A 24-Hour Dead Channel? Get Sirius!
by Blair Jackson
An interview with David Gans about satellite radio’s all-Dead network
I’m sure I’m not the only one who, upon hearing about the development of satellite radio a number of years ago and seeing all the niche programming that was being aired, immediately thought: “Of course! 24-hour Grateful Dead!” But it’s just in the last few weeks that the 24-hour Dead channel dream has become a reality, thanks to Sirius Satellite Radio and the support of the Dead’s record label, Rhino Entertainment.
Putting together a 24/7 Dead channel probably sounds like it would be a breeze, right? Just pick some hot shows, toss on some CDs, whatever. But think about it: all day, every day…in perpetuity. It’s not an easy programming task at all, and as there are no DJs the heavy lifting of deciding what to play when is left up to computers… and to a guy like Grateful Dead Hour producer/host David Gans, who has been insanely busy trying to make sure that there’s plenty of variety in what gets played, lots of cool features, and basically is as cool as we all want it to be. David probably needs no introduction to most of you. He’s been shepherding his Grateful Dead radio show for more than 20 years, broadcasting hundreds of hours of quality Dead and Dead family music, plus interviews and other assorted strangeness. He’s also written several books about the Dead, including the classic Playing in the Band: An Oral and Visual Portrait of the Grateful Dead, and produced or co-produced Dead-related CDs including Might As Well: The Persuasions Sing Grateful Dead, the So Many Roads Grateful Dead box set, and others.
I spoke with David recently about some of the challenges of establishing Sirius’ Grateful Dead channel.
How did you come to be involved in all this?
Rhino made a deal with Sirius to create an all-Grateful Dead channel. I got a call in May, while I was on vacation in Hawaii, asking me if I’d be interested in participating, and I said, “Of course!” I had a phone meeting with one of the programming VPs there and with Peter McQuaid, who’s managing Grateful Dead stuff for Rhino, and I immediately started spitting out ideas, most of which they seemed to like. They said, “Okay, we’ll get back to you.” Six weeks later, the deal was in place, but then the window to create the preview was kind of short because they were committed to running a sneak preview of it on the Jam On channel from August 1 through August 9th, which some Deadheads call “The Days Between” [Jerry’s birthday and the day of his death], and that was kind of fun. I came up with 18 concerts, and they ran complete live shows four times a day. I had to come up with nine interviews from my own archive. They also had a pretty good library in place at the start—they had all the Dick’s Picks, all the studio albums and live albums, side projects, and other stuff.
I know they don’t have DJs per se. Is everything computer-programmed?
There are people who control the flow of the music and what goes on the air but a database stores all of the song information, of course. There’s a woman at Sirius named Jessica Besack who’s the hands-on manager of what goes out, and I spent a day with her when I was back in New York [where Sirius has its headquarters] last August, and what we’re doing slowly is tweaking that library. There are thousands of tracks in there. One of the first things I did was send off a box of all the tribute records—Deadicated, Stolen Roses, the reggae tributes, Pickin’ on the Dead, and I’d gone through and picked out a few tracks from each I thought were good, instead of the whole things. We want there to be lots of variety, obviously. So all that gets put into the computer.
Then there’s the matter of how you tie tracks together. “China Cat Sunflower” always goes into something else, so you’ve got know that if you play “China Cat Sunflower” you have to play the next track, too.
When I listen tothe Grateful Dead Channel I like the quasi random nature of it—that you can hear a track from American Beauty followed by The Persuasions’ version of “Ripple,” and then something from a Dick’s Picks. And there’s really no other way to do it, because what would you do? You can’t get somebody in a room and have them smoke a joint and program the perfect virtual Grateful Dead concert for six hours every day of his life. Jessica’s job, assisted by me, is to program the categories so they make sense, and it’s a been a lot of fun working on that—adding new things to it all the time, and trying to figure out how to make it flow nicely. Like on most Dick’s Picks, you’ll get most of a second set on a disc, but you can’t play the whole thing usually—it has to be broken up a little bit—so I’ve been going through and saying, “These three tunes need to go together, but then you can fade it out here before the ‘drums.’” You want a nice chunk that has some integrity. You don’t want an isolated “drums” that then hard-cuts into “Attics of My Life,” which could happen if it was totally random. You want “drums” and the “space” that follows, and the “Morning Dew” it goes into after that.
I’ve also gone through and just deleted a bunch of stuff, because really, how many 1983 “Me and My Uncle”s do you need? I’m trying to keep it representative. You want that song to turn up occasionally, but you probably don’t want it to turn up as often in the programming day of Sirius as it turned up in the Grateful Dead’s catalog.
Ouch! But how true…And then you toss in interview segments and other things occasionally?
