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Old 10-03-2002, 06:38 PM   #1
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Satellite radio’s challenge to the conventional dial
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Default Satellite radio’s challenge to the conventional dial

Heed the Signal
Satellite radio’s challenge to the conventional dial

by Mike Janssen

"THE IMAGINATION," SAID MARSHALL McLUHAN, "IS MOST creative in acoustic space." If that's true, no medium ignites the imagination more than radio. Radio contracts distances between ideas, and juxtaposes words and music in unexpected ways; it is widely accessible and relatively cheap to produce.

And yet we're told radio is dying, sick with rampant consolidation and the dearth of creativity in big radio owners such as Clear Channel and Infinity. Then again, maybe there's hope: Radio's times of greatest change have come on the cusp of technological advances. The invention of television and the introduction of the FM band, for instance, pushed broadcasters to both spice up playlists and strengthen ties to their communities. Today, there's more tech abuzz, in the form of satellite radio and Internet radio, both of which -- if they thrive -- might offer audiences an end-run around the mediocrity of conventional radio, or at least force it to shape up.

For a monthly fee, two companies, XM Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio, each beam 100 channels of music and talk programming from satellites to specially equipped radios. They offer little to no advertising and niche genres of all kinds of music -- two qualities in direct counterpoint to the glut of ads and thin musical selection on commercial radio. It's rare to find even one station playing classical music in most cities, but XM and Sirius offer channels devoted to symphonic, chamber and vocal traditions. Jazz subdivides into straight-ahead, contemporary, Latin and smooth.

On top of that, the technology of satellite radio endows it with unique advantages over traditional radio. In theory, you can drive hundreds of miles and pick up the same station -- no fade-outs or static. And the digital, static-free sound, though somewhat tinny around the edges, is crisp and rich enough to put both FM and AM to shame.

It tests my memory to recall the last time commercial radio turned me on to something new, but over a week of sampling satellite's offerings, I happily discovered too many genres to exhaust and songs by Gomez, Traffic and Louis Jordan that I didn't know I liked. XM launched last September and now claims 137,000 subscribers. Sirius, which rolled out nationally July 1, has less than 10,000. Those willing to pay for the privilege of a varied musical catalog ought to hope that satellite radio continues to draw an audience.

Earthbound broadcasters have been readying a response to Sirius and XM. Some hope their impending conversion to digital broadcasting will help by upgrading their sound quality to CD-like levels. Internet radio, on the other hand, poses less of a threat. It's not yet in the car, where radio rules over other media, and recent royalty decisions have already shoved dozens of Webcasters offline. But it's hard to imagine how even the government and restrictive corporations could curb smaller operations such as decentralized peer-to-peer Webcasting. As wireless networking and portable Web radios become more feasible, Net radio will once again challenge the conventional dial.

"What's interesting about satellite radio is the threat it poses to ordinary AM and FM," says Jesse Walker, author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America. "If it takes off, you're going to have this big alternative coming built into new cars, and they're going to take that placeless, standardized radio and do it better." Much the same can be said of Internet radio, which mainlines narrow genres of music directly to listeners, in part obviating the purpose of most commercial radio.

But AM/FM radios have a leg up: They're rate-free, cheap and everywhere, and better poised to reach the largest possible audience. Walker, for one, believes that conventional broadcasters might be forced to exploit that potential out of sheer necessity. He looks to the '50s for an example, when the new frontier of television lured advertisers from AM radio. Stations tested new programming approaches in their bid for survival. Some catered to African-Americans, encouraging hosts to cultivate lively personas and broach social and political issues of concern to their listeners, sowing the seeds for the noncommercial community radio of the '60s.

"People were forced to experiment, and in that space, at least temporarily, people were able to do interesting things," he says. "Satellite radio and the general economic threat to normal commercial and public radio can open up a space for experimentation that will perhaps allow people to take the kinds of risks that, at this point, the radio business is pathologically afraid of."

Conventional radio won't change unless it's forced to, and new programming, rather than mere technical improvements like an upgrade in sound quality, will distinguish it from the competition. Programmers must pioneer ways to attract listeners by loosening formats, harvesting new reporting and storytelling talent, and returning to covering local issues. Already in public radio, stations are hoping to hit satellite radio's Achilles' heel -- its lack of local content -- by investing in new local talk shows.

Within a few months, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to announce a standard for the transition to digital transmission. Not only will the front-running technology purportedly improve fidelity on the AM and FM bands, but it could potentially enable one station to become two or more stations. Digital signals occupy less bandwidth than analog. So a station could, for example, broadcast its current service in high-quality sound and still send a second, lower-fi signal carrying totally different programming.

This interests public broadcasters more than their commercial counterparts, because public stations already have more programming at their disposal than they can use and less competition from other broadcasters to worry about. Moving their talk programming to secondary channels would free space on their primary services for genres of music that get precious little airplay today, such as folk, straight-ahead jazz and truly alternative rock. Listeners hungry for new music won't have to go as far afield as satellite radio or the Internet -- it'll be right there on our old friends, AM and FM.

These new technologies will combine and collide in myriad ways, each establishing its own niche while goading others to newer heights of innovation. At the very least, new choices in radio offer more ways to tell commercial radio that it no longer fills a need. We can best reform conventional radio simply by turning it off, exploring other audio frontiers and telling its programmers how to win us back.

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Old 10-10-2002, 11:17 AM   #2
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Default Re: Satellite radio’s challenge to the conventiona

How in the F can people even listen to FM anymore? I flipped it on the other day to see if I was missing anything, and I could not find any music for approx 5 min. straight! Every station was doing commercials at the same time. Then.... when they did get back to the music it was the same old crap from a couple years back! Nothing new or exciting. Oh, and the static!!! Can u believe we used to listen to all that static?
It is time to remove that steel whip antenna from your car folks! Besides, all it does is make noise when you are whipping down the highway at 110 mph! Take that thing off!!! Get some class! Get a life!
F regualr radio! They blow! Blow I say!!
With love and respect...
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Old 10-18-2002, 04:30 PM   #3
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I installed an FM modulated unit as an add-on to the factory stereo a couple months back.

Since then, I think I've shut the Sirius off about twice, and then it was to listen to something on a local NPR station. Other than that, the Sirius is almost always on.

What surprises me the most is that pre-Sirius, about all I listened to was news and talk. Post-Sirius, about all I listen to is music.

Yeah, FM has lost it for me, completely.
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Old 10-19-2002, 09:21 PM   #4
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It's funny how your listening can change when you actually find stuff you WANT to listen to.

My drive-time listening was WGST, occasionally WSB here in Atlanta. I was leaning more towards WSB because the afternoon talk jock on WGST (which I listened to for, oh, 6 years+ now) was starting to become rather stupid and offensive in his pushing for ratings. I was turning off the radio when carrying my family - because I didn't want my 4-year old to hear what was coming out of the radio.

With Sirius, I listen to jazz, Dance, classical, Broadway - CNN, Fox, Bloomberg, I've even listed to 180, the Trucker's channel. About the only stuff I WON'T listen to are the gospel shouters (like The Word) and the Rap channels. Everything else is great.

It's made MY life (at least, the time I spend in the car) a LOT more pleasant.

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