Friday, December 02, 2005


When we were children, did any of you ever speculate whether or not someday down the road we'd pay for cable radio in our houses and cars? I did. It was sort of like the time when I speculated that maybe someday I would be able to type words into my Commodore 64 and have my friends see it pop up on their screen at their house. If only I'd been technologically gifted, I might've made a mint with that. Of course the days of these speculations were days when the year 2005 seemed like an infinity of time away. These were days when people dreamed that in 2005 we'd have flying cars, a la The Jetsons or be riding hoverboards like Marty McFly.

But, sure enough, the days have come when subscriber radio is not only a reality, but a premium choice. Companies like XM and Sirius have revolutionized the way we get our programming, not only in the car, but also in the home, at work, or when we're out exercising.

Unlike other innovations, satellite radio has been a pretty easy sell. Radio has seen a decline in quality over the recent decade, with giant conglomerates (most notably Clear Channel) taking advantage of deregulation and buying up scads and scads of stations and morphing them into a homogenous blend with pre-fabricated playlists, computerized DJs, and little regard to local and regional interests. FM radio has become generic, shunning innovation for conformity, and avoiding controversy out of fear of the FCC. Advertising spots are often longer than the actual song, with people often making their entire commute hearing nothing but commercials. Even the refuge of AM offers little diversity with sports talk and conservative commentary dominating. Therefore, when consumers were given the opportunity to subscribe to XM or Sirius, told they could hear their favorite genre of music commercial-free, get a variety of news and talk stations, and finally hear what they wanted, many rushed to join.

Nowadays, subscriptions to satellite radio are booming. Sirius picked up a big boost with the addition of Howard Stern, and the christmas season is always kind to this sort of technology.

Left hanging is traditional land-based radio. According to recent articles, the National Association of Broadcasters is trying to attack this trend with a new campaign. Their slogan, "You Shouldn't Have To Pay," is disingenuous at best. Radio isn't free as it is now, and consumers do pay by having to listen to huge blocks of advertising which take 15 to 30 minutes from each programming hour. Giving up 50 percent of your listening time to be bombarded by commercials is hardly free.

Unfortunately for the NAB, paying for satellite radio hardly seems to be an issue with customers. Sure the initial cost of buying the equipment can be steep, but devices like XM's Roady 2 are easily within most peoples' price ranges, and the $12.95 monthly charge for XM's service is hardly noticable among the bills the average American pays. Not to mention the fact that billing is done via direct draft, which only further ensures that the consumer doesn't have to think about the cost.

The NAB spots also emphasize their 24/7 news coverage as if you can't get that from satellite radios. Honestly, if you had to choose between a service that has one lonely little news hack telling you the news and a service that brings you Fox, CNN, Bloomberg, BBC, Headline News, etc etc...which would you choose? Credit the NAB with only one fact: you don't get local interest stories with satellite. On the other hand, newspapers only cost a few quarters. I'll grant that XM or Sirius aren't going to give you traffic updates if you live in Boofoo Egypt, but there are traffic channels for most major metropolitan areaS, and there are plans to expand these and add more cities. And as for talk radio programs, not only do you get the significant lineup of conservative commentators (Dr. Laura, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, etc) but you also get many liberal hosts (Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, et al.)

Granted you can't get broadcasts of your local high school football games via satellite (yet) but you CAN get everything else in sports. XM boasts the entire Major League Baseball schedule as well as NASCAR and golf and NCAA basketball. Sirius has the NFL and many other sporting events. And if no games are on, there are always ESPN Radio, Sporting News Radio, and Fox Sports Radio to sate your sporting appetite.

Truthfully, if there are things that you still want to hear on terrestrial radio, all you have to do is turn off the satellite unit and scan your FM band. Installing XM or Sirius doesn't prevent you from being able to access the public airwaves. Ideally, it augments it and rounds out the complete package.

The NAB made sure to bring in lots of recording artists to drive home its point, but it's painfully clear that music is the biggest selling point of satellite radio. I live in one of the largest markets in this area of the country, but the diversity doesn't even begin to pale in comparison to XM's lineup. If, for instance, you feel like listening to an entirely 80's lineup, it's there for you. If you want jazz, you get jazz. If you want old-time country, you can listen to it. If raw gangsta rap is your thing, there's a channel for that. And best of all, you guessed it, NO COMMERCIALS. It's what music lovers dream of.

This is not to say that satellite radio is without flaws. It's not. But it's a young medium and will continue to mature in time.

Unfortunately the NAB and radio itself have been lagging behind of technology for a long while. Remember that these were the people who were afraid of people putting cassette and CD players in cars, because (gasp) people were actually turning off the radio and listening to what they wanted to hear without commercials. Lately that problem has only been compounded by the outbreak of digital media and car devices that can play mp3s. And now comes along satellite radio, a medium that appears to be able to trump both terrestrial radio AND car CD players in getting listeners' attention.

It's almost laughable that radio is going high def now. It seems quaint that their newest features are the ability to make your car set show the song name and artist and sort stations by genre. They've been caught lagging in a big way that no advertising campaign can ever hope to get past.

Is there a solution for radio? Perhaps. However, the solution is not to be found in looking toward the future. Others have already beat you there. Look to the past and the glory days of radio and try to recapture the things that made radio great. Put away that corporate mindset and remember when radio was an art form, when it served the community, and when it made us sit there and actually listen.

Then, and only then, can the NAB stop worrying.


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