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Wonderful Memories of XM

Posted Aug 05 2010 5:45am

I don’t want anyone to think that my little “spat” with Jeff “Bed” Wetter and the current owner of the failing XMFAN site has dimmed my fond memories of my time as the program director of the “On ” Channel at .  I was in for 30+ years, and this was, clearly, my favorite radio job.  I had a nationwide audience for my daily live request show.  I had the best producer in the business who is now serving his country in the Army.

You can hear for yourself some of the fine work Ben Krech and I did together at “ The Strange Case of the Sunday Stagebill .”

And here, specifically, is some of the finest audio production you will ever hear emanate from your speakers.  Give this link a click and scroll down to hear some wonderful radio imaging.

I’m proud of my time at XM, when great guys like Dave Logan were running the place.  Then the suits took over, the bottom line became more important than “good radio” and the result is what you have now… Sirius/XM.  They still have some wonderful talent at Sirius/XM but they fired a lot of wonderful people during the merger.

Back in 2004, which I think was BEFORE Ryan took full control of XMFAN, they did an interview with me.

Bill Schmalfeldt was a part of XM before day one and had a hand in the shaping of several channels, much of which can still be heard today. Bill was glad to take a few minutes from his busy schedule as Program Director of Newsradio 1330 WHBL and speak with XMFan about a few of his adventures (and misadventures) along the way.

XMFan: Tell us about your start in radio.

Bill: I started in radio the same day the United States resumed capital punishment. It was January 17, 1977. I did my first airshift at WRCM, which no longer exists, in Jacksonville, North Carolina. I was still in the Navy at the time. You had to have a license back then to operate a board and make transmitter readings, etc., and I had already had the license for about a year and a half. I had pretty much given up that anyone was going to hire me until I got a phone call that morning (Jan. 17). They asked if I was still interested, and I told them yes. They asked if I could be there at two-thirty for a three-o’ clock show, and once again I told them yes. So I hung up the phone and asked my boss if I could leave a little early, and he had no problem with it.

I got to the station at about two-thirty and my entire training was like this: They took me into the studio, showed me the board, how to control the turntables, the Cart decks, the microphones, and the records are over here. Follow this rotation and have a good show.

My first record was already cued up; it was Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou.” While it was playing I was sitting there wondering, “Oh God, now what do I do?” So I cued up another record and segued right into the second record. I was thinking, “All right, that’s it! Now I’m in radio!” After about ten seconds the Program Director came walking in, took it out of cue, and popped it up so I could actually be heard on the air, smiled at me, and left. I sat there and thought to myself, “What the hell do I think I’m doing in this business?” There are even days now, almost 28 years later, where I think the same thing.

XMFan: I believe you were involved in the last days of FM where the DJ still had some discretion over what to play?

Bill: Exactly. At that time you were still pretty much able to pick your own music.

XMFan: How were you introduced to XM?

Bill: I had been the program director of a talk station in Naples, Florida, and got word they were thinking of changing the format to “jammin’ oldies.” I did not want to work jammin’ oldies, so I went to one of the various websites that lists radio jobs. I saw an ad for a program director for a Broadway channel on radio – which I’d never heard of a satellite radio channel at the time. I had no idea what the whole satellite deal was, nor was I an expert on all things Broadway. I had done a few musicals in my time, and a friend once told me I knew more about musicals than any straight guy he’d met in his life, so I told myself I’d send an email to the guy. I was sure I’d probably get hired as Commissioner of the NFL at the same time. (Laughs)
I sent the email to Dave Logan, who was the VP of Programming at the time, which contained a Real Audio file of me doing a shtick with listeners. I got an email back the next day asking for more, so I sent a cassette tape via overnight delivery. The next thing I know, they are flying me from Naples, Florida to Washington , giving me a tour of the place. It was like stepping into the future. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures of the facility there in Washington. It’s the largest broadcast facility in the world – state of the art technology – and I told them after my tour, “Well now you either have to hire me or kill me, because I don’t want to go back to Naples and operate Cart machines and turntables after seeing this!” They offered me the position of the Broadway Channel Program Director, and the rest, as they say, is history. I was hired in late April of 2001.

XMFan: I’m sure there was quite a bit of excitement and tension at XM headquarters at the beginning, because this was something that hadn’t been done before.

