Dec 14, 2020
12 min read
The attic of Geronimo’s New Jersey home has become the default headquarters for SiriusXM’s suite of dance music-driven channels. Besides being on air for the satellite radio company’s flagship BPM channel seven days a week, the mononymous DJ programs BPM’s day-to-day broadcasts and oversees the seven other dance music-driven channels.
From the multi-genre approach of Diplo’s Revolution, to the ubiquitous vibe of Chill, the perennial disco of Studio 54 and more, Geronimo has his finger on the pulse of satellite beats. Now, he and his team push the beat forward with SiriusXM’s first-ever all female DJ event. The bpm EMPOWERED Virtual Festival aims to inspire the next generation of talent, and the whole industry is getting involved.
Inarguably one of the most influential people in dance music, Geronimo spoke to Festival Advisor about his many years in radio, his varied experiences at SiriusXM, and how he has managed to keep electronic dance music on the radio for two decades and counting.
How did you get started with electronic dance music on terrestrial radio?
I worked at a radio station at my college, Kingsborough, in Brooklyn where I grew up. A lot of people that are successful in radio around the country went there. The radio program was really great. It was a dance format during an in-between time where there was nothing available. It was a small wattage, but Brooklyn has a fairly dense population so we had a lot of people listening.
I learned a lot. I realized this is not just a style of music. This is a real culture, but there were very few options for working in radio and doing dance music. There just weren’t any stations [besides a] couple here and there in the Bay Area, Miami, Los Angeles. New York has been able to support dance radio over the last 30 years, for the most part, but it is definitely a battle and a challenge for a variety of reasons. No market can support a full-on dance station.
I got jobs in radio around the country from New Orleans, Louisiana to Mobile, Alabama to Savannah, Georgia and Providence, Rhode Island. Then I got an offer to work at WBLS, a heritage black station in New York. I got to work with legends like Frankie Crocker, Vaughn Harper and DJ Premier. I learned more in a couple of years there than I did at any other radio station. I was there for two years, then they changed format and I lost my job.
I worked for Republic Records for about a year at the very beginning when they were first launching. I think I was employee number three or four. Now they’re a massive powerhouse. But I still had the radio bug. KTU signed on in New York and that was my entry back into radio.
When did you start at SiriusXM?
2001 on the Sirius side. Initially, I was on the air and I was working in programming for Hot 97 in New York. I was there for one year, and that was another great experience. I had heard about satellite radio and I knew some people that I knew from terrestrial radio that had gone over, but admittedly, I wasn’t a believer in it. There’s going to be a satellite, beaming down music, and people are going to pay for it? You have stuff for free, why would people want to pay for that? A friend of mine played me XM for the first time when I was at a music convention in San Francisco. We’re driving around and there were 100 different channels. From that point, I could see myself there. I got hired to be a full-time program director.
How do you describe the styles of the different channels you oversee at SiriusXM?
Our mainstream dance and remixes is BPM. That’s our entry-level dance channel if you’re a casual fan. You’ll hear Tiësto, Kaskade, Armin Van Buuren, Marshmello, Zedd, The Chainsmokers and some of the more well-known artists that have crossed over to pop.
Diplo’s Revolution is curated by Diplo. Nothing gets on the air without his stamp of approval, from the imaging that goes in between the songs to the music itself. As a various tastemaker of various formats, he’s got some pretty wild taste. It all gets on air, from electronic dance music to dancehall.
There’s also Studio 54, which is classic disco and dance. Utopia which is ‘90s and 2000s dance music. Chill which is downtempo and deep house. We’re careful about what we play on there. There’s a specific style that works well as an ambient listening experience. People put it on in the background and keep it on all day. People tell me when they get into Lyfts or Ubers, that’s what they’re always listening to. It’s an easy non-offensive, casual but cool listening experience.
Then there’s a whole bunch of new, extra channels we launched on the SiriusXM app, which are a hybrid version of all those other channels. Those are carefully curated, and they feed from some of the other channels, but nothing will get on without going through me or some of the folks that work with me.
How do you program for the entire continent of North America, not to mention your listeners abroad?
There is a big analytical side to it. We use programs to schedule our music, but nothing will go on the air without a human look-see. That’s what I spend the majority of my day doing: making sure the music is just right for each day, that any 15 minutes you listen to is a good representation of what the whole channel is. The mindset is that people have short attention spans. There are quick stops here and there, and we’re making sure whatever people are listening to is a good representation of what we do 24/7.
But, it is a challenge. Maryland and the DC area have a specific sound they love. New York is a big town for house music, but not the same house music as Chicago or Detroit. It’s a matter of trying to balance things out. It’s all part of what I do each day: making sure I’m not alienating an audience, at the same time trying to educate some regions that don’t know about certain styles or songs.
I hate to make it into science, but there really is a science that goes into it, especially in dance music. There are so many varying styles, there is something scientific about putting that all together and making it not sound like just a big mess or a train wreck. It doesn’t have to be as perfect as a DJ mixing in a club, matching tempo and BPM perfectly, but it’s pretty close to it.
Do you feel that electronic dance music fans more readily subscribe to Sirius XM than fans of other music genres?
