It is impossible to explain the excitement, wonder and even abject fear that ricocheted through every nook and cranny of my brain and spine in those first days entering the brave new world of XM Satellite Radio in 2001. “Everything All The Time” was an early tagline of sorts, but that merely scratched the surface. XM had actually rounded up, hired, relocated and convinced creative radio/music lifers from across the USA and Canada, most with a chip on their shoulder that they had finally found the promised land. It was Programming that would steer the ship this time, not Sales, Marketing and Research! This was Radio Heaven. But first, they would need to steam clean our brains to wash the bullshit, bad habits and nonsense collected over the decline of FM completely out of our systems. Reprogram the programmers and free up everyone’s “George Martin Gene,” as Lee put it.
Lee Abrams and Dave Logan had a very big job in front of them. I knew Dave a little but never worked with him and Lee I met for the first time at my interview. I had heard all the stories as he sat behind his desk in a modest sized office with every millimeter of wall space covered by Gold and Platinum Awards of artists that basically created Rock Radio. He wanted to know if I could create a station that centered on the great singer/songwriters, with “The Laurel Canyon” vibe, specifically Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne as the center lane. I asked if we wanted it reduced to their material from only that time period or their entire discographies. He quickly said, “All of it!” I then asked if we wanted to include music that intersected, i.e. Joni and Charles Mingus, and/or compliment it and what about new music and he bellowed, “Everything! New, old, unreleased, rare, live… EVERYTHING you think fits.” This I had not expected.
Taking a deep breath, I knew it was now or never to ask the one thing I was hesitant to bring up, but needed to know before making this level of commitment. My five year old daughter needed a certain level of care, having been diagnosed with Evans Syndrome before she reached the age of 2, and today at 28 still needs weekly infusions. I looked Lee directly in the eye,and said, “This is simply too good to be true, so I have to ask you, aren’t you the guy that destroyed Free Form/Progressive FM with The Superstars Format, drastically shrinking music libraries, eliminating DJ choice and streamlining progressive radio? I really want to believe but why should I believe you?” Lee laughed really loud. I exhaled. “Yeah, I guess I did,” Lee said. “But, it’s not my fault they are still doing the same shit I came up with almost 30 years ago! It’s a wasteland now, a soulless barren wasteland of liner cards and Star Wars production. We are going to re-invent radio. Bring back the excitement of appointment listening. We started with AM, then FM and now XM (pause) Radio To The Power of X. It’s up to us.” Relieved that my big Jersey mouth hadn’t blown it, I simply said, “I’m in.” Quickly adding the question, “But are you sure you want to call it “Clean Air?”
“How about The Loft?” I asked a few weeks into the job, sitting in our first big meeting regarding the launch of the channel I was spending upwards of 14 hours every day designing. Lee and Dave were there, Tony Masiello, the genius who designed the studios and computer systems, various marketing folks, Lawyers, Chance Patterson the Director of Publicity and the CEO, Hugh Panero. Prior to this meeting I had only met Lee and Dave, and I think Chance. The entire staff were literally working round the clock with the knowledge that our competition had a year head start. We were determined to beat them to the finish line. My question was directed at Hugh Panero since Lee immediately threw me under the bus by telling them all that I hated the name Clean Air. Hugh looked at me and asked calmly, “You don’t like the name, what’s wrong with it?’ Getting to the point I responded, “First of all, it immediately makes me think of the NPR show “Fresh Air” and we are going to be nothing like that program. I think “The Loft” gives a perfect and short description of what we will sound like. No walls, open with no restrictions and operating at a higher level of content, yet still funky when we want or need to be.” Hugh’s grin kept widening and he asked if I knew that the building we were in and remodeling to a state of the art broadcast facility was a “printing loft” and was that part of my calculus. I absolutely did not but soon found out that it was literally a printing loft. I did know about it being the longtime home and headquarters of National Geographic Magazine.
“Well, that’s even better. My inspiration came from a club in New York and David Mancuso, a musically adventurous master DJ who was all about creating a state of the art sound system and the art of the segue.” They went around the table, everyone offering opinions and in under 30 minutes we had a decision. The Loft was born. In a few months Hugh Panero and Chance Patterson would be our biggest fans. I was really liking this place.
