TCS Daily

Damn That Radio Song

By Ryan H. Sager - January 3, 2005 12:00 AM

Listening to music snobs whine about how bad radio is these days is boring. Almost as boring as well, listening to the radio.

So, it's with no small degree of glee that audiophiles -- and their friends and families -- should greet the news that an all-out war has begun to dominate the technology that eventually will turn the current AM/FM hellscape into a relic.


With the holiday shopping season concluded, satellite radio's two biggest players, XM and Sirius, have both had banner years. XM now has more than 3 million subscribers, paying about $10 a month for the service. Sirius, the newer and smaller player, exceeded its goal of 1 million subscribers, paying about $12 a month, by year's end -- growth powered in part by a high-profile deal to steal King-of-All-Media Howard Stern away from Infinity Broadcasting.


Both companies are also pushing their products by way of deals with car manufacturers and the retailing of various nifty looking hand-held and plug-and-play receiver devices.


These are truly exciting times for people who care about music, or just want something interesting to listen to on long drives.


Radio long ago grew worthless to those seeking to broaden their musical horizons. While far too much can be made of the "dangers" of radio consolidation, in the 500-pound-gorilla of Clear Channel Communications (which owns, by some estimates, every radio station in the country), it can be a touch depressing when one's only listening options on a trip to the store are Usher, an Usher clone or an Usher remix.


And nothing has ever really replaced radio's one-time function as a medium through which to be exposed to new and interesting music. MTV briefly served such a function, but now the channel's too busy pimping people's rides to bother with all that music stuff.


Some claim that MP3s, on iPods and on peer-to-peer networks, have taken over radio's old function. But that technology still requires the music consumer to be a hunter-gatherer, actively seeking out new music. There is still a need for a passive medium to which the curious can tune and be exposed to new sounds.


That medium, it seems, will be satellite radio, where a virtually unlimited number of channels will be able to specialize to a ludicrous degree.


Critics of terrestrial radio, in fact, should really thank Clear Channel -- the all-purpose villain for those who believe their particular indie-rock darling would be all over the airwaves if not for evil corporate radio. It's taken the unmitigated homogenization of radio playlists across America to create the demand that now exists for something as revolutionary as satellite radio.


Even under what music snobs might consider ideal circumstances (more local programming, less corporate ownership, looser FCC regulation of indecency), there's simply not enough room on the traditional dial for the diversity that satellite can offer.


In my ideal world, there would be a radio station in every market specializing in Wilco, Rainer Maria and Palomar. But what about those malcontents who would also want to hear (atonal, talentless) Modest Mouse? We'll each have our own station in the satellite world.


On plenty of sections of highway today, a person would be lucky to be able to tune in one classic rock and one contemporary rock station via his or her antenna. Sirius, on the other hand, already offers: Classic Vinyl, Classic Rewind, Alt Nation, Hair Nation, Totally '70s, Big '80s, Underground Garage and Elvis Radio (just to name a few).


Perhaps satellite radio boosters sound a bit evangelical -- if not utopian -- as the format comes into its own. But if so, that's only because radio, after so many years of stagnation, could actually become fun again.


Music is only the tip of the iceberg. Satellite radio also promises to give plenty of space to talk radio. Sirius will have Howard Stern's antics come 2006. XM has signed up NPR alumnus Bob Edwards. Both companies are dedicating channels to shock-jock types and stand-up comedy. And both companies are going to play classic radio programming from the medium's golden age, like Abbott and Costello and the old radio dramas.


And what if satellite radio, which is often compared to cable TV, were to find its HBO -- the content provider that, in a sense, makes the medium? There could be a Renaissance of radio drama and comedy.


The lack of commercials and the chance to give FCC commissioner Michael Powell fits is only the beginning of the fun satellite radio will have to offer. The rest will be tuning in and seeing what happens next.


Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at


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