Right. Like I interviewed Donna Jean and she told me this sweet little story about how “Saint Stephen” from Live Dead changed her life, so we'll pair that with the “Saint Stephen” from Live Dead. That little segment should run a couple of times a year. It’s not something you want to hear all the time, but you don’t want to use it once and throw it away. So it goes into a category of stuff that gets trotted out infrequently. Given that Grateful Dead has a 30 year-history with this gigantic collection of stuff, there’s nothing that’s going to be heard all the time. There are certain kinds of touchstones in there that people are always going to be glad to hear.
A lot of people are going to turn on the Grateful Dead Channel and leave it on for 18 hours a day. Some people are going to listen at work. You don’t want to bore those people; there’s no reason you should have to.
So we’re tweaking the playlist so that cool, rare stuff gets played every once in a while and doesn’t get overused, and standards get played frequently—you probably want to play a “Truckin’” every day, but you don’t have to play the same versions all the time of course. I want to make sure lots of “Dark Stars” are in there.
Is all the material from your radio show through the years fair game to put up on Sirius?
Sure, everything is fair game.
How about unreleased things from the vault?
Actually, there isn’t that much in the vault that isn’t already out there in some form. When we started this, they wanted something out of the vault that nobody has, and I requested 5/3/77 from the New York Palladium for that purpose.
To me it’s more about musical quality than collector value anyway. Something I learned a long time ago is you can’t program your radio show for the hard-core collectors because they don’t really care. They don’t listen to you anyway, because they already have it—and if they don't, they don’t want to get it off the radio; they want to get it in digits. You can’t let those guys determine what you do.
I make the distinction between listeners and collectors. You want to please the collectors when you can, but you can’t let them dictate the course of what you’re doing because it’s a losing proposition. My watchword is: “It’s the music, stupid!” To me if the music’s good, it goes on the air. I try to keep it interesting, I try to mix it up—I play music from all eras on my show, and that's how this works, too. We have to remember that there are people who never saw a Dead show before 1992, say, and to them it’s important to hear something from 1993 that you and I might not think is as interesting as something from 1979 or whatever. I’m always conscious of that, so one of the challenges is to listen to a later tour where Jerry maybe wasn’t in the best shape and find something presentable.
So that’s part of what you’re doing—digging through 1994 shows and feeding them possible tracks?
I’m responsible for picking complete shows. There’s been a new one every day for a couple of weeks, we air complete concerts three times a day.Some of it will be things that are commercially available—like a full Dick’s Picks show, or View from the Vault, a full concert from the Fillmore West box—but most of what we air are unreleased shows. So I do that, and then I also send individual tracks from shows. We want there to be a huge base to draw from.
We’re not just programming for the old guard—though you certainly want them to enjoy it. You’re programming for the future, for new people to discover it.
And you don’t need to back–announce because there’s a digital song readout?
That’s actually an issue, because it varies from player to player. My receiver shows me the name of the song and the date of the song, but I think it depends on what the car’s manufacturer puts in the dashboard and other factors.
There’s been talk that the band members are interested in having shows on Sirius. I know Bobby did one already…
Right. They grabbed Bobby when he was on the East Coast and he did a show about some of the country influences on the Grateful Dead—he played Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and then a Dead version; stuff like that. Kreutzmann has already sent in the first episode of his show, Drumming into the Light. Mickey is promising some serious magic, of course. Each of those guys can contribute as he sees fit and as often as he wants to, and we’ll provide the production assistance they need. It remains to be seen who will do what.
Another thing we’re working on is exclusive live performances. Sirius has a studio right there in their building, and of course we could also do a remote from anywhere. We’re hoping to inspire these guys to do some unique live stuff.
How about the “family” bands—RatDog, Phil & Friends. Are there slots for those here?
Damn straight. There are Phil & Friends tracks in the rotation, there are RatDog tracks in the rotation, there are Jerry and Bob solo projects in the rotation. I put a whole bunch of Mickey stuff in the system. He’s about to release remastered versions of Diga and various other albums, and we’ll make sure they’re represented as well. We've aired some complete RatDog shows, and we’ll get some complete Phil & Friends shows up there, too.
Basically, anything that relates to those guys and we can use is fair game. Railroad Earth has been doing “The Wheel” and I’m waiting for them to come up with a performance of that we can put on. Hot Buttered Rum did a nice version of “Cumberland Blues.” The Waybacks’ do some Dead songs, and they've performed with Weir. Ollabelle, which was part of “The American Beauty Project” in January, do a beautiful version of “Brokedown Palace,” and I’m hoping to get that. And so on.
There’s no shortage of material…and now there’s no shortage of air time.
That’s right. There’s still a lot to be done and other areas I’m hoping we’ll be able to explore through various specials and other programming. It’s too early to know exactly where this thing is going to go, but so far it’s been pretty cool.
For a free online trial of Sirius’s Grateful Dead channel, go to www.sirius.com/gratefuldead.
I am not clear on the nature of your complaint, Frankly.
