SiriusXM’s Artist Channel Programming Is an Exercise in Male Privilege

On Jan. 27, in the thick of the Joe Rogan-Spotify rumble — which precipitated Neil Young’s exit from the streaming service — SiriusXM gleefully announced that its dedicated Young channel was returning. The PR stunt seemed to accomplish what it had intended: to show that the 14-year-old broadcaster, with some 425 channels to its name, would stand behind the music and musicians upon which it built its platform. But it also served as a stark reminder that so-called “artist channels” have given little real estate to female performers.

Let’s have a look at the current lineup of SiriusXM stations. From the top (channel 1), you have Pitbull’s “Globalization” channel at No. 13, the Beatles at 18, Bob Marley at 19, E Street Radio at 20, followed by Pearl Jam Radio (22), the Grateful Dead channel (23), Jimmy Buffet’s Radio Margaritaville (24), Phish (29), Dave Matthews Band (30), Tom Petty (31), U2 (32), Ozzy Osbourne (38), LL Cool J’s Rock the Bells (43), Eminem’s Shade 45 (45), Diplo’s Revolution (52), Garth Brooks’ (55) and Willie Nelson’s (59) channels, Siriusly Sinatra (70) and Elvis Radio (75).

Foo Fighters, Bon Jovi, Steve Aoki and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine can be found further down the dial or as online only stations. Where does the first woman-fronted music channel appear? The Aretha Franklin channel, launched as a limited run just last week, comes in at channel 504.

None of the male channels are undeserved, but a deep search of all the varied music categories the satellite radio and streaming audio platform has to offer and you’ll find channels like Queens of Hip-Hop, Queens of Pop, Women of Country Music and Women of Rock. These are SiriusXM’s women-centric music channels, which are genre-based. In 2021, Alicia Keys, ABBA, Halsey, and Aretha Franklin had limited-engagement channels on SiriusXM, the latter of which just resumed, but there are no full-time music channels that have a female artist at the helm.

Even the online channel dedicated to female standup comics is a slap in the face to women. Although it’s titled “She’s So Funny,” its artwork reads “She’s NOT Funny” with “SO” scribbled over the middle word. Cue the facepalm emoji.

Of course, the list of women who could easily commandeer a dedicated channel is endless. To start, how about Madonna (who had a limited run station in 2019 during the “Madame X” cycle), Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Cher, Carole King, Alicia Keys, Britney Spears, Tina Turner, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Alanis Morrissette, Lauryn Hill, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer, Fleetwood Mac, ABBA, The Go-Go’s, Spice Girls, and on and on and on.

Granted there aren’t very many male artists from this century with their own SiriusXM channels, but the 2000s belong to women artists and they really dominate. In fact, SiriusXM has been at the forefront of supporting many of these women and putting them in regular rotation, including, but not limited to: Billie Eilish, Halsey (who had a limited run channel earlier this year), girl in red, CHVRCHES, Japanese Breakfast and Lana del Rey. Where are their channels? Or how about Adele, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna or Nicki Minaj?

SiriusXM is a big champion of country music and prides itself on being instrumental in breaking women artists in that space like Elle King, Maren Morris and Ashley McBryde. Its “The Highway” channel, focused on new country music, is a major supporter of women artists in the genre (it was recently announced that singer Kellie Pickler will host middays on the station). But while Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakam have their own channels, glaringly missing is Dolly Parton’s channel, as is one for Shania Twain, never mind all the present-day women country music artists.

In the dance electronic category, for every Diplo, Steve Aoki and Armin Van Buuren, there is a Peggy Gou, a Maya Jane Coles, a Tokimonsta, an Alison Wonderland, a Nicole Moudaber or a Nina Kraviz who could handily manage their own channel. When Rida Naser, one of the hosts at the flagship electronic and dance channel, BPM put together the EMPOWERED virtual festival with all-star, all-female lineup in December 2020, it was very well-received.

An artist-led channel is basically like having your own radio station. SiriusXM offers a multitude of music categories from pop and rock to country and jazz. It features decades-based programming and mood-based ones like party and workout. It gets granular with categories such as BBQ and family. Within these buckets are an array of channels, which air around the clock, seven days a week, with various shows. An artist channel can slot under more than one category. LL Cool J’s Rock the Bells channel, for example, is found under the hip hop category as well as the 80s decade and the 90s decade. Many categories do not have any artist-led channels at all.

There is no prescriptive approach to a channel. An artist-led channel will certainly play music from that artist, but not exclusively so. The artist and their teams are heavily involved in the curation of their channel. They work closely with SiriusXM’s program directors to create content that is both streamlined to the artist and representative of what they’d like their channel to feature. On the U2 X-Radio channel, for example, are such shows as Adam Clayton’s playlist, Bono Calling, Close to The Edge, Elevation, Gavin Friday Presents, Guest DJs Play U2, Jenny Huston on U2 X-Radio, Phil Taggart on U2 X-Radio, The Rocky O’Riordan Show and a show on the 30th anniversary of “Achtung Baby.”

