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for November 9, 2001

Geosynchronous Harmony
by Mark Wintle and Chris Sheft

The satellite radio thing always seemed a little dubious. When you have to buy an expensive player, then pay more money for the privelege of using it, it sounds less like a breakthrough and more like a scam. Now that there's such a thing as an in-dash MP3 disc player for the car, satellite radio seems even less attractive.

Since there's no porn channel to spur growth (that did it for video, cable, and high-speed Internet), it's even more challenging for them to attract subscribers. Recall that the viability of the Compact Disc format was built on the dedication of classical music fans, plus "Dark Side of the Moon"; maybe they'll be enough to pull yet another infant technology through. They didn't come out for DCC (remember that?) although it seems MiniDisc is still hanging on.

On the one hand, cross-country satellite radio is much better than the 4 stations playing both kinds of music that you'll hear on a typical cross-country drive. But on the other hand, even with the potentially large number of station types, it'll likely be totally corporate and you'd tend to get decisions by bad statistics and demographic info, in much the same way that alternative stations have homogenized. Playlists will be generated with classic "drive by looking in the rear-view mirror" techniques, used to drag down once-good radio stations and corporations alike.

At Burning Man there were upwards of a dozen pirate radio stations. One of them was "man portable", housed on a backpack with a big whip antennae, powered by a motorcycle battery. The broadcaster said he intended to walk around conducting interviews, broadcasting happenings and playing some odd cassettes for 3 days without stopping. You can keep yer Cousin Brucie, 'cause that's staying power!

If you're placing bets on an enabling technology, try betting on things that enhance our nomadic friend's vision. Satellite is appealing because it might get around the whole entrenched FCC/big corporation broadcast licence thing. But how can you democratize such an expensive technology? You can build an FM transmitter that may serve your town for a couple of hundred dollars, with the only problem being a dearth of spectrum -- which will manifest itself as FCC agents prosecuting you. Internet and MP3's and P2P are wonderful tools but you need a wired PC with a certain real cost and just enough skill to operate it, meaning you can't have been born before the cut-off date. (Your mom would probably love to hear a channel dedicated to show tunes, for example, but she will never be able to download an MP3. Will she ever buy a satellite radio?)

People want to see an order-of-magnitude leap in quality, or convenience, or price, not a little leap. DCC was perceived as being a little step, certainly not worth changing out all your analog cassettes. CD's were a big step. DVD's are a big step over VHS -- no noise, cheaper, faster, and an order of magnitude better quality. (Well, 4x better quality anyways.) Is satellite radio an order of magnitude better? Can you buy the receivers for $200-400 (limit of typical consumers for this sort of thing) or less? Can they enable an environment like free-form or college radio, that drives people to get the content? The example XM Satellite uses in their promo literature for exotic content, XTC, is a wonderful band ... but after its playlisted enough, it is dead. More dead than dead white males. Dead, dead, dead.
[Correction: XTC is the example the Newsweek article referenced above uses for XM Satellite's Classic Alternative channel, and is not necessarily referenced in XM's promo literature. ALTROK regrets the error.]

Does Satellite Radio smell like a dubious technology? Time and the marketplace will be the ultimate arbiters, but technologies that cost a lot, and then cost some more, without representing any perceivable advance, might not be worth the paper their stock's printed on.

©2001 Mark Wintle & Chris Sheft

All material ©2001-2014 Sean Carolan, except as noted.


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