Will You Pony Up for Satellite Radio?

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.

14 thoughts on “Will You Pony Up for Satellite Radio?”

  1. I remember getting digital cable three years ago and thinking that all those free audio music (DMX) channels would be really cool. What I found was that they were so lifeless that even when some of my favorite songs were played they seemed boring, as if they were being dropped into a void. No context at all. Plus I’ve always loved a good DJ. Not just for what they spin, but even for what they say between the songs. Not everybody likes that idea, but I think satellite radio and Clearchannel demonstrate that point pretty well.

  2. Scott, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Context means a lot when it comes to radio.And Phil, GloNo radio rocks. Live365 on the other hand…

  3. Sab, I remember you bringing that up over the holidays when you were driving that Cadillac. It’s not all that different from a good club DJ or a great mixed tape. If put in the correct order and played at the right time, a disperate menue of songs can seem more than the sum of their parts. Add a little wit, or some Venus Flytrap smooth talk and you’ve got yourself something unique.

  4. And that seems to be the problem. Think of how some of us mix and remix our mixtapes for friends trying to get the right flow and the right mood. Sounds like XM misses that entirely. Having just a stream of songs without any thought to programming (the flow) just ends up boring.GLONO radio does rock. I just can’t listen to it at work, or at home, or…

  5. Man, I remember driving through upstate New York one lonely night alone and hooking into Syracuse’s college radio station for about two and a half hours. I’ve never heard better radio. I heard a half hour of the most political punk that I’ve ever heard to date, still no clue what it was. A live hippy band noodle away for about an hour, jazz, some quirky indie rock and absolutely zero songs I’ve ever heard before or since. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Turn on the radio and hear new, good music nearly every time. I’m not saying I loved everything I heard that night, but I did love the fact that it was all new to my ears and all unique.

  6. THAT’S what we need. A digital radio network of college radio stations! Maybe throw in WOXY out of Columbus or KCRW out in San Fran with that Morning Becomes Eclectic show- commercial stations with a freer format and some respect for the listener. I would love to hear some of those stations from out on the left coast. The day that the entrepreneurs put those kind of stations on digital radio, along with something called REVERB OLDIES, is the day I’ll get digital radio.

  7. Well, a great many college radio stations already have online broadcasting. At wxdu (where I was once a dj), you can even watch the dj through a digital camera…maybe this is obvious, but it’s also a free way to listen to great college radio anywhere in the country.

  8. I dunno Helen, sounds a little voyeuristic to me with that web cam. I hear what you’re saying about the digital radio though. Sometimes i use it listen to my old college station (WIDR) where I was also once a dj. But to have that Kalamazoo station in my car in Lansing, my car is really my prime radio time, that would be amazing!

  9. I guess it doesn’t solve the car problem…but I just have stacks of mixed tapes…I even have tapes of my old radio shows that I listen for nostalgia sometimes, and I played pretty some good shit! Like having my own customized radio station, with only stuff that I like…I guess the digital network would be a more universal solution, however — you should get a patent before someone else comes up with the idea!

  10. Most XM radio channels have commercials, but unlike the fifteen minute long adventures on FM radio, XM commercials are one or two minutes long, tops, and usually for programming on other XM channels.

    Besides, don’t fall into the trap that the USA is the only place in the world where you can find satellite radio. XM also plays Worldspace channels like U-Pop that can be heard the world over and don’t play Britney and Justin on repeat all day long.

    And how about XM Unsigned? All day long, unsigned bands from around the country.

    The best part about XM is the fact that you get to see the name of the song and who it’s by WHILE it’s getting payed. You know, so you can go buy the CD (if you don’t mind paying for music, which you don’t if you subscribe to XM) or download the mp3s (which most of you probably do).

    XM radio was my best friend on a road trip from San Diego to Nashville to Des Moines to Las Vegas… I would’ve gone insane without it.

    How many of you who say XM isn’t worth the money have actually subscribed and bothered to get to know the service?

    I haven’t met a single person who uses XM who is unsatisfied with their product, and I’d say it’s the smartest ten dollars per month I ever pay.

    And I’m not an XM employee. Seriously.

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