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Friday, December 16, 2005

The Case Against Satellite Radio

Friday, December 16, 2005, will go down in history as the day free radio got its face slapped by the gauntlet of satellite radio. Or maybe it won't. December 16 was the day which, after nearly a year of pre-launch hype, Howard Stern officially left the world of free, over-the-air radio and forged into the dark unknown that is satellite radio.

Beforfe I get too far, let me say that I'm a big fan of Howard Stern. I always have been and not just because he features hot chicks and gross jokes. I like the way he can come through a radio and make millions of people feel as if he likes each one personally.

That kind of fame comes with a cost: many are the times when Howard has complained about complete strangers who feel so close to him as to presume a friendship when they see him on the street. The only other entertainer I have ever seen reach through an electronic tube with that kind of emotional connection is James Taylor, whose warmth melts through any medium as if he's right there in the room with you.

Another reason I strongly support Stern is that, unbeknownst to the majority of the American right, he is America's most ardent protector of free speech. In fact, the only true difference between the Founding Fathers and Stern is that while they mostly wrote about free speech, Howard actually practices it.

All that being said, and wishing Howard the best of luck in his new venture at Sirius radio, I have to acknowledge that I'm not a big fan of satellite radio.

A week or so ago, my car went into the shop for a week's worth of repairs. The loaner car furnished to me was a 2006 something or other, fully equipped with a satellite radio. At first, I was pretty excited about it. Here was my chance to find out what all the buzz what about. Commercial-free radio. Digital purity. Total freedom of speech.

Unfortunately, my rhapsody didn't last too long.

I think I got about two blocks when I realized how incredibly boring satellite radio really is. Maybe it's the medium's infancy, but there's something inherently wrong with the way satellite radio is programmed. For the uninitiated, satellite slices its bandwidth into zillions of channels, all grouped by format, which means you can listen to all 50's, all 60's, all 70's, all 80's and so forth. And you can listen to it all the time, wherever you drive, anywhere across this vast, wonderful land.

You can also drive 3000 miles due east and hear nothing but stand up comedy. Or country and western music. Or gospel music. In fact, one of the satellite companies used to boast about driving coast to coast without ever having to switch the station.

Which is precisely the problem.

I personally wouldn't pay $150 a year to listen to radio, but that's not my main concern. My main issue is that man can only take so much of all anything all the time. It could bring seizures before he'd cross the first state line. And the part I find most egregious is the part most heralded by XM and Sirius: The fact that I can drive coast to coast without switching stations means I can drive coast to coast without ever knowing what life is like between those coasts.

I can recall a time when, at the tender age of seventeen, I drove with my father to Cheyenne, Wyoming in his long, black El Dorado Cadillac. Sure, it was great to be on the road with my Dad, hitting clubs in Las Vegas and cheap motels in Grand Junction. But the best part was fiddling with the radio dial as local stations crackled in and out, playing songs and reporting local news that we'd never heard of back in Los Angeles.

When you drive cross country, you don't want to see the same malls and stay at the same hotels you have at home. The whole point of leaving is not staying where you are; why would you short change yourself by listening to the same radio station for 3,000 miles?

Of course, just because you have satellite doesn't mean you have to listen to it. You can just as easily switch to the AM or FM bands and hear as much pig calling as you wish, which is more likely the route I'm apt to take. Which brings me back to Howard.

If anyone can make satellite work, it will be Howard Stern. He has the smarts, the creativity and the intelligence to make it successful. He's an innovator and can already see what's wrong with satellite. He'll change it the way he changed FM radio, and make satellite the Next Big Thing.

Like I said, I'm not buying into it, but millions of people will. Once again, the satellite radio people will have Howard to thank for that. And of course, they never will.

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