Call it blood on the Deep Tracks.
This week, SiriusXM announced a series of changes to its lineup of music channels. The additions include channels devoted exclusively to the oeuvres of Kelly Clarkson and John Mayer, one made up of old-school Latin music, and one each focusing on R&B and hip-hop hits from the 2000s and 2010s. To make room, some pre-existing channels were moved to new slots up and down the dial.
Although these types of tweaks happen every so often at SiriusXM, tell that to the devoted followers of Deep Tracks, the channel that highlights the more obscure and largely forgotten songs from heritage rock acts. Starting immediately, the channel was booted from its normal slot, channel 27, all the way up to 308, the SiriusXM equivalent of Siberia. If that wasn’t enough of a symbolic demotion for some diehards, the company announced that Deep Tracks would still be available on its app and in cars but that, “due to limitations of older technology, some radios may not be able to receive all channels.” (SiriusXM did not respond to a request for further comment on the decision.)
With that, all boomer-rock hell broke loose, and the channel’s Facebook fan page was overrun with irate postings: “We don’t get any respect! Deep Tracks is the only station that plays 20-25-minute tracks from Yes and Genesis.” Or: “I can not and will not support using the app. Fuck the suits. Fuck the app. Fuck 308.” And: “Can someone please tell us why Deep Tracks listeners are the red-headed stepchildren of Sirius?” Some threatened to cancel their subscriptions.
Other reactions were more resigned: “Let’s face it. DT is a dinosaur channel and we’re the dinosaurs. It’ll be there for a while, and then one day it won’t.”
Earle Bailey, the channel’s co-founder and still one of its leading hosts (he disdains the term “disc jockey,” especially since there are no longer any discs), tells Rolling Stone that the blowback is real. “There is a lot of backlash against this decision, and corporate bashing,” he says. “I understand that. But I don’t agree with it. I was told it was a very difficult decision and they know the passion and popularity of the channel.”
For those who may have never fully waded into Deep Tracks, which was launched in 2001 by Bailey and the late satellite-radio pioneer George Taylor Morris, the channel occupies a unique space in modern radio. It’s the place for classic-rock junkies to hear more than the overplayed hits of their longtime faves. Want Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run” or “Maybe I’m Amazed”? You won’t hear those on Deep Tracks, but you will come across “Long Haired Lady” from Ram. In the mood for one of Genesis’ pop hits? Go elsewhere; Deep Tracks unearths burrowed-away treasures like “The Lamia” from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. For casual David Bowie fans, don’t expect “Rebel Rebel.” You’ll get “Where Are We Now?” from his second-to-last record, The Next Day.
That was the case right from the start: The first song ever played on the station was the Steve Miller Band’s “Brave New World,” which isn’t quite up there in popularity with Miller hits like “The Joker” or “Abracadabra.” “The original idea was to have a channel that sounded like everyone’s favorite progressive FM radio channel, like the ones that started in 1968 and 1969,” says Bailey. “We designed it to sound like one of those stations that never had a consultant walk in and ruin it.” For added vintage feel, the station also recruited Jim Ladd, Meg Griffin, and Carol Miller, DJ names that will be familiar to anyone who grew up on the progressive-radio format.
Thanks to its library of more than 20,000 rarely played rock tunes, Deep Tracks has been relentlessly surprising and unpredictable, even for some of the veteran musicians whose songs are kept alive on the channel. “I like it because I hear songs sometimes and think, ‘I don’t know they did that one,’” says Roger Earl of Foghat, whose pounding boogie has been a staple of FM rock formats (and Dazed and Confused) for decades. “They play songs you’re just not going to hear. It’s like the good old days of FM radio.” To his surprise, Earl, who was unaware of the channel change, says he’s heard a few lesser-known songs by his band, like “My Babe” and “Stone Blue.” (He’s also hoping they’ll dip into the band’s upcoming album, Sonic Mojo.)
In light of classic rock’s lower profile in 2023, combined with the increasing number of deaths and farewell tours in the genre, Bailey admits he’s surprised that Deep Tracks exists at all. “I’m happy that my baby is still part of it all,” he says. “In the beginning we wanted to project the image of a stoned-out hippie in the studio choosing these songs. But over 22 years we’ve developed a bit more sophistication as, dare I say, musicologists.”
But Bailey feels his listeners’ frustrations, especially if it means rebooting their car radios or buying a new one. “People aren’t used to getting radio updates, and I understand the consternation,” he says. “I’m gratified by the passion for Deep Tracks from people who suddenly are having trouble finding us. It’s also upsetting. I can’t fix it. I’m just a show host.”