DJ Dylan? Times, indeed, are a-changin'.
Bob Dylan is one of many music stars hosting their own shows on satellite radio.
Alan Freed. Cousin Brucie. Wolfman Jack. Dr. Demento. Casey Kasem. Bob Dylan. Wait, Bob Dylan?
Yes Dylan, the enigmatic poet of a generation, the man who shunned the media during his heyday, joined the ranks of America's DJs last week when he hosted his first "Theme Time Radio Hour," a weekly show on XM Satellite Radio, one of two competing satellite - that means, for pay - radio networks.
True to its name, Dylan's debut program focused on the theme "weather." Other topics for shows, which appear Wednesdays on XM channel "Deep Tracks," include "mother" and "cars."
"Curious about what the weather's looking like?" asked Dylan in that inimitable raspy purr. "Take a look out the window, step outside." Then he announced a song - Muddy Waters's "Blow Wind Blow" or "Uncloudy Day" by the Staple Singers - and provided insights about the players or sessions. He's your avuncular Uncle Bob, knowledgeable and accessible. And because of Dylan's history - full of ambiguity and mystery - listeners may wonder what he might reveal about himself.
Dylan joins a host of rockers who have found new, or parallel, lives as DJs - especially as the warring satellite networks scramble for customers willing to fork over about $13 a month. Sirius has Grandmaster Flash, David Johansen, Fred (B-52's) Schneider, Marky Ramone, Mojo Nixon, and many others. It also has two music channels from "Little Steven" Van Zandt (of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and TV's "The Sopranos") - "Underground Garage" and "Outlaw Country." Eminem has even set up a hip-hop channel called "Shade 45."
Meanwhile on XM, which has 69 music channels, Tom Petty hosts "Buried Treasure." Rappers Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, and Trick Daddy have shows. Quincy Jones and Elton John have each done "artist takeovers" - one-off DJ sets. (Each company has signed up nonmusical hosts as well - Martha Stewart on Sirius, Dale Earnhardt Jr. on XM.)
"Part of the appeal for people who subscribe to satellite is getting something you can't get anywhere else," says Anne-Taylor Griffith, a spokeswoman for XM. "In the case of our music programming, not only does it extend to music and commercial-free programming, but [it means] digging further in that space - having a signature program you can't get anywhere else."
It's not that rock stars haven't done commercial radio before. Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent have. Former Mighty Mighty Bosstone Dicky Barrett did. David Lee Roth just tried (and failed) for CBS Radio. But for satellite it's a way to build a premium channel with premium names.
"It's what cable TV does on the audio side of things," says Steve Strick of Radio & Records, a trade magazine. "Musically, they can be as niche-y and narrow-targeted as they want to be."
XM currently has more than 6.5 million subscribers, Sirius more than 4 million. The question is, can these rocker DJs bring in more? "It's hard to tell what effect this will have," says Roy Trakin of HITS, a trade magazine. "Just because you're a rock star and a musician doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be a good radio personality. Is Dylan on the radio interesting? I would say so, certainly worth a listen. He's a fascinating guy in any and all contexts."
But Oedipus, vice president of alternative programming at CBS Radio, thinks it may be for naught. Satellite's rock star-DJ programming "is not going to have any effect on free radio.... These are specialty shows," he says. "If satellite has 10 million subscribers - divided up over 400 channels - one [free] station alone in New York will have 1 million a week. Do the math. [Satellite customers] spend over $150 a year. It's for the affluent."
And yet, don't you want to hear what Dylan says about Prince's "Little Red Corvette?" Stay tuned.