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Eric's Autos: The Failure of Satellite Radio

Eric Peters on

Satellite radio - that is, SirusXM satellite radio - was supposed to be revolutionary, an end-run around the heavily censored, mostly commercials dreck of "terrestrial" FM and AM radio. Well, they did ok on the first score.

Satellite radio is more free and open in the sense that things can be said openly that were absolutely verboten (and still are) on terrestrial radio. Most notably George Carlin's infamous Seven Words. Score one for free (if scatological) expression. But satellite also gave voice to alternative expression - stuff you'd probably have never heard on terrestrial unless you tuned in late at night on some lonesome highway out in the desert.

Unfortunately, all this potential goodness is drowned out by a tsunami of aggressive (and seemingly endless) advertising.

It is much worse than terrestrial radio, too - which would never dare to run 10-15 minutes solid blocks of non-stop commercials, as often happens on satellite's other-than-music channels. Buy Gold... Now. Do you need debt relief? Call 1-800.... . Does anyone actually call these 800 numbers?

Often, the same commercial is repeated in the same block of commercials, just to make sure you hear it. After awhile, this grates - remember, you are paying a monthly fee-for-service, that is, to get the programming. Instead you are getting a lot of commercials.

Isn't that a lot like terrestrial radio - except now you are paying to hear these advertising onslaughts? Satellite radio appears to be run by the same evil geniuses who run cable TV - evil geniuses because they have figured out a way to get people to pay for that which they used to get for nothing. Not just the commercials, either.

Exactly like Cable TV, satellite radio offers you clunky, one-size-fits-none "packages" that force you to buy a lot of stuff you don't want and don't watch or listen to in order to get the stuff you do want - even though it is possible to let customers choose only the specific programming they actually want. Certain individual channels can be turned on and off, depending on what you've bought. So its certainly technologically possible to tailor each customer's programming choices on an individualized a la carte basis.

Instead, we get Soviet-style, take-it-or-leave-it "bundles" - just like cable TV - that include two-thirds crap you don't want to get the one-third not-crap you did want. And it is Soviet - that is, not free-market - because you're made to subsidize that which you do not want and which would probably not stand on its own absent the subsidy.The crappy talk show hosts ride on the backs of the good ones. Or rather, the ones that don't have an audience ride on the backs of those who do.

Satellite initially touted itself as cutting-edge, the future. But other than the means by which the stuff is piped into our cars and homes and iPods, it is as musty and crusty as late 1970s cable TV. As current cable TV.

No wonder it is not making the money - that is, attracting the audience - it had hoped to. On the order of 230 million Americans still listen to terrestrial radio for free vs. the 30 millions or so who pay to get satellite. (See here for some stats.)


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