Me and Debbie Gibson, 2003

Bill: I’ll agree with the excitement, but not with the tension. A looser bunch of people I’ve never worked with – I was up there for my interview, sitting in the cafeteria and talking with Dave Logan and one of the other music directors, and saw a bunch of the audio animators (production workers) walking up and down the hallway following a radio-controlled car that they were playing with. In the middle of the workday. Logan told me, “Whatever it takes for these guys to get their creativity flowing, that’s what we want them to be doing.”

I’ll never forget the day we were all standing around the programming pit when they put the first channel on the air. It was the Eighties on Eight channel with Bruce Kelly doing the first broadcast. We were all standing around thinking, “My God, this is actually going to happen!” I was wondering who would play me when they made a movie about this event.

We were originally set to launch in Dallas and San Diego on September 12, 2001. We had everything set up – guys heading to San Diego and already on the ground in Dallas. CNN was going to be there to broadcast the flipping of the switch. Then September 11th hit. I got up the morning of the eleventh because I was going to do my little (beta) show, and saw the events of 911 unfolding on television. I knew the Pentagon had been hit, and I just couldn’t stay home. I jumped in my car and drove down New York Avenue towards the Eckington, and could see the smoke billowing from the Pentagon. You could see the steady stream of people leaving D.C. When I got to XM headquarters, everyone was walking around dazed, looking at the TV, and all the channels were running a message every half-hour stating that because of what happened we were postponing the launch. I think we finally did launch on September 25, but it was a much lower key thing.

Of course the events that day started the tech stock tumble, which affected XM stock as well as everyone else. There were a lot of people wondering if this thing would ever catch on, given the national atmosphere at the time. Will people really want to invest money into this? We knew we had something new and different, but could this terrorist attack have happened at a worse time for us? You hate to think of it in those terms, but it was an earth-shaking event that affected everyone, not just us of course.

XMFan: When did you begin your XM broadcasts?

Me with Jerry Herman, creator of "Hello Dolly!" and "Mame!"

Bill: We were broadcasting to test audiences, friendly people with prototype radios around the country to make sure they got our signal. I actually started doing a daily show from the Eckington in June, I believe, when my channel “lit-up.” So you were basically broadcasting to nobody, but it was like spring training. You had a chance to get your feet wet with the format, test out what did and didn’t work, and try to get everything together. That way, when everyone actually did start buying the radios you would have something good for them.

XMFan: Would you mind telling us how the shaping process worked for On Broadway in those early days?

Bill: When I came up for my interview, I presented them with an idea of what I thought the channel should sound like. I had listened to Broadway radio in the past, and it always sounded to me like guys who did Broadway had sticks up their butts. I don’t know who they were trying to impress, or whatever, but the announcers were always slow and monotone. I don’t know if you have ever been to a Broadway musical, but it’s not just the music that is important – it’s also the stuff in between the music, which is supposed to be entertaining as well.

I had never heard of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act at this point. I thought I would be able to run an entire musical every night, and was quickly dispossessed of that idea because with the DMCA you can basically play no more than two cuts per album, per hour, without a waiver from the record label. A waiver at that time? Forget about it! I had to back up and punt as to what I was going to do with the channel, and thought “Well here’s what we’ll do instead – create The Eckington Theater.” Eckington was of course the street where XM is located. I thought we could do various themes to fit blocks of time, and make it seem like a live stage presentation with yours truly as your “Jovial Impresario.” They loved the idea, so we went with that.

At first, it was like the same blend of music all day long, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. As the station evolved, I just started to experiment with different kinds of music for different times of the day. My knowledge of the genre grew as I programmed the channel. There’s the moodier kind of music that I put into a show called The Dark Side, which ran during the dark overnight hours. I would start the day with what I called A Heaping Bowl Of Broadway – if you remember those old cereal commercials from when you were a kid – the upbeat, peppier music.

My first live show was called Onstage At The Eckington, which I did from six p.m. until ten p.m. east coast time. As people started buying the radios, the calls started coming in. It was such a trip to be getting calls from all over the country! When we moved to New York City in March of 2003, we called it Demand Performance and broadcast from ten until two, east coast time. I was able to hit part of the morning drive on both the east and west coasts. That was another programming challenge by the way, dealing with four time zones.

As things progressed, people would call and tell me I wasn’t playing enough new stuff. The very next call would be someone saying I wasn’t playing enough of the old stuff. So without being able to make everyone happy, I could at least give them a time of day where they knew they could listen to the kind of music they liked. So after Demand Performance at two there was four hours of just the classic Broadway stuff from the forties, fifties, and sixties, which we called American Matinee. From six until ten we had The Big Show, which focused on shows that were currently running on Broadway, as well as from about 1990 on. From ten until midnight we had Comedy Tonight, which was two hours of musical comedy. Once again, everyone had a time of day when they could listen to their favorite kind of Broadway music.

