Raise your hand if you listen to the radio. Good, you can all put your hands down. Now, raise your hand if you subscribe to satellite radio. That’s what I thought. Satellite radio is here now; it has been for a few months. But you aren’t listening, and you won’t listen, and I know why.
Normal, free radio is a fairly homogeneous product. In every city throughout the country you’ve got a couple of classic rock stations, an oldies station, one or two “modern” country outlets, a few pop music stations that play either “urban” or “alternative” hits, and a light music station or two. Some may be a shade better than others, but they all suffer from subscribing to the same model: heavy rotation, heavier advertising, stupid DJs, mindless morning shows, and constant self-promotion through live music sponsorship, contests and remote broadcasts. Most cities also have a public radio station that plays jazz, blues, classical, or some combination of them and carries NPR news. Then there are the usually AM-band news and talk stations. But that’s it. Whether the station is owned by Clear Channel or not, it’s going to fall somewhere in the description above.
Satellite radio claims to offer an alternative, for only ten bucks a month. But what exactly do you get when you buy your XM Satellite Radio tuner and antenna and sign up for service? How about 100 radio stations that you can tune in everywhere in the U.S. of A. Hey, sounds good! But much like cable TV, most of those stations mimic the same ones you get for free. Some are even digital rebroadcasts of regular commercial radio stations from New York, Houston, L.A., and other big markets. All of them carry the same annoyances we’re familiar with from free radio, those silly station ids and yammering DJs. About 65% of XM stations even have commercials. Ugh.
Assuming that most of you living on Planet GloNo are primarily interested in music, I’m going to avoid a lot of commentary on XM’s news and talk stations. Suffice it to say that the news is your typical corporate-sourced CNBC, CNN, Fox Sports, etc. Further, I didn’t spend much time listening to XM167: Babble On, Young & Sassy Talk or XM170: Family Talk, Christian Talk. I did listen to the music stations, and there are some good ones. XM13 is a “traditional country” station called “Hank’s Place.” Other than the stupidity of station ids that proclaim Hank’s Place as a good place to sit around and get drunk (keep in mind that XM’s major market is truckers), it’s a good selection of cool old music that is all but ignored by most commercial country stations. Even more extreme is XM66: Raw, which plays rap—swears unedited—24/7. XM also provides an unsigned artists station, an all-reggae station named “The Joint” (which doesn’t live up to the promise of its name), a Hindi/Indian station, five Latin stations, and an electronic station that plays uninterrupted dance music (yes, mixed without song breaks, just like you’d hear in a club).
While there is breadth in the programming, there is far less depth. Even the good stations tend to play the same artists ad-nauseum. But hey, there’s plenty of other stations to choose from, right? Sure, so listening to XM inevitably turns into a channel-surfing nightmare, just like cable TV. What’s really missing from XM, where the musical slices are ever so thin (do we really need a “Classic Alternative” station and a “Modern/Soft Alternative” station along with our “Alternative Hits” station?), is a good station that mixes genres and styles. This so-called “freeform” radio is the typical domain of the low-power college radio stations, but it is by far the most original radio programming going. Nothing like this exists in the XM domain.
The standard complaint, one that I routinely voice, about free radio is that the quality of programming is usually poor. This is mainly because there are dozens of artists who, despite wide fame and fortune, fall outside of the narrow boundaries set by stations and their formats. While XM somewhat rectifies this situation, it merely substitutes more of these narrow boundaries while adhering to the tried-and-true idea that a radio station must follow a format, stick to a type, mine a niche, exploit an audience. My hope for XM was that it might have programming that would suppose an intelligent, engaged audience wanting exposure to good music, genre-be-damned. Instead, most stations sound like an exec came into your local classic rock station and hired everyone to work at XM—then told them they were switching to jazz.
Figuring out why this came to be proves as simple as looking at XM’s Web site: “XM’s powerful strategic and equity partners [italics mine] are leaders in their respective industries. These include General Motors, the largest U.S. auto and truck manufacturer; Hughes Electronic/DIRECTV, the nation’s largest distributor of multi-channel digital video programming [also owned by GM]; Clear Channel, the largest U.S. radio station operator.”
So XM is an opportunity to pay to listen to Clear Channel-programmed radio. Told you that you wouldn’t be interested.