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XM Radio: What Exactly Is The Definition of Commercial-Free?



XM Radio
XM Radio
Updated July 29, 2009
(Note: Before you read this article, you should know there is a more recent article addressing commercials on some XM music channels entitled, "Anger and Confusion Over XM Satellite Radio's Commercial-Free Music".)

XM Satellite Radio's website proudly says: “XM features 100% commercial-free music.”

Yet, recently I received this email from a site visitor:

I just heard a commercial on an XM radio music channel today. I hear them all the time and I've heard them since February 4th. Is saying 'brought to you by Lexus' and then having a recorded message about Lexus not a commercial? Or one I heard this morning about American Express. XM is bs-ing the public and even worse its subscribers by saying 100% commercial free and then still airing commercials on its music channels. You should write about that.
– John

I followed up and emailed a copy of John’s complaint to XM spokesperson, Chance Patterson, who told me they don’t even have a Lexus commercial. In addition, Patterson maintains there are absolutely no commercials on the channels XM promotes as commercial-free.

So, whatever John heard or thinks he heard will remain a mystery for the moment. But, his email got me thinking and listening more closely.

Let me point out something XM does which could easily be perceived as commercials: what we call in the Industry "promos". A promo is a promotional announcement for something the station is doing or in this instance, the service as a whole, since XM is comprised of many “stations” or channels.

While listening to the "‘60s on 6" stream recently, I heard two recorded promos within 10 or 15 minutes on one day. The first was for the “XM Family Plan”, another was for Major League Baseball.

A radio station (or stream) is entitled to promote itself but it’s also common knowledge in the Radio Industry based on perceptual studies that a typical listener perceives a promo as a commercial and does not differentiate between the two.

Well respected Radio consultant Mike McVay from McVay Media agrees and says radio stations:

"...run :15 promos, traffic commercials, weather commercials, sold and sponsored PSA's, and community activity calendars that are sponsored. They do not count these as part of their commercial load. The listeners always count them as part of the commercial load. Listeners hear anything that is not music or entertainment as a commercial."

Paul Maloney, editor of R.A.I.N. (Radio And Internet Newsletter) says, “My instinct tells me that MOST listeners would categorize ANY kind of announcements that interrupt music (or other programming) as ‘commercials.’"

In my opinion this may pose a perception problem for listeners. Of course, promos are less obvious when a DJ does them live and laces them over a song intro - at least the music is still rolling. In addition, any station has a right – even an obligation – to inform listeners about upcoming programming. But, stopping the music to play a recorded promo – even a short one – may technically, in some listeners’ mind, be perceived as a commercial.

But, there’s also a difference between promoting programming like Major League Baseball and the “XM Family Plan”. The “XM Family Plan” is not programming. It’s potential hardware sales, additional activation fees and in general more revenue for XM. XM’s website says, “Add up to four additional XM Radios to your account for only $6.99/month per radio for basic service. That's 30% off the regular price…Activation fee may apply to radios added under the XM Family Plan.”

Yes, you can save but at the same time the more radios you add, the more money XM makes. That kinda’ sounds like a commercial to me.

When I spoke with Chance Patterson, he disagreed with my opinion about the “XM Family Plan” promo. As opposed to pumping up revenue he says, “It’s actually useful information to subscribers so they know that there is a discount available to them with multiple radios.” Patterson says there are instances where a household has separate XM accounts and unaware the XM Family Plan consolidation would provide them a discount.

So, what he's saying is there could be a case where, as an example, a husband and wife have somehow opened separate XM accounts. In that event, closing one account and adding a second radio to the remaining one would save the both of them money. Fair enough. But, I wonder how many households have separate accounts opened and don't know it. If so, they better start having dinner together and talking to each other more.


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