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.
These Golden Road and GRTUD alter egos have been confusing since they got on this site. Verbal Pranksters they are. The strangest thing is I am usually following where they are at. And when I can't follow them and get confused I just listen to the music play. That always helps.
If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
Hey Gans, is there a petition or something the poor guy should sign? I suggest you give him a reasonable idea or (knowing him the way I do) he's likely to start assembling torches and pitchforks for an angry mob (and I'll undoubtbly be roped into being a member). He's still pissed over what Marconi did to him on the whole radio thing. I'm surprised he's even considering the service, at all.
That rug really tied the room together...
I want this service (even though I said, at one time, I'd never pay for radio) but I just bought a Denon receiver which only supports XM. I just don't have the money to change my equipment at this time, damn. Any suggestions?
"All energy flows according to the whims of the Great Magnet. What a fool I was to defy him."
Your first show was 5/8/77 - what a day to get on the bus!
The other day I heard "Good Lovin" with Lowell George on lead vocals- awesome. It was a studio jam from the "Shakedown Street" sessions, which he produced.
That's a bonus track on the Shakedown Street remaster - Jerry on pedal steel, too, right?
Someone asked why the GD Hour is not featured on this channel. To that I say, whats the point? GDH never used complete shows
Sure it does. They're just broken up over four or five weeks!
Its only right that David is at the helm for this.
I'm not at the helm, but I am within shouting distance of the captain :^) and enjoying my part in the experiment.
Sirius Dead Channel is the Shit. It's great. I think Gans is on the money on the "how to" of how its being handled. He's got the experience and access to it all. You're never going to make everyone happy. Thats part of life. I've seen the Dead 726 times starting with 5-8-77 as my first. I have thousands of tapes collected over the years. I can always listen to what I have but I have kept my dial glued to Sirius 32 since it came on line. I've heard so much great stuff and excellent quality on some of the more obscure tracks. I especially like the segments of different jams from the Fall of '76 from a while back. Thats a great series. Hate to sound like a kiss ass but I spent nearly 2 years of my life actually at a dead show so, come on its fucking Grateful Dead on the radio 24/7. It's amazing.... I hope its built to last and doesn't go the way of the Stones and Who.
Grateful Dead Hour is great, but this Sirius channel is unreal. The other day I heard "Good Lovin" with Lowell George on lead vocals- awesome. It was a studio jam from the "Shakedown Street" sessions, which he produced. Someone asked why the GD Hour is not featured on this channel. To that I say, whats the point? GDH never used complete shows, whereas this channel has EVERYTHING. Its only right that David is at the helm for this.
If you're a listener AND a collector, then you're probably a Deadhead. ;^)
And if you require that all things fall into either/or, yes/no, good/bad, genius/snot-nosed opportunist categories then you're probably either a small-minded whiner or a bumptious fool. If you have to make a choice, then the choice is yours. Sure, it's a bit of a fluff piece, but I don't expect to see hard-nosed journalism here. I found it very informative.
The question I didn't see get asked is, "How do you feel about Sirius not choosing to use past GDH shows as a valid resource to fill an hour of programming time each day for the next three years?", but I think I know the answer...mildly insulted, but not worth getting worked up about. It probably saved Sirius a buck or two, but I think David is concentrating on what is more important...making music. Sharing recorded music from the past takes the back seat to that, as it should, though it's still a hell of a fine thing to do.
Thanks, David, and the rest of you cool froods, too.