The attraction to dance music on satellite radio is because it is something that is not available on terrestrial radio. You could get it on YouTube, and now, the DSPs, but this was a genre that really wasn’t available on local radio, which is where most people were hearing their music that wasn’t their own personal CDs, or tapes before that. That was our foot in the door for dance music. A younger demographic is generally in the car and all of a sudden, they had multiple radio stations serving them.
Does the fact that your audience is subscriber-based, freeing you from relying on ad sales, give you more programming and creative freedom?
There’s never a concern about selling advertising because the music channels are commercial-free. From working with terrestrial radio, especially around this time of year, they run so many commercials because that’s how they pay their bills. You can have a radio station playing 35 minutes of music and 25 minutes of commercials. For us, it’s always about the music.
The other thing is, the majority of our channels are uncensored and all our dance channels are uncensored. We play the music the way the artist wants it to be heard. We don’t have to worry about radio edits. There are times where the only version we get is the edited radio version and our subscribers get very angry. If they’re paying for a subscription, they want to hear the song the way it’s meant to be heard.
You also broadcast from festivals, which brings the music to a much wider audience than it could ever reach with in-person attendees.
Bringing the live festival experience on the radio, unedited, uncut, it’s amazing for the listener. It’s this incredible content that you couldn’t really get anywhere else. It’s allowed us to bring these festivals into cars and onto the apps where people weren’t getting this before. It took the genre to a whole other level. Made it accessible to people that ordinarily wouldn’t hear it, or wouldn’t go to a festival.
Live festival broadcasts have always been an incredible education to me, because you would get to see what works and what doesn’t, what makes the audience tick. From the very beginning when I started on the Sirius side, we started broadcasting Electric Zoo in New York. We’ve also had a partnership with Ultra Festival in Miami. One of my best experiences was broadcasting and seeing Kaskade at Coachella, knowing that he was an important artist for our audience. Breaking through and seeing him perform in front of 80,000 jammed into one of the main stages at Coachella, - because he’s American and we’re serving mostly American and Canadian audiences - people made an emotional connection to him and connected to these broadcasts we would do, and we took it from there.
We had a partnership with EDC. We did the first one they did in LA, and then we did all the subsequent broadcasts in Vegas. It was crazy, because we were live on the air until six in the morning. People driving to work on the East Coast were hearing a live festival from the night before that hadn’t ended yet.
You’re presenting the inaugural bpm EMPOWERED Virtual Festival featuring an all-female line-up. How did that come about?
Rida Naser, who programs BPM along with me, came up with the idea. There are so many great women in music that aren’t highlighted on festival lineups, what if we did a festival that was all women? It’s a great idea in theory, but I thought it would be very difficult to get everybody to buy in. Rida persevered and reached out to management and record labels and the artists themselves. The feedback we got back the most was, “I would love to do this, but I don’t want to do it because I’m a woman, I want to do it because I’m a DJ.” The line-up happens to all be women, but they’re playing what they like and what best represents them. Rida put together this incredible lineup that’s pretty impressive and fairly complex.
You also have an impressive cross-section of women working in the dance music industry involved with EMPOWERED.
The idea was, what can we do to enhance the DJ experience? Maybe we can highlight some of the more prominent women in the music business and even internally at SiriusXM, some of the people who work really hard behind the scenes but never get the recognition on the air, to introduce the DJ sets. Renee Brodeur who works with Diplo and Krista Carnegie who is the brains behind Mo Shalizi and the whole Marshmello phenomenon. We have people who run record labels from the promo side to the A&R side. Ayelet Shiffman who oversees promotion for Island and has been very active and prominent with dance music over the last 15 to 20 years. Gina Tucci who has been amazing at finding artists and hits for Big Beat. Some artists are involved like VASSY who has done great songs with David Guetta and Tiësto.
EMPOWERED sounds like an enhanced, albeit virtual version of having subscribers come to the SiriusXM studios for a DJ performance.
There was a time where once a month, we had a small audience come up and we’d do a little rave inside the big fishbowl studio at SiriusXM. There is something really special about our subscribers, our audience being with 50 other people in a small room with a big DJ.
There are always communities that develop around radio stations. SiriusXM has been very proactive in generating that sense of community with the physical presence of the on-air talent and the guest artists at the station’s headquarters—at least pre-pandemic.
There are no two days that are alike at Sirius XM - ever. When everybody is there, it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. One of my favorite memories, which shows the crazy variety of having so many people from different walks of life working there, was at the copy machine with David Johansen and Kool DJ Red Alert. Two people who are legends in their own genres and styles, but now known to each other. I am helping both of them figure out where to put the paper in the machine.
Something similar happened with Curtis Blow and Little Steven who has Underground Garage on SiriusXM. They bumped into each other in the lobby not knowing that they both worked there. They worked on the legendary Sun City project in the mid-‘80s and hadn’t seen each other since then. That would happen once a month with different people. That was the magic of everybody being there and being present. Little things like that are super magical, very much like the old days you hear about.
The bpm EMPOWERED Virtual Festival launches on Saturday December 12th and will rebroadcast on Monday December 14th.