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Listen Up
By David King

Satellite radio has the radio industry in a frenzy and listeners in a trance

You’ve probably seen them while making your way through traffic: those red or blue glowing boxes that seem to be popping up on more and more dashboards. You’ve likely been warned about them while listening to your car radio. You know, those spots that caution, “Thinking about satellite radio? The fact is, every month tens of thousands of people who have it cancel it.” Or maybe you’ve heard those commercials that masquerade as important real news: “There’s an accident on . . .” and then are interrupted by a prompt to pay a fee if you want to hear the rest of the news.

I’ll admit my first experience with satellite radio was not a good one. It wasn’t the cost of the hardware ($100), as the radio was a gift, nor was it the $12-a-month subscription fee. That seemed almost reasonable to me. I didn’t have reception problems. Most of the time my reception was clearer than that of normal radio, though it was interrupted if I sat under a toll booth or a bridge for a while, as traditional radio sometimes is. The problem was that the awkward, oversized Sirius receiver was installed in my car in such a way that it interfered not only with the passenger’s comfort but also with my ability to shift. Although I enjoyed checking out the genre-focused music channels, more often then not on trips with friends the receiver would be tossed into the back seat, replaced by the sleeker iPod. After purchasing a new car, I wasn’t sure I would even bother to transfer the satellite equipment.

That was until I heard those terribly grating commercials sponsored by “your local radio stations.” Those commercials ramped up as Howard Stern prepared to leave terrestrial radio and move over to the Sirius network. It was only a matter of time before I was asking myself, “What are they so afraid of? Is satellite really that good? Did I really even give it a chance?” Tired of my iPod content and hungry to hear new things, I decided to give it another whirl.

With my new and smaller satellite unit positioned on my dashboard and a lovely remote control in my hand, I clicked on the radio. My first stop was the Left of Center channel, where I heard cuts from the Arcade Fire and the Faint. Then I switched over to Hard Attack, the metal station, and was excited to hear songs by the Dillinger Escape Plan and Neurosis—songs I thought I would never hear broadcast. Then, then there was 1stwave, where I let the tuner linger through a block of songs by Gary Numan, David Bowie, Bauhaus and New Order.

Is satellite radio worth it? If you pay for cable and you spend as much time in your car as you might in front of your TV, it probably is. Satellite radio has the same niche channel programming that cable offers television viewers. Want to bury your head in home improvements, cooking and arts and crafts? Switch over to the Martha Stewart channel. Need to be shocked awake by strippers and sensational celebrity interviews? Click over to the Howard Stern channel. The music channels are quite the same; you never need to escape whatever niche you are interested in. Be lieve me, some people never do feel the need. Many Sternophiles soak up every minute the shock jock is on satellite and that—thanks to satellite radio technology—is almost every minute of the day.

On the other hand, you can scan the best of all worlds and pick and choose programming much as people do with cable TV. However, just as 24-hour television programming has filler and is heavy on reruns, so is the world of satellite radio.

Why are traditional radioheads becoming so afraid of satellite radio? Sirius and XM have yet to turn a profit, and some analysts say they may be paying too much for programming and name recognition. However, with Sirius’s acquisition of Howard Stern, the company managed to do what its competitor and industry leader XM had failed to do: nab a celebrity who could embody the benefits of their medium. While XM has more than its share of celebrity DJs—David Bowie, Elton John, even now Oprah Winfrey—Howard Stern already has proven himself a master of the radio format and a wizard of self- promotion. Sirius managed to take away traditional radio’s biggest name and most effective spokesperson.

Satellite radio’s true advantage over traditional radio is fresh content. Satellite has hired away a good deal of traditional radio’s innovators, and it employs innovators from the realm of the Internet as well, including podcasters. In music programming, satellite breaks new artists every week, as opposed to every couple of years. DJs seem to play music that fits their taste in a single genre; therefore, the programming schedule isn’t drowned by the Nickelbacks, Three Doors Downs and Creeds of the music world. (That is of course unless you like that stuff, in which case there is a channel tailored just for you.) In a lot of ways, satellite radio brings hope to artists who haven’t been able to break down the doors of traditional radio.

When Howard Stern made his switch to satellite earlier this year, there was a frenzy around the format that almost no one else could replicate. And as subscriptions to Sirius radio jumped by the millions, it looked like the frenzy would not stop. But just as with any other pop-culture phenomenon, interest eventually seemed to slow; Stern was back at work away from the TV cameras, behind the radio microphone. Then CBS president Les Moonves did satellite radio a huge favor: He filed a lawsuit against his former employee Stern, claiming Stern had stolen CBS airtime to promote satellite and had hidden his financial arrangement with Sirius. As if advertising satellite radio on their own stations, albeit in a negative way, wasn’t enough! Instantly Stern and satellite radio were on the front page again, while Moonves struggled with Stern’s flagging morning replacements. Haven’t these people heard any press is good press?

In a way, Moonves owed satellite radio that favor. While traditional radio has watched its ratings slide since Stern left, it has received a tradeoff. For a time, the format that seemed to have been killed by the Internet and the iPod is back on people’s minds. Think about it: When was the last time you remember so many people getting excited about radio of any kind?

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