Satellite of Like

DirecTV's 30 Channels of Never-Ending Sound

At Music Choice, the Philadelpia company that supplies DirecTV with the music channels, vice president of marketing and communications Christina Tancredi confirmed my suspicions about the record warehouse, pointing out that she heard her local oldies radio station "has a playlist of around 350 songs, whereas ours has 3000." Tancredi's coworker Lou Simon, a senior vice president of programming, says that each genre has its own programmer and that these people go about planning a channel's broadcast day "as if they're making tapes for a friend's car. The idea is to keep it very varied. We take painstaking care to massage into place a list of songs to create long times spent with the service." Massage? "We work out the kinks."

Simon claims the programmers spend a lot of the workday just listening to music, and "not only on major labels, but also small, even homegrown labels. A record sent to us by an individual artist will get as much attention as one that's on a major label with a major distributor. And we don't really worry about what's selling. Your next-door neighbor could get 10 cuts on." As an example, he points to the Dutch New Age duo Secret Garden, who Music Choice were playing long before their European record label released their music in America.

Still, I spent an afternoon keeping track of Alternative Rock and all I heard was the fodder of the less-than-homegrown Virgin, DGC, Polydor, and Mercury. I've met a lot of my neighbors, and David Bowie isn't one of them. And Nirvana is about as punk as it gets. I've never even heard the Clash, much less Pansy Division.

When Simon said that the goal of Music Choice is to keep listeners listening for as long as possible, I was actually surprised. As a nondriving radio fanatic, one of the things I despise about the bulk of American radio is that it doesn't account for me. Its constant repetition assumes either mobility or amnesia, never making room for those of us in... rooms. Music Choice, on the other hand, wants me. To them, I'm a consumer. And in America, that means that I belong.

Music Choice isn't about epiphanies, or the backbreaking hours they require. It's about rooting around the bottomless pit of perfectly good music and tossing it all up to the surface all the time. It's Mott the Hoople and Oklahoma! and the later years of R.E.M. Which is not such a terrible thing, though I sometimes feel terrible liking it. I don't always want to run away from annoyance.

My Music Choice habit isn't a guilty pleasure. (I don't believe in guilt where pleasure's concerned.) It's more of a guilty solace, that solid, taciturn guy you date after the reckless, fast-talking heartthrob picks a fight one too many times. One can weary of disappointment, and what's more disappointing than radio, a medium that's all the more infuriating because it occasionally doles out little moments that can only be called ecstasy? Thanks to Music Choice, I listen to radio less. Because it's tasteful; because it's television; because it won't break my heart.

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