Other than the artist’s “full and deep participation, on a long-term basis,” according to SiriusXM, there are no set requirements for an artist-led channel. Still, the male artists who head up channels have certain commonalities. Among these are: a large fanbase, a deep catalog of music and longevity.

But many women artists share these touch points. Madonna, Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Taylor Swift, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Nicki Minaj, Tina Turner, Shania Twain, and numerous other prolific women artists have each sold in the many millions of albums. The newest of these artists has been around at least 15 years. The more veteran artists have been active for over four decades. The majority of these women have social media followings in the double- and triple-digit millions (Grande’s Instagram followers number 294 million; Rihanna’s follower count on Twitter alone is over 104 million). There are fans out there who would most definitely tune into their channels.

“We are aware of the issue you’ve raised, and are in fact working to present full-time channels led by female artists and will continue to talk with major and iconic artists about developing year-round SiriusXM channels,” says a SiriusXM spokesperson who notes that the company has plenty of women hosting shows across its music and talk channels, including podcasts. To wit: 43% of the daily hosts on the platform’s music-centered channels are women, according to data provided by SiriusXM, and several women host music-focused talk shows on the Volume channel. Among them: Lyndsey Parker on Volume West, “Call Me” with Lisa Robinson, and Lori Majewski who hosts “Fierce: Women in Music,” co-hosts Volume’s daily “Feedback” show and curates and hosts the specialty program “Lust for Lists.”

But what about the listenership? Of its 35 million subscribers, and listener reach of 150 million — the highest of any streaming audio service — the company shares that its gender breakdown is 50/50 female and male. It notes that even SiriusXM’s flagship personality, Howard Stern, has a well-documented and dedicated female audience. His interviews reflect that, as he’s sat down with many women of note such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Silverman, Miley Cyrus and Billie Eilish, in recent years.

“Overall, we strive to maintain a mix of male and female voices across our platforms that reflects a balanced male/female listenership,” says a rep for SiriusXM.

Still, there are some stupefying anomalies. If one were to look at the roll-outs for two high-profile releases, the Foo Fighters’ “Medicine at Midnight” in March 2021 and Adele’s “30” in November of that year, you would find that SiriusXM threw more of its muscle behind the former even though that band’s audience is, consumption-wise, smaller in comparison.

For “30,” SiriusXM hosted an interview with Adele conducted by John Mayer on the high-profile Hits 1 channel. The talk garnered significant media attention and various album cuts from the album were played on multiple channels as soon as they were made available, during peak listening hours.

To promote “Medicine at Midnight,” Sirius XM launched a two-month-long dedicated channel for the band, the content-rich Foo Fighters Radio, starting a month ahead of the album’s release. On the day “Medicine” dropped, the band took over three stations on Sirius-owned Pandora, and hosted a “Backstage with the Foo Fighters” segment [CK?]. Elsewhere on the network, SiriusXM advertised the channel heavily and frontman Dave Grohl was a guest on Howard Stern. In tandem with their Stern appearance, the band performed a concert, Foo Fighters LIVE from the SiriusXM Garage, after which the album was played in its entirety at midnight upon its release.

Considering Adele’s social media following is more than seven times that of the Foo Fighters, and that she has the year’s biggest album, a feat accomplished in under two months, there is no question she is the more notable artist. Yet that’s not how she is presented on SiriusXM.

Granted, Adele’s campaign for “30,” guided by her management and label, has been highly selective and it’s unlikely that she would engage on the level of a Foo Fighters, even if it were to be offered to her. For its part, SiriusXM chalks up Adele’s participation with the platform to “timing, availability, and other strategic reasons.”

According to SiriusXM, artists booked for in-studio and virtual appearances break down at 53% male and 47% female. These include HAIM, Brittany Howard, Alessia Cara, Lizzo, Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood and Dua Lipa. But for SiriusXM’s Small Stage Series, where top artists underplay in intimate venues, only a handful of female artists have participated. Among them: Alicia Keys, Brandi Carlile, H.E.R. and the Go-Go’s. These women artists make up about 20% of the acts featured in the series. And not one of them has their own channel on the platform.

It is possible that a tech-forward and visionary platform like SiriusXM would subscribe to the outdated, boys’ club mentality historically ascribed to terrestrial radio in its programming? Considering how much of its staff has roots in old school radio, it’s not all that surprising.

SiriusXM’s recently-appointed CEO, Jennifer C. Witz, who has been with the company for over 18 years, is the first woman to hold that title. Other women executives in prominent positions make up an average 32% of the board members and management team combined. Now if only that same percentage applied to artist channels helmed by women, that would be a step in the right direction.

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