Radio Free America

The people behind satellite radio understand the dreadful quality of traditional commercial radio.

Mediocrity deplores excellence. It's a truth of human behavior, and it applies to the media, too. It's on display right now as the commercial radio establishment, where mediocrity is king, tries to quash the best thing that's happened to radio in a long time: satellites.

I've had satellite radio in my car for several months now, and it has changed my media life. I subscribe to XM Satellite Radio, one of two national outlets that started up in the '90s and have been slowly gaining followers. XM's rival is called Sirius. Each service beams more than 100 channels of music, news, talk, sports, and other content from orbiting satellites down to paying subscribers. I pay XM's standard fee of $9.99 a month (Sirius costs a few dollars more), a price that seems miraculous given what it brings me: dozens of terrific, ad-free music channels; a high-grade menu of news offerings that includes the BBC, ABC Radio, CNBC, Fox News, C-SPAN, and CNN; talk shows of various stripes; plus constant weather and traffic reports for various major cities, including Washington, where I live. This last offering is the subject of a turf fight between old radio and new, which I'll get to in a moment.

The point is, XM offers all of this content, in crystalline digital sound, for under 10 bucks a month. Sometimes I think it's too good to last. I hope it's too good to fail.

The people behind satellite radio understand that the dreadful quality of most commercial radio has alienated a lot of listeners. When was the last time you tuned in a traditional commercial radio station and were impressed? A huge swath of American radio is now controlled by a handful of corporations, and they've turned the airwaves into the aural equivalent of McDonald's: a product that was designed for least-common-denominator tastes, and is pretty much the same everywhere you go. Why? Because, like McDonald's, Big Radio is very profitable.

Fine, if you like cheeseburger radio—top 40s, idiotic drivetime talk shows, the usual ideologue ranters, traffic and weather every 10 minutes. But what if you like jazz? All the great jazz channels I know are on public radio and there aren't many of them. On XM, there are seven jazz and blues channels, each offering a different genre. One, called Frank's Place, is dedicated to the music of Frank Sinatra and other crooners and is overseen by Jonathan Schwartz, one of the great savants on American popular song. Another XM jazz channel celebrated the birthday of Miles Davis this week with a 24-hour marathon of the man's music, plus interviews with Davis experts and colleagues.

Anything like that on your local FM dial this week? Many XM channels serve tastes that are similarly overlooked by conventional radio, because they represent a tiny slice of any given geographic market. Since satellite radio is national, it allows the members of all those tiny slices from around the country to coalesce in one place. How many cities can support an all-folk channel or an all-reggae channel? XM has both. And these niche channels operate alongside other channels serving extremely popular demographics: My 6-year-old adores XM's NASCAR channel. As on cable TV, the mass channels effectively support the niches.

Moneywise, satellite radio is still small potatoes. Together, XM and Sirius have a little over 2 million listeners—a tiny fraction of the number who listen to conventional commercial radio every day. But satellite radio's numbers have been growing, particularly as automakers offer it as an option in more and more new cars. As word gets out on the breathtaking quality of the service, further growth seems inevitable.

Naturally, this worries Big Radio. Recently, when XM and Sirius starting offering those local traffic and weather reports for major cities, the move immediately got the attention of the National Association of Broadcasters, the trade association for conventional commercial radio. The NAB argues that these channels violate a pledge the satellite radio operators made to the Federal Communications Commission that they would provide a strictly national service. Since local ads are the mother's milk of traditional radio, the NAB wants to keep satellite radio out of the local radio business.

The satellite radio operators say they are in compliance with FCC rules and regulations, because all of their content is available to all subscribers nationwide. This includes the city-specific weather and traffic channels, all of which are available in all markets. A Boston XM listener can tune into the Los Angeles traffic report, for example.

The NAB has complained to the FCC, and legislation has been introduced in Congress to block XM and Sirius from offering the local services. What's odd about all of this is that the very industry touting localism, old-line commercial radio, is the same one that has effectively destroyed localism by making American radio such a homogenous product, with increasingly indistinguishable programming coast to coast.

And here we see the great irony of this whole argument. To bring back the old richness of local radio—the eccentricity and niche tastes that once gave the medium its personality—our best hope may be a kind of radio that is the polar opposite of local, one that comes literally from space. So why not let this new kind of radio have some useful local content, too? Radio lovers deserve another choice. Mediocrity has such a hollow sound.