Who needs satellite radio?

[16 August 2006]

By Rob Horning

I always thought satellite radio was a technology equivelant of Colecovision, something that would be obsolete before it ever gets real momentum behind it. So this WSJ report on the industry’s doldrums fit nicely with my worldview: “Last year, XM lost $667 million, and Sirius lost $863 million. And Sirius is facing a potential exodus of subscribers as a clutch of promotional one-year trials soon comes to an end.” Satellite radio seems like an intermediate stage before a real breakthrough that everyone can see coming, which is having portable Internet access sustained by a cellular-phone-type network—why have satellite radio when you can have Internet radio?

That the satellite radio firms basically have to give away subscriptions through a variety of free-trial deals, and the fact that most people won’t subscribe even when the hardware is built right in to their new cars tells you something about the inherent consumer indifference to this technology. There’s just no real demand for it. Perhaps this is because everyone senses that a cell phone will likely be able to deliver everything a satellite radio feed can soon enough. Also, it seems a lousy way to get music. Who needs satellite radio’s multiplicity of channels when you can download a gazillion songs and plug an iPod into your car stereo? Wouldn’t most people rather have 60 GB of their own music to play in whatever sequence they desire rather than a subscription to music someone else plays for you? I don’t think most music consumers are willing to let go of the idea of songs a product one buys and owns; satellite radio and Napster’s subscription service and other similar concepts try to sell people on renting music in general—all of it, whatever music has been recorded. But people don’t want all of it so much as they want to own a small piece of it and tend that small piece with care, curating their own musical museum of selfhood. The sort of music consumer who is not interested in the minutia of managing playlists and so on is probably indifferent to the added spectrum of sounds satellite radio affords and is content with FM. These customers need to be sold on the fact that it is commercial free, but I suspect that they probably don’t mind commercials—they pace one’s listening experience, are probably found to be amusing in some cases,  and at any rate spur one to act, to start scanning for something else. Commercial-free radio can start to seem like Muzak, someone else’s sound design intended to program my moods. Of course, everybody I know who has satellite radio just uses it to listen to Howard Stern. But others just download Stern on Bit Torrent and listen to his shows at their leisure on their iPods. How far can a cult of personality really carry a technology?

More than anything, though, I think radio is a local technology (traffic reports, weather, news, school closings, local talk radio, etc.)—once it ceases to be local, responsive to local events—once it no longer includes your theoretical participation—it is easily replaced by prepackaged entertainment you can actually own.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/satellite-radio/