A Radio Tale, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Tell Myself I Can Control The Algorithm

I’ve done a lot of dancing with The Devil. And by The Devil I mean big media. As a former Sirius XM employee (@ me for stories!!!) I know how the sausage gets made: a two hour classic rock programming meeting debating the career of Rod Stewart; is he worth his own pop up channel? I didn’t stay around to find out. Or wasn’t high enough on the totem pole to find out. I programmed the Simon & Garfunkel channel a while, and back when it was online only (before any of us knew what online radio was, this is 2012) the Classic College Radio channel. It’s on the satellites now and a friend who still works there programs it for satellite–think Pumpkins-era Gish, Echo & The Bunnymen, and dare they dabble: Dinosaur Jr.. I also managed the daily operations of six music channels, three of which were new and required new music and production uploads ever week, and sometimes every day; one of those channels ran out of NYC (I was based in DC) and I was the only person in the building who “knew” how to work with that completely different operating system. Not even our version of mission control could help me, not my boss, the VP of Rock Programming (lol omg this man) knew how to do it. I had to wait for my “equal” up in NYC to be done with enough work and be at his desk to answer a call should anything go wrong. I also produced The Grand Ole Opry; I recorded live-to-tape specialty shows across genres and edited them into schedules, mixing the shows with playlists provided by hosts. I spent a lot of time searching for rare Motörhead tracks. I spent a week uploading the KISS discography to a programming and scheduling system for a Halloween weekend special. I spent a lot of time teaching my elder team mates how to use the technology we relied on all day that they couldn’t quite grasp. I edited EDM shows. I did I did I did. When I left, I taught my job to three people; that was when my boss realized just how much work I had been doing as one (1) person. I speak in music libraries. I speak big media. I speak programming. And fortunately for all your trivia needs, I speak hair metal.

By the time I left, I was 25 and didn’t really know what day, or time it was, or when the 92 bus line was finally going to arrive. (Never.) I was responsible even though my work was covered, I was 200 miles away, it was December 26th, and I was with my family. But the silence alarm went off so my wave forms dragged and dropped all wrong. I was 25 with blossoming anxiety and really really learning how to drink. (Sober six years now!) Even still, it was the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done in my life. I miss it every day. Making something millions of people would hear! Radio is life. It is discovery and it is communication. At the end of the world, in all the movies (War of the Worlds…which, adoyyyeeee is radio to begin with) and TV shows (Station Eleven) and books (The Stand) and nightmares (my own, your own), what’s left? The radio is left. It’s radio. The answer is always radio. It is what we have and people forget its there. (It’s free!!!) If you have a phone, you have a radio. I prefer the Simple Radio app: it’s free and you can make a list of favorite FMs and stream them right off your phone. But really I prefer WXPN in Philly (they have their own free app), a station I great up on and since lockdown hit, I put it on as background music so I didn’t lost my mind in the one bedroom I share with my husband who worked from home for 2+ years …I never turned it off. Just like in high school, I tell time by the radio: who’s on air, what features are on, what part of the hour it is. I speak programming clocks. I speak radio.

But I’m here to talk about controlling the algorithm…as if I have a choice. I like to pretend I can control it. I do this by making a Discovery Favorites playlist, compiling all my favorite songs from my Discovery playlist every week. That way I only listen to what I like and then it feeds it into the machine and more predictive programming is funneled into my ears. But, Sarah! You say. How could you possibly give Spotify your money? Good Q. I thought about switching over to a different evil, Apple Music. I even downloaded the app I’ve since deleted that can move my playlists from one platform to another. It lost about 30% of my 18 hour jazz playlist, my magnum opus. (It has 59 likes! I’m famous!) And I can’t have that. What’s one evil or another? I was a late convert to streaming, annoyed I’d have to start making my library over again from my 160 gig click-wheel iPod. But that was before I had a smartphone. When I got one, around 2013, I found the streaming way.

Mainly, I use Spotify for their massive back catalogs of soul, jazz, afrobeat, and label compilations: Stax, Atlantic, and the sort. I cannot lose my jazz playlist mentioning every artist in Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz second edition. I cannot lost my other playlist of his other volume, West Coast Jazz, Modern Jazz in California 1945-1960 (again, mentioning every artist in the book; it is 15 hours long). I made the conscious decision to give money to a media giant that does not pay its artists. Sometimes we have no choice to participate (we all do it every day: capitalism, baby!). I make it up by being a supporting member of WXPN in Philly, WERU in Blue Hill, Maine, and WFMU in Jersey City. My husband is also a member of XPN and WFUV here in NYC. We also subscribe to PBS. We try.

This was supposed to be a post about my Discovery Favorites playlist. But I blog for free for all three of you readers, so it gets to be about whatever I want. The 2022 Faves playlist is 12 hours long. And I started a Discovery Faves in 2011, that playlist is only six hours long. I know I cannot control the beast. I believe SXM is now owned by Pandora. And my friend who is still there described his job to me, as an assistant programmer, as “pressing buttons to code songs for a computer that will one day replace me,” and that was a few years ago. But he’s hanging in there.

I recently made contact with an undergrad student at my alma mater, 92 WICB in Ithaca, NY, who had a full internship at SXM for a year. They are in their last semester of undergrad and made a schedule that could support their internship there and the FT job that was everything but written down on paper promised to them…only to have their supervisor tell them they weren’t getting hired …over a text message..the week before Christmas. Said supervisor did to them what they promised never to do: they hired someone who hadn’t been an intern for a year to “give someone else a chance.” I told this undergrad, I’m so sorry you have to learn it this way but you dodged a bullet. That is literally how the cookie crumbles. My god the stories I have. I encouraged them to find another route in because they want to be there, but to also look elsewhere. Big media is no one’s friend but their own. (Another former SXM co-worker who was formerly the head of R&B content at YouTube (but was a contracted employee and had to pay out of pocket for their health insurance!!! at YouTube!!!) and is now at Amazon Music told me Spotify is laying off people by the dozens; and I’m sure you’ve read it too, Amazon is laying off people, as is Meta… they all are.) It might be the very ethos of this blog that helped me not get a part-time version of my job back after I finished graduate school. I was interviewed for a version of my old job by my former peers, I asked after programmers I had made friends with, I know all the scheduling & programming systems they use. I speak the language. But they don’t want a human mind. They told me “they’d keep me on file.” This was the day after Trump was elected. I took it as a sign. And I know better than to go back even though it creeps into my mind…a decade after leaving. They want someone to press buttons and say nothing. That ain’t me, babe. Maybe someone else might want me one day.