We are working to put more extended jam sequences into the library. And when we started going through the library t see what needed to be added and trimmed, "How many 'Me and My Uncles' do we need?" is precisely how I framed the question. Personally, I think we need a lot of "Truckin'"s and "Uncle John's Bands," especially when they're presented in the context of 30- and 40-minute sequences.
The decision was made not to have DJs before I was brought in as a consultant, but I agree with it. Less talk, more music.
We are developing some new features that will include talk, e.g. a "Roots and Branches" segment that will pair up songs the GD covered with the band's version and GD originals with covers by other people.
If you're asking about advertising time, I suspect you aren't actually listening to the channel. There is no advertising at all on Sirius 32.
The channel plays a lot of full shows, lots Dead shows I've never heard! plus "today in Deadhead history".
HOW MANY ME AND MY UNCLE DO WE NEED??NATURALLY AS MUCH AS DAVID DECIDES?AND HOW MANY BERTHAS,UNCLE JOHNS BAND,TRUCKIN ETC.DO WE NEED?YOU CANT HAVE A DJ OUT THERE PLAYIN MUSIC FOR SIX HOURS?OF COURSE YOU CANT,BUT YOU CAN HAVE A BUNCH OF DJs,WHO EACH DO A PORTION?BUT THEY WOULD WANT MONEY:A COMP WORKS FOR FREE.....A DREAM COME TRUE::YOU TAKE ALL THIS WONDERFUL MUSIC?THROW IT INTO A MACHINE AND OUT COME THE DOLLARS!!!!P:S:HOW MANY ADVERTISING TIME PER HOUR THERE WILL BE?SORRY DAVID,I CANT BELIEVE THAT YOURE THE ONLY COMPETENT PERSON ON GD?EVEN IF YOU LOVE TO ACT THAT WAY..SOME SONGS FROM DEADICATED?YOURE TALKING 24 HOURS MAN.......REMEMBER ME?SAYING THAT 6 MONTH ATER THEY START THE MAINSTREAM WILL SLOWLY POUR IN ....WANNA BET?
So what do you think will happen when the two satellite systems merge? Do you think the Grateful Dead channel will survive? Personally, I doubt it would being such a niche market. This is a good example of why the merger is not a good thing for the customer base of either service.
Greg S. (Phoenix)
micgram1999, "why do you have to cut china cat and not play i know you rider.it is always one or the other. "
Dgans, "We're workin' on it. "
This passed Monday on 12-17-2007 at 6:45am California time, what to my awakening ears hear? A "China Cut Sunflower -> I Know You Rider". 1 word, Awesome!
This wasn’t just the recorded track songs put back to back, they were actually from (at least to my ears due to a half second of no music playing & the tempo & bridge were 2 different styles) I’m guessing the songs were provided by 2 different concerts. Now that was pretty interesting to hear.
I just hope this was not just coincidental that this happened as it was a good positive sign of things to come!
What I was wondering was could there be a possible way in the future to see what concert the current song is being played from or if it's from a recorded studio album? It’s probably way too much data entry but I think somewhere down the line this would be pretty cool information to know what period the song came from.
I know during the day when the full concerts are played the exact opposite happens. The name & date of the concert appears but not the songs playing at the current time. Again, current technology may not be able to do this, but hell, who’d thought a day would come that this type of 24/7 channel would be possible on the airwaves?
In closing, I love the station & the effort the crew is putting on to have great music & provide some historical information from time to time.
Great job & Thank You so much!
Enjoy the Holiday Season!
yesterday, while staining trim. I don't know what got me higher the music or the smell of the stain! :)
HeyNow!!! - Sirius 32 is the gig - great variety, not too many repeats, but overall AWESOME
except for one thing - no Robert Hunter solo in the Roots and Branches - perhaps dgans can shed just a little light on this - while were at it - what about some solo Brent (ie Berkeley Benefit gig or others)
peace for those who need it, love for all, and Keep the Spirit Alive!
"Between the two slices of bread in the sandwich of hypocrisy, there is often more than one sandwich, making it difficult to eat in the dark. However, there is always a flashlight in the Thermos!" - R Hunter
why do you have to cut china cat and not play i know you rider.it is always one or the other.why can`t you play jams.i mean 3 or 4 songs that go together.
We're workin' on it. Before the channel launched, when they were loading the servers up with music, the tracks were ripped from CDs and those all-important sequences were pried apart in a most unnatural way. We hit the ground running and we've been catching up as time permits. I have visited the Sirius offices in NYC twice and spent some serious time with the channel manager, Jessica Besack, cleaning up the library.
We also agree with you completely about the need for more long sequences of songs, and we're getting more jams and medleys into the mix all the time.
We do play three complete concerts every day, and of course David Lemieux's "This Day in GD History" often features long jams.
All good things in all good time, as the man said.
I'll do my harumphing about that "self-important" bit in private...