It has taken me a while to do this episode as those first 4 years were without question the hardest I had worked in my life to that point, but in many ways a dream come true. It was almost as if I actually had found Radio Heaven, even though it was 7 days a week, at least 12 or more hours a day. Sure there were disagreements, not everyone liked everyone and ego clashes happened. But there was never a staff of people I worked with before or since, that lived up to our bestowed mantra of A.F.D.I. --- Actually Fucking Doing It! Others talked about it but we were A.F.D.I. and beat “The Dog” to air by quite a bit and even by the time of “the merger” were still a million subs ahead.
At the close of 2003, on Boxing Day I was shocked by the arrival of this:
That’s me using a hand expression handed down through generations from the Italian side of the family on the cover of The New York Times Weekend Section… IN COLOR! The story was by Stephen Holden, who wrote about John Martyn in a Rolling Stone review causing me to investigate back in the early 70s and I became a fan of his music instantly. John Martyn epitomized the type of artist we would be playing. Apparently, he flipped out when he heard The Loft and asked for an interview.
If you Google it by the title of the article, it still comes up. https://nytimes.com/2003/12/26/movies/critic-s-notebook-high-tech-quirkiness-restores-radio-s-magic
This episode of FTB is designed to give you a musical representation of The Loft in this period through my eyes and ears. These are not airchecks but new recordings made in my Basement Studio. From 2001 through 2003 I was a staff of one. With voice tracking I was “on the air” 23 of the 24 hours in a day and hand built and mixed every music log from scratch. Those first few years the logs for air had to be complete, timed out to the millisecond and ready to go between 48 and 72 hours in advance. That was completely my responsibility, as was everything else except Production and that is where I lucked out. I had the best production guy I have ever encountered, but we called them “Audio Animators,” which perfectly describes them. Jim “Pants” Gregg was my right (and sometimes left) arm and I shared him with a guy who became a friend for life, Charlie Logan. I would kill to work with either of them again, anytime. Charlie was let go after the merger, Pants lasted a little while longer, realized where things were headed and went home to Chicago and hasn’t been out of work for even a day since.
We have since lost a great many of that original staff, but I will name just one for fear of leaving someone out. Bobby “The Burner” Bennett was a legendary broadcaster, the best of the best. It was my great joy to be his teacher of all things digital and computer related. He was one of the unfortunate to get a pink slip due to the merger and passed away a few years later. When Bobby was let go, I knew that “a merger of equals” as they were spinning it was complete bullshit. There was no one on the planet better than Bobby. This was a flat-out takeover. Solidified when they cut loose the great Jesse Scott, who made the initial contact with me in a brief phone call by saying, “Marrone, I think we need you down here, call me back!” Thankfully, Jesse is still thriving as Program Director of WMOT in Nashville. A kick-ass radio station that could have only come from her heart and mind.
I made the cut and worked until the last day of 2017. I wasn’t feeling well over the past year and the powers that be had made no secret of the fact they would love to get me out, especially after I turned 60. They couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t move to New York where “the action” was but that has never been my thing. I was tired of fighting but more stressed as the soul and purpose was excised from the company. Dismantled with unnecessary cruelty and more than little glee at times. They had no need for my particular expertise any longer, I was simply a number on the ledger. A reason why I never went after jobs that were Corporate, I just can’t do it as it gives me a rash. Not to mention I certainly didn’t have the wardrobe, nor the desire to acquire one. I felt I had taken the high road, wrote and posted my Goodbye, keeping everything positive. https://mikemarrone.com/mikes-basement/hello-i-must-be-going
It was a strange case of closing a circle, as I had given Franny and Meg off and did all the programming for the next week myself. Timing out each day and segment and finishing at around 11:45 pm on New Year’s Eve. At exactly midnight they cut off my service, so I never did get to listen to any of it. I haven’t listened since. A few months later I was diagnosed with Stage IV Large-B Cell Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Not one of them reached out. At least I knew why I was feeling so horrible. While it was a good run and I would do it all again, I should have left much sooner than 17 years. It is ironic that one of the things they couldn't stand was my desire to work mainly from my home studio, which saved 2 hours of a needless commute.
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