radio has the radio industry in a frenzy and listeners in
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
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
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?