDWARDS: No; don’t have a clue. I do know that of course quite a few followed me over.

Many of the people in the audience now are the ones who were in my audience at NPR. Others are finding me for the first time and this type of programming for the first time, public radio style programming. And of course they love it. They’ve not heard anything like that before. I find, again, one similarity is the taxi drivers, most foreign born and who’s talking about the world?, who’s talking about their countries? Public radio’s doing that.

And so I had a lot of taxi drivers in my audience at NPR, and now they have found satellite radio, and, and various channels talking about the, the world.


BOB EDWARDS: I’m not shutting out foreign news.

TERENCE SMITH: Is it your sense that this is a younger audience?

BOB EDWARDS: It’s all over the place because some of the channels here are specifically geared to a more seasoned audience, shall we say, like me. And other channels are, very frankly, aiming at the young. With all of these channels you can do that. You don’t have to have every channel appeal to a broad spectrum in age, ethnicity, gender, whatever.

TERENCE SMITH: Uh-huh. What do you see down the road? What are the possibilities in satellite radio, that might be there, that are intriguing or interesting, either for you or for some, for someone else?

BOB EDWARDS: I think this is quite probably the way you’re going to listen to radio in the future. This will be radio.

Unless, and I really hope this happens, commercial radio shapes up. Cause I love all kinds of radio. I’ve been a radio person all my life. I worked in commercial radio.

I’m mortified at what’s happened to it and I hope it recovers, and finds new life. And I don’t mean in a commercial sense, because it has that.

I mean in a creative sense. In serving its listeners. That’s what it has failed to do. It’s not serving its listeners with these short playlists, with the greed of all the commercials with the programming that’s dictated by focus groups and consultants.

Don’t have that here and it’s a better place creatively, for it.

TERENCE SMITH: So theoretically, the sky’s the limit.

BOB EDWARDS: Yes, and we’ll invent new things because you have that kind of atmosphere here, where you don’t have that in commercial radio.

I think the continued success of public radio and the new success of satellite radio will bring enough pressure on commercial radio, that it will have to shape up because it’ll be losing listeners.

TERENCE SMITH: But you could envision, especially if it does not, a situation where, just as cable and satellite have become the primary way that Americans receive television today in their homes, that this would become a primary source of radio?

BOB EDWARDS: Yes, I do, because cable has done several things. For one, they’ve taken over news from the networks, and secondly, the most interesting, creative, exciting, edgy experimental programs are not on the networks, they’re on cable, and I think that that will be the case with satellite radio.

TERENCE SMITH: Is there a danger, in your view, of satellite radio, either XM or its competition, going too far “down market,” too edgy, to smutty for some?

BOB EDWARDS: I think the multiplicity of channels is kind of the guarantee of that. They’ll go to excess on a channel, two channels, three channels, who knows? And for everyone else there’ll be the other channels. That’s what we have now, really.

At XM, the shock jocks are on a premium channel. You have to pay twice to get them, so that there’s, there’s no mistake. You don’t accidentally come across them. You have to, you know, proactively choose them in order to hear them.

TERENCE SMITH: I did not realize that.


TERENCE SMITH: You have to pay a premium?

BOB EDWARDS: Yes. For the Playboy channel and Opie and Anthony, over and above your regular subscription.

TERENCE SMITH: So, $10 for your regular subscription —

BOB EDWARDS: If you’ve got XM in your car and the kiddies are in the car, you can’t accidentally get the shocking bits.

TERENCE SMITH: Unless you pay for them.

BOB EDWARDS: Unless you’ve paid for them.

TERENCE SMITH: What’s the additional charge?

BOB EDWARDS: I don’t know; it’s not much, a couple a bucks. But it’s just a little step that separates that from everything else we do.

TERENCE SMITH: I didn’t know that; that’s interesting.

BOB EDWARDS: It won’t be the case on Sirius, by the way. Stern will be, you know, on one of the mainstream channels.


BOB EDWARDS: That’s what they say anyways.

TERENCE SMITH: Is he a big threat?

BOB EDWARDS: He’s already served his purpose, I think — the publicity — which helps XM by the way, because more people know about satellite radio now as a result of all that publicity he got.

