The next big thing has arrived…or has it? In the golden age of radio, which was brief due to the advent of television, experts were predicting the end of newspapers. When TV debuted, radio received its death sentence. ‘Round the clock cable news stations were supposedly killing network news, while the invention of the internet was to destroy television newscasts. None of these media outlets have completely been outdated. But what of the new wave of technology; satellite radio?
In the 1950’s radio programs offered much variety, but in later years, corporations became involved, slowly shifting the medium of radio from a creative, fresh outlet to a business oriented, money-making machine. Older disc jockeys can tell of battles with producers over becoming corporate run, more mainstream and a slave to bringing in the ratings, which translate to higher advertising sales. Illegal and legal digital downloads have already made a sizable dent in record sales. Companies have combated that somewhat with digital downloads of albums and re-releases of albums with special features and bonus tracks. Radio has faded into background noise; they are run by large companies, offer the same play-lists, and very few radio personalities can keep an audience, and advertisers interested. Many long-time stations have had to switch formats to try and regain listeners. Jobs in radio are tough to come by as well, as one person can be hired to be producer, announcer and engineer at a low wage, done only for the love of radio.
The goal of satellite is to once again breathe life into the world of radio, but at the old format’s expense. The differences of the two are a give and take. Terrestrial radio offers locality. The radio personalities have regional familiarity, so if a disc jockey were to talk about a little restaurant around the corner, or the neighborhood school, local listeners can associate with their comments. Local flare, whether in regards to a small station in a tiny town or a major radio station covering the tri-state area is important. Listeners enjoy hearing about things they know; events, culture, way of life. Another advantage is that news can be heard immediately. Traffic reports, weather updates, and breaking news can be on the air within seconds, whereas on a nationally syndicated radio program, it would be absent or delayed. Terrestrial radio is also a strong part of American culture. Some stations and radio personalities have transcended generations; as people grow and have families, new listeners are inherited. All these qualities of terrestrial radio are available…for free.
Satellite radio offers a variety of programming with hundreds of channels to choose from. Celebrities have been tapped to do promo spots and shows. Obsessed fans of these famous people can tune in and listen to them for advice, music, or comedy. The appeal to subscribe is present. There’s no need to listen to mundane programs, playing the same songs, over and over, when by scanning the dial you can find your own kind of sound. Because there are so many channels available, satellite radio is able to better serve the listener by narrowing their niche, instead of broad-basing for a larger target audience. Terrestrial radio cannot offer niche programming because its format must appeal to a large listening audience, as well as advertisers. Satellite is able to take more risks regarding programming because they don’t have the fear of offending advertisers; most of their programs are commercial free. The signal is also stronger; if driving from state to state, it is possible to maintain the enjoyment of listening to your desired channel without the white noise of static.
So are there people out there who are willing to pay for something they can get for free? Sirius and XM satellite radio are betting on it. It is estimated that satellite radio will reach 20 million in the U.S. by the year 2010. If you’re thinking about shelling out 13 bucks a month to hear a better selection of what you can get complimentary, here is how the competition stacks up.
According to RadioSatellite.org, XM has an estimated worth of $3-4 billion, while Sirius is slightly less at $2-3 billion. XM has Washington, DC based headquarters. Sirius makes its primary home in New York City. XM’s signal strength is good for the entire continental U.S. and Canada. Sirius is strong for all of North America, including Canada and Alaska.
As of early 2005, XM has had more subscribers, doubling to over 6.9 million, but Sirius has continued to grow in subscriptions with 4.7 million additions. Both charge $12.95 a month for one account, with family plans differing. $6.99 per month for 2-5 radios is the deal at XM, while Sirius charges the same for up to 4 radios. Activation fees are roughly the same amount. Ten bucks for online, 15 for over the phone. Customer service is available 24/7 for Sirius, and the hours at XM are Monday through Saturday 6am to 2 am, and Sunday, 8 am – 8 pm.
XM has more channels, coming in at over 170, with 90 devoted to music. Sirius has more than 80 channels streaming songs, out of their 165 roster. But while Sirius offers their music programs as a no commercial zone, XM does run advertisements within programs by Clear Channel. XM also rebroadcasts some programming, while Sirius does not. Sirius has stated their library is so large, they’ve ceased to keep track. XM has made claim that their music library contains 2 million songs, filling 96 trillion bytes.
Celebrity hosts on XM’s channels include Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Snoop Dogg and coming this fall, “Oprah and Friends.” Sirius counters with Steve Van Zandt, Martha Stewart, and new to the roster, Barbara Walters. Talk shows include MTV, VH1 and the crass duo of shock jocks Opie & Anthony; Sirius has Court TV, A&E and “king of all media”, as well as modern radio pioneer, Howard Stern. XM carries Major League Baseball, the PGA and temporarily, NASCAR. Sirius features the NFL, the NBA and in 2007, NASCAR will make them their home. Several auto companies have exclusive deals with either XM or Sirius. This somewhat limits the company the buyer chooses to listen to while driving. Some auto makers, such as Volkswagen, are now giving the consumer a choice between the two.
While terrestrial radio has tried to combat the possibly losing battle of satellite with new innovations, satellite has its enemies, too. Stations running the newly styled “Jack” are hoping to entice the listener with whatever song they want to hear, from whatever decade; these music formats play everything from 1970’s classic rock to the ’80’s synthesized sounds to ’90’s punk. Stations are also turning to high-definition radio, streaming their programs online and making their channel available through podcasts. Competition for XM and Sirius isn’t found among run of the mill terrestrial radio, or even each other. CDs, MP3 players, internet radio and podcasts are the enemy. Sirius has used music blogs to draw in audiences, while XM has helped create Inno, a new portable MP3 player that stores up to 50 hours of XM content.
For more information on either satellite companies, please visit www.sirius.com and www.xmradio.com.