Satellite Radio

Does it annoy you when you press the scan button on your car radio and it whirls through the scores of stations but doesn’t land on anything that appeals to you? Does it bug you that music stations tend to play the same songs over and over, completely missing what you want to hear? Does it drive you nuts when you are enjoying a certain radio station and the signal fades, skips or is covered with static? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions and you have an extra ten bucks a month folded away in your pocket, you could be a strong candidate for pay-radio or, as its purveyors would rather portray it, satellite-delivered subscriber radio. It’s coming sooner than you think.

By now, many people have experienced the joys of satellite-delivered television. Getting some 200 news, sports and movie channels via DirecTV has many consumers spitting on their former cable TV providers and turning up their noses at over-the-air reception through conventional TV antennas. Soon, two very similar and highly competitive direct-satellite radio services will offer a wide range of programming choices beamed directly to your car. The race is on between these services to see which will hit the market first. And these aren’t penny-ante enterprises. Both services have some heavyweight backing in the form of auto manufacturers like Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler plus the support of a wide variety of consumer electronics manufacturers who are gearing up to provide the necessary hardware.

At this stage in the race Sirius Satellite Radio is an odds-on bet to beat its Federal Communications Commission-licensed competitor, XM Radio, to establish consumer service. Sirius already has two satellites in orbit with a third satellite scheduled to go up on November 30th. The company announced plans to begin broadcasting its audio entertainment service in January, but has postponed that date and is expected to hold off on broadcasting until some receivers are actually in consumer hands. That could come as soon as the second or third quarter of next year. In fact, essentially no American consumer currently owns equipment that would allow the reception of satellite-delivered programming, so the race to deliver a service in operation first might well be moot.

How do you get this commercial-free panacea for the radio blues? Sirius has alliances to install three-band (AM/FM/SAT) radios in Ford, Chrysler, BMW, Mercedes, Mazda, Jaguar and Volvo vehicles as well as Freightliner and Sterling heavy trucks. XM Radio is closely allied with General Motors. Both have established alliances with numerous electronics manufacturers to market satellite-ready radios and satellite-adapters that will allow radios in existing vehicles to receive satellite broadcasts.

Technically, the systems the companies will use are similar, though far from identical, and compatibility of the two systems could become an issue. Sirius Radio’s satellites are being deployed in inclined elliptical orbits that ensure elevation angles of 60 degrees or greater over the continental United States, allowing for maximum line-of-sight from the satellites to Sirius receivers. This means that the satellites will be at steep angles above your car, offering the best chance of reception when you’re driving between buildings or in valleys or canyons. To augment the service, Sirius is installing a series of approximately 100 terrestrial repeaters (in other words, radio broadcasting on the ground) in urban and mountainous areas to augment the satellite signal and ensure unobstructed coast-to-coast reception for U.S. motorists.

In contrast to Sirius Radio’s elliptical orbiting satellites, XM Radio will use two high-powered geo-stationary satellites positioned above the U.S. The company says by using the two highest power communications satellites ever built, each with the same coast-to-coast footprint, it will ensure maximum signal and system reliability. It, too, will use ground repeaters in difficult signal areas. Both services claim they will offer digital CD-quality sound.

Though the two companies will use satellite technology that differs, the programming they intend to offer is remarkably similar. Sirius says it will directly broadcast up to 100 channels of digital-quality programming to motorists throughout the continental United States for a monthly subscription fee of $9.95. Of these, 50 channels are slated to be commercial-free music with individual channels devoted to various genres. With 50 music channels to fill, the programming is expected to be more varied than the three or four basic formats that now dominate commercial radio. For example, if you’re a fan of reggae, you can tune to an all-reggae channel. You want Fifties hits? You can set your dial to that channel and not worry about hearing hits from the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties or Nineties, each of which will come on its own channel. No, Sirius is not yet planning an all-polka all-the-time channel, but you will likely find a channel that satisfies your preferences more than the commercial stations do, which are, by definition, trying to capture the largest audiences possible.

Sirius Radio also claims it won’t be a jukebox simply playing songs (but what would be so wrong with that?) or a re-hash of what traditional radio stations are already doing. Instead it plans to deliver original music programming, presented by expert hosts who will enhance the listening experience with insights and information about the music. Quaintly using dot-com-speak, it says it has “created alliances with critically acclaimed artists and on-air personalities, including Sting, Grandmaster Flash, and MC Lyte, who will have regularly scheduled programs on Sirius Radio.” Lest you think that Sirius music won’t have its serious side, the company also has a strategic alliance with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the National Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to music, Sirius plans “up to 50” channels of non-music programming. While the company has signed programming talent to handle the music side of its business, it has teamed up with a panoply that includes CNBC, National Public Radio, Outdoor Life Networks, Sports Byline USA, Speedvision, USA Networks/SCI FI Channel, Classic Radio, Hispanic Radio Network and the BBC for talk and information.

XM Radio’s planned offerings are very similar, at least on the music side. XM claims that “you’ll have as many as six Rock formats to choose from, ranging from Classic Hard Rock to New Alternative Rock.” As with Sirius Radio, Oldies will be programmed by the decade. And you’ll also have the choice of Show Tunes, Blues, Folk, Classical, Fusion, Bluegrass, Gospel, American Standards, New Age, Urban—each on its own channel.

When it comes to the non-music channels, XM Radio also has partnered with a bunch of media names. Included in its partner roster for the news side are USA Today, BBC World Service, PBS’s News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Bloomberg News Radio, and CNN News Group. In sports it has teamed with NASCAR, One-on-One Sports, and CNN/Sports Illustrated. It will bring weather to you 24/7 via The Weather Channel, and you can also dial into Black Entertainment Television, Radio One, AsiaOne, CNN en Espanol, and Christian-oriented broadcasting from Salem Communications.

Besides the differing content, especially on the non-music side, another key difference is the degree of “commercial interruption” each service will allow. Sirius plans to have its music channels run completely commercial-free, and it has said it might insert up to four minutes per hour into its talk programming. XM Radio has been a bit more vague, but it has been reported that it will program as many as 12 minutes-per-hour of commercials into its non-music programs while also leaving open the possibility of running commercials on its music channels. How potential subscribers will react to paying for commercial-free radio and then hear it laced with commercial spots, just like the local broadcasters, may be a point of contention.

In fact, it’s anyone’s guess if there really is a market for these services, despite the heavyweight backing. Though the prospect of commercial-free music has its positive sides, the same aspects that make local radio somewhat irritating are also its strengths. In a world of increasingly national media, the bulk of commercial radio is still local. That means it is full of local news, local gossip, local sports, local traffic and, yes, local advertising. Skeptics suggest that commuters might find the absence of local news and traffic reports too big a loss to accept; especially when they are shelling out cash for something they use to get for free. Proponents of satellite radio reply that what they intend to deliver for pennies a day will be much better than what commercial radio listeners get right now, and they are willing to bet people will find value from the new services. In that opinion, they have precedent. After all, skeptics also insisted that cable TV and, decades later, satellite TV, would never fly.

"Pay for TV? Be serious!" they said.

Well, my work here is done. I’m retiring to my $40-a-month-for-200-TV-channels service.

Nerad’s syndicated radio program, "America on the Road" isn’t on satellite radio, at least, not yet.