XMFan: Many people have subscribed to XM in order to avoid the numerous commercials one hears today on AM/FM. How would you compare the expenses of a radio station today versus thirty years ago?

Bill: Everything has gone up, from the cost of electricity to – well, my first full-time radio job paid me $150 per week. I do make a little more than that now. As far as licensing fees and such, that’s all gone up too. I’m lucky to work for a company now that understands people will tune-out clutter. They charge a respectable rate for their advertising so they keep the clutter to a minimum. Your other major conglomerates don’t seem to understand that concept! Not long ago I worked for a radio station that did twenty minutes of commercials per hour, and it was just dreadful.

I think the smartest thing XM has done recently was to take all the commercials off all the music channels, which was the biggest stick Sirius had to hit them with. XM took that stick away from them.

XMFan: What are a few of your responsibilities at WHBL these days?

Bill: As program director, I’m responsible for every sound that comes out of this thing. (Laughs) I do a talk show where we talk about local issues, I make sure the commercial breaks are filled, I aircheck the talent. I’ve taken a lot of what I’ve learned at XM and try to apply it to my dealings on the air and with my air staff.

It was an entirely positive experience working at XM Satellite Radio, and I’ve not ruled out the hope of ever going back there someday. If they ever had a position they felt I could enhance, I’d love to talk to them.

XMFan: Who are a few personalities you have met over the years who may have left an impression?

Bill: Lou Brutus. Lou is a great, great guy. When he was running the Special X channel, I did the character of Wilhelm Krankenzahn on the Friday Night Root Canal show. He had the idea of doing the German dentist on the show, and I would do the character entirely in German, with the sound of drills and teeth being pulled. I would pick one, two, or even three celebrities each week and perform painful root canals on them. The music we played during those segments was elevator music, the kind you would hear in a dentist’s waiting room. Lou Brutus is without a doubt one of the most twisted individuals I’ve ever met in my life.

My audio animator Ben Krech – the kid’s a genius. I would go to him with the bare bones of an idea and he’d flesh it out into audio reality! Ben created the “sound” of the Eckington Theater. He also played my sidekick Eldom McCarricker.

Eddie Kilroy is another character, at Hank’s Place. He’s authentic – what you hear on the air is Kilroy. He loves to tell a story – but by the time he says, “…to make a long story short, it’s too late.”

The opportunity of working with Lee Abrams, was you know, like working with the Wizard of Oz, working for a guru. Someone who really believes in what he is doing. I just learned so much from him.

Steve Harris is a great guy, although he’s a Cleveland Browns fan – I don’t hold that against him. He’s a gentle spirit and a great leader. I don’t want to leave anyone out! I remember my first program director meeting at XM. I sat there amongst all these incredible people wondering to myself what I was doing here. You know, here I am, this middle-market schlub, working with people like Bruce Kelly. Working with people like Lou Brutus, people like Eddie Kilroy, Johnny Williams. These were people I had heard of in the business, and it was just an incredible vibe.

XMFan: Any pastimes away from work?

Bill: I write. My first novel will be coming out any day now. It’s a political comedy called …By The People… It’s sort of a Frank Capra feel good kind of thing, about a regular guy who because of circumstances out of his control rises to a position of power in the U.S. government. It’s about how he reminds a disillusioned population that the government was intended to be for the people, of the people, and by the people. Forces that are in favor of the status quo are organizing against him and no one is innocent – some are just more guilty than others. ( , , most major booksellers)

I enjoy music, watching television, spending time with my wife and dog.

XMFan: What are your favorite XM channels these days?

Bill: I love Hank’s Place. And actually, I did some work for the Forties channel – I’m Ed Baxter on their news reports, who talks about the news events of that particular day. They are going to have a show for the 60th anniversary of D-Day, and I’ll also be the voice of Ed Baxter on that. Oh, and I was the voice of Billy Bigrig on Hank’s Place for some time. At one time, there was a time when at eight p.m. eastern time on Friday nights that I was on four channels at the same time! I was the king of all media. (Laughs)

XMFan: Would you go back and do anything differently if you could?

Bill: I wouldn’t have married my first two wives. And I love my job here – I really do – but if XM ever needs me, all they have to do is call!

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