Reading about the advent of satellite radio is a little like talking to a well-meaning, yet technologically un-savvy parent—the mix of wonderment and skepticism is, well, adorable. It was way back in 1992 that the Federal Trade Commission began apportioning frequencies on which satellites, from way far away, could “broadcast compact-disk-quality digital sound to homes and cars.” Though, one barrier still stood between you and digital tune-age, as the New York Times noted, “Listeners will first have to buy entirely new radios, which do not yet exist.”
Fast-forward to 2001, and the launch of the newly christened Sirius Radio’s first satellites. I would be remiss not to mention that the currently active pair, floating some 22,000 miles above the Equator, are named Rhythm and Blues. Rhythm and Blues can both receive a signal from ground transmitters, then bounce it back down to us here on earth, where listeners get music, talk radio, sports—whatever they’ve tuned into on the proverbial dial. One of these 30 million people is my dad, in his car, listening to the only station I care about: Escape on SiriusXM.
In my family, we lovingly call Escape “The Xylophone Station.” It is the softest of soft music lineups, a veritable treasure trove of mellow grooves. Or in SiriusXM’s words, “instrumental covers of the great melodies of the past 80 years,” which, well, is pretty much everything you can think of, and things you probably never thought needed an easy instrumental cover.
Tune in to Escape on channel 69, and you’ll find music wasn’t made to do anything but make you feel good. It’s all recognizable melodies, removed of lyrics that you can’t quite remember anyway. “The station does not elicit participation in its selections, so the listener is not ‘distracted’ by noise [in] its broadcast,” wrote James, a SiriusXM Escape Facebook fan. Indeed, Escape doesn’t ask you to engage but passively absorb, like a filter-feeder that lives on vibraphone-heavy covers. In this way, it’s transcendently weird. Escape asks you to do just what its name suggests: with familiar tunes, remember, but at the same time, forget.
Access to Escape, along with SiriusXM’s 100-plus other channels, costs $15 a month. This could be a tough sell given that it’s hard to beat free. But, Sirius offers something that that “terrestrial” radio (meant to remind you that SPACE RADIO is just naturally cooler) does not. Freedom. Whether it’s Elvis Radio (that’s Elvis, 24/7), Ozzy’s Boneyard (Prince-of-Darkness-approved metal hits), or even Howard Stern, your favorite channels are available anytime, anywhere, mostly commercial-free—and in Stern’s case, exclusively on SiriusXM. Each channel is designed not only around a music genre but kind of identity you can rally around. That’s until SiriusXM removes your favorite channel from its lineup.
“With all the stress in today’s hectic world, SiriusXM offers a calming alternative in a soft music channel called ‘Escape,’” wrote listener Mike Muench in the opening statement of a change.org petition he started, shortly after Escape’s disappearance in August 2015. Mike’s straightforwardly named Keep the mellow Escape music channel on the SIRIUS XM radio line-up “started… with a single signature” and gained 1,156 supporters along the way. Comments on the petition range from disbelief to disappointment and threats of discontinuing SiriusXM service—as well as a few appeals to reason like, “helps reduce road rage!” The accompanying, still-semi active Facebook page, Preserve Escape on SiriusXM has at the time of this writing 456 fans, whose affinity for riffs on the KEEP CALM AND [DO SOMETHING] meme cannot be overstated.
“I don’t remember hearing anything from Sirius about it, but I turned on the car one day and all of the sudden Escape was gone,” said Kathy, a fan I spoke to. She, like the many other Escape devotees online, felt unmoored by the channel’s unceremonious departure from the spacewaves. Escape is not the first or only station to get the axe. Oprah Radio, the “one fucking punk channel,” and Planet Jazz are just a few of the castoffs in SiriusXM’s semi-regular (and frankly kind of a dystopian nightmarish-sounding) “reorderings” that help maintain “an innovative, exciting listening experience.” It’s just that other channels went more quietly into the night.
Sirius was quick to recommend its other soft-music options to customers, but none were quite right. Too jazzy, too much singing, too much popular music, not enough of the classics. “It was horrible,” Kathy added, “Blend, or whatever the new station was called.” Second-bests always pale in comparison when we’re talking about love
There have, of course, long been ways to personalize your radio-listening experiences, way before either Rhythm or Blues hitched a ride up through the atmosphere. Call-in requests, countdowns, leaping from your bed at just the right moment to hit “record” on your tape deck so you could capture a song for later listening pleasure; all these come with a twinge of nostalgia, considering how easy it is to hear whatever, whenever these days. But, it’s also that there was this actual person at the other end of the experience, whether their presence is only implied—like, emphatic listener, woo-ing an introduction to a song you also happen to like—or is as immediate as you, telling radio host Delilah about your breakup.
To label these transactions a “relationship” is overselling it, to be sure. These kinds of “alone, together” bonds formed with people not in your immediate vicinity are one-sided, and tenuous at best. But fragility makes them sort of precious, rather than expendable. SiriusXM, its channels being both nationally broadcast and intensely classified, breaks these small connections through both dilution and atomization. When everything is the same everywhere, and yet everyone else is different, the project of recognition turns inward. I know me, I know what I like—it’s a kind of everywhere I go, there I am exercise each time you tune in. Technology makes it easier than ever to tailor one’s media intake to match one’s desires. But what happens if, instead of an altar, we’re left with an island?
“Comments from unhappy Escape listeners continue to be plentiful on the SXM Radio Facebook page … [and] are even spilling over onto unrelated posts there,” an update on the Preserve Escape page read, commending Escapers for making their voices heard. Between August and September 2015, group members were continually urged to call or write to SiriusXM and to escalate threats of cancellation if their demands weren’t met. The message was simple: bring back Escape, or lose us forever.
It’s unclear how many complaints Sirius received. (The best estimate is from a cartoon posted on the PreserveXM page, joking that Sirius must’ve hired “countless” new employees to handle the call volume.) I reached out to SiriusXM through several channels for their side of the story and only received one reply from an anonymous rep from the Listener Care team. “We did receive a fair amount of calls, emails etc. and we took on feedback seriously… there really is not much more we can elaborate on,” they wrote. If anyone at Sirius was ever truly sorry, or suffered for their decision to take Escape out of the lineup, we’ll never know. All they can say is, “Below is our company approved language… Hope this helps.”
Many listeners let us know their passion for Escape when we removed it from the channel lineup. We got the message: there is no substitute for the instrumental melodies on Escape. Our listeners’ enthusiasm is amazing to hear, and it made our decision to bring back Escape an easy one.
Escape came back on October 8, 2015—a little less than two months after it vanished. But in that short time, a community of Escapers had formed, and they found a connection through identification, bonded together through commiseration. In some ways, it’s not much different than giving your friends a shout-out with help from the DJ—it’s away, through the wires, to say I’m here, can you hear me? But as we’re moving toward increasingly self-centered ways of tuning in, it’s worth noticing the moments when reaching out to find sympathy instead of empathy. We’re still asking to be heard, but what, in turn, are we listening for?
Online, Escapers expressed their excitement, with the caution of those for whom the memory of loss is still fresh. “Let’s all work together to maintain the status-quo… but if SiriusXM ever attempts to remove ESCAPE again, we will be back and vigilant to fight again.”
Kathy found Escape reappeared the same, sudden way it had left; she turned the radio on and there it was, like it’d always been. “I was so happy,” she said, “I just hope it’s for good.”
Jamie Burke hopes to meet your cat someday.