Elvis Radio Honors the King

Satellite Radio Channel Plays the Hits and Obscurities From Graceland

Editor’s note: Elvis Presley, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, would have celebrated his 71st birthday Sunday (Jan. 8).

It’s all-Elvis — all the time. But the radio station is operating from the plaza at Graceland in Memphis, so what would you expect?

While the self-proclaimed King of All Media — shock jock Howard Stern — debuts Monday (Jan. 9) on Sirius Satellite Radio, the real King has attracted loyal subjects there for the past 17 months. Elvis Radio, one of 65 commercial-free channels on the subscription service, is devoted solely to the music and career of Elvis Presley.

Although others have experimented with dedicating an entire radio station to a single act, Elvis Radio is the first to be backed by strong corporate support — in this case from Sirius and Elvis Presley Enterprises, a multimillion-dollar business operating the late singer’s estate.

“I think a lower-powered AM station may have stunted for a couple of weeks or maybe a month with an all-Elvis format,” according to Tony Yoken, Sirius’ operations manager for Elvis Radio. “I think I’ve read that someone gave it a shot on a Beatles station for a week or two. I recall hearing something about a Frank Sinatra format … but I don’t know that these things had the company commitment.”

Sirius and its competitor, XM Satellite Radio, both launched in 2001. Subscribers pay $12.95 a month for access to more than 120 channels of programming at each satellite radio service.

Elvis Radio is one of three Sirius channels currently devoted to a single act. A Bruce Springsteen station was established on a short-term basis to coincide with the recent re-release of his Born to Run album. And although a Rolling Stones channel was initially intended to have a relatively short lifespan, Sirius recently extended the agreement.

Elvis Radio is here to stay, Yoken says, although he notes that operating a niche channel on satellite radio creates unique opportunities and challenges from a programming standpoint.

“When you’re talking about creating something that didn’t exist before … the rules are completely different,” said Yoken, who joined Sirius last year after more than three decades in the radio business. “I’m not here to say there aren’t any rules, but it’s not like anybody hands you a playbook and says, ’Do this.'”

One of the biggest obstacles to playing nothing but Elvis Presley music is the burden of using a relatively small number of songs to fill a 24/7 format.

“The last time I checked, we were pushing about 2,800 or 2,900 titles [recordings of songs],” Yoken said. “If my memory serves me right, I think Elvis recorded somewhere in the neighborhood of about 780-790 [songs] that have been indexed and chronicled — most of those through RCA, some from Sun.”

The watershed is found in the tracks recorded live in concert, including previously unreleased tracks issued by Follow That Dream, a collector’s label authorized by RCA, the company that owns the rights to all of Presley’s recordings. Acknowledging the duplicate versions of Presley’s most popular songs, Yoken says, “I can’t tell you how many dozens of versions of ’Can’t Help Falling in Love’ or ’Suspicious Minds’ or ’That’s All Right’ exist.”

Of course, not everything Presley recorded was on the level of “Mystery Train,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Burnin’ Love” or “Kentucky Rain.” Partly out of the necessity to fill time and provide variety, Elvis Radio places a strong emphasis on music from Presley’s films that dominated his career in the early and mid ’60s.

“We get to play material that in many cases never made it on the radio before,” Yoken said. “Some of this music is really cool and got missed the first time around, so we feel that this is a particular advantage for our subscribers who come to Elvis Radio. They’re hearing stuff they could never really hear before on a regular basis unless they owned the records or the CDs. Although some of the stuff would not be Grammy-award winning material, there are some elements to it that are very cool.”

Elvis Radio air personality Bill Rock hosts Soundtrack Saturday Night each week, and other specialty programs include a Sunday morning gospel show. Presley’s longtime friend, disc jockey George Klein, hosts a show every Friday night.

Referring to Sirius’ partnership with EPE, Yoken said, “Much of the focus is to make sure what we’re putting on our satellite airwaves works nicely with what the public might see if they visit the Elvis.com Web site or, even more importantly, when visitors come to Memphis and Graceland. We want to make sure there is a lot of cooperative content.”

Although Sirius’ reach now extends throughout the U.S. and Canada, Elvis Radio has a small staff of air personalities and support personnel. Because die-hard Elvis fans tend to be experts about any and everything involving the King, it’s essential for the air talent to be authorities, too.

“If you’re going to come to work for us at Elvis Radio, if you don’t know the subject matter, you better go to school and learn it before you pop open the mike,” Yoken said. “Because our listeners will take us to school in a New York second — and they do.”

Yoken stresses he doesn’t personally claim to know everything about the singer who has become the center of his professional life.

“I’m never going to tell you I’m an Elvis expert,” he admitted. “A fan? Yes. A super fan — like a lot of people who listen our channel? Probably not to that level. But when you do the homework and you do the research and this is what you’re trying to create day in and day out, you get smart pretty quick.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.