And that’s a good thing for us too.

TERENCE SMITH: Can you imagine him taking a large chunk of his very large audience from commercial radio to satellite radio?

BOB EDWARDS: He’ll take some and it’ll be significant. I don’t think it’ll be nearly as much as they expect. And his audience, you know, really wasn’t that big. I mean, in radio terms, yes. But I had 13 million listeners. He had … seven? And I don’t see them paying him $100 million a year.

I mean, that was great for publicity but surely they’re not going to pay him $100 million a year. Can’t be. Who can do that and survive? It’s either going to be renegotiated or it was all publicity to begin with, or it’s part of a much larger expenditure. I don’t know, there’s something about it that just doesn’t add up.

A company that’s not yet in the black is going to pay someone $100 million a year? That’s even more than I make.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, I assume that it’s the same general category.

BOB EDWARDS: Absolutely — [laughs].

TERENCE SMITH: In your view as somebody who knows radio, does XM have to do something to counter Howard Stern?

BOB EDWARDS: I don’t think so. I must admit, though, they did of course negotiate with him, and they tried to get him here. So, you know, everything we’re saying about Howard should be viewed in that context, I think.

He brought with him — or will bring with him — a large group of people, as anyone with those kind a numbers in radio will. As I had. What was the question?

TERENCE SMITH: Does XM have to — you know, I hesitate to use the word “match him.” I’m not sure anybody does that. But does it have to counter…

BOB EDWARDS: Well, they did. In fact they’re ahead of them, because Opie and Anthony are on the air already and have been for months, whereas Howard is just a potential force for Sirius.


BOB EDWARDS: So they’ve already countered and leaped ahead.

TERENCE SMITH: Finally, you alluded to it but tell me what you mean when you say the atmosphere here (at XM) is like what it was when you first went to NPR.

What is the atmosphere here in terms of the mindset, the psychology of the place, the priorities it has?

BOB EDWARDS: When you’re part of a start-up, it’s very exciting because you — the page is not entirely blank but you’re still making it up as you go along, and you can try things. You can experiment. And maybe they won’t work but if they do it’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling.

Fewer rules and just — I don’t know — freer, just feels freer.

TERENCE SMITH: Did you feel edited or constrained in some way at NPR?

BOB EDWARDS: Oh, very much so; yeah.

TERENCE SMITH: Give me an example..

BOB EDWARDS: Well, it’s news; it’s very important, you have to be very correct, you have to be very precise, you cannot have your meaning mistaken. And all of those people are under that constraint, and should be. But we didn’t have — for years I worked there, we didn’t have editors.

We had far fewer producers. There were just many more layers of producers and sub-producers and editors, and sub-editors that came on and on and on, so that each of them had an idea of how to do my job. That’s all.

And, and I’m sure a lot of them saved me from whatever embarrassment — you know, that’s fine — I’m not complaining. It’s just, I don’t have so many bosses.

I don’t have so many people telling me what to do. They brought me over here figuring I knew something about interviewing and about putting on a radio program, and they haven’t said anything but the kindest words to me so far about — the CEO of this place, Hugh Panero, every time I see him, he’ll quote from that morning’s program.


BOB EDWARDS: He’ll tell me what he’s learned from the program. This is heaven — to have that kind of support from the guy at the top. That hasn’t happened for a very long time.

It did happen at NPR years and years ago but I haven’t had that kind of support or encouragement in so long and it’s nice, it’s really nice to get.

TERENCE SMITH: So it’s been a liberating experience.

BOB EDWARDS: Yeah, and, you know, if I had my druthers, I would still be hosting Morning Edition.


BOB EDWARDS: It wasn’t my idea to leave. But they didn’t want me anymore, so — yeah, it’s been liberating and landing on my feet.

TERENCE SMITH: And I have read or heard that you had other offers and considered other offers. Is that so and from whom?

BOB EDWARDS: I had other offers, I didn’t really consider.


BOB EDWARDS: I had maybe 20 or more — you know, ABC, CNN — lots of places in public radio. But Hugh (Panero) said all the right things, right away, and so I just kind of locked on that and said it sounds like fun.

TERENCE SMITH: That’s great. Thank you.