For More And More Music Fans, Satellite Radio Is Heaven Sent

Digital broadcasts offer more channels, fewer commercials — for a price.

Jim Milburn of Sacramento, California, spends a lot of time driving, but he isn’t a fan of the radio stations in his area.

“The stations seem to mirror each other,” the 28-year-old said. “It’s kind of like there are limitations on them. It sucks.”

The answer for Milburn, and perhaps others like him, lies in the stars.

Milburn has become one of the more than 30,000 subscribers to the new XM Satellite Radio, a satellite-based service that offers listeners 100 channels of digital, near-CD-quality original programming for a monthly fee of $9.99.

Since XM Satellite Radio went national in November, it has become the fastest-selling new audio product of the past 20 years, according to industry data, outperforming the debuts of CDs and DVDs.

“Our early success says people are interested in exploring a new experience with their radio,” said Chance Patterson, vice president of corporate affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based XM Satellite Radio. “Radio’s been very much the same for 40 years since FM was introduced. I think people who are interested in XM are music enthusiasts looking for music they can’t get on the radio.”

In addition to talk, sports, comedy and variety channels, XM offers 10 rock channels, 15 hits channels (including MTV and VH1 channels), seven urban, six country, six jazz, four dance, five Latin, six world music, four classical and six oldies channels (details are available at www.xmradio.com). It’s a range of options that most commercial radio markets do not offer.

Programmers and DJs include several radio industry vets and musicians, such as reggae legend Junior Marvin and Smithereens frontman Pat DiNizio. The team is headed by longtime radio executive Lee Abrams.

“We have hired the best radio people around the country — around the world — to come here to XM and develop the best music and develop an authentic relationship to talk to you and play music like you’re an informed listener,” Patterson said.

XM has spent $1.6 billion to be on the air, he said.

DiNizio, whose band last released an album in 1999, is the program director for the Unsigned channel, which exclusively plays independent music.

“The Unsigned channel is pretty cool,” Milburn said. “[The other day] they had bands covering songs by different bands. One group did an Alice in Chains song, but it was done by a female vocalist and it changed the song entirely.”

Helping indie rockers has been DiNizio’s mission of late. He’s also a spokesperson for the Benefiting Emerging Artists in Music program, which awards $100,000 in charitable grants every year to up-and-coming musicians.

“[XM Radio] shows that people are ready for something new,” said DiNizio, who’s on the air weekday mornings and nights. “The average commuter spends four hours a day in their car and they’re inundated with 26 minutes an hour of commercials. They’re sick of it.”

If that’s the case, the success of satellite radio, which will soon include XM competitor Sirius Satellite Radio, could be out of this world.

How It Works

XM Radio utilizes two fixed-location satellites and about 1,000 ground repeaters that bounce the signal to receivers not in direct view of the satellites. Sirius Radio has three satellites and fewer repeaters.

To get satellite radio, one needs an XM- or Sirius-compatible receiver and antenna installed in a car. That will cost about $300 to $1,000. Sony offers a “plug and play” receiver that can be transferred from a car into a home or office.

Car manufacturers have begun to offer satellite receivers in new models — GM offers XM, and DaimlerChrysler and Ford offer Sirius. Eventually, receivers are expected to be compatible to both services, provided both are available in the future.

Doug Wyllie, business media editor for the Gavin Report industry trade journal, is optimistic about satellite radio’s future.

“Satellite radio’s here to stay,” Wyllie said. “It’s not going to go away, but its form may take a different shape as the marketplace evolves.”

How the market will look in the future will be addressed at the Gavin Seminar, to be held February 20-24 in San Francisco. XM’s Abrams will participate in the panel Crystal Ball 2002: Programming the Future of Radio.

As for what’s happening now, syndication, program-to-commercial ratio and a lack of musical diversity in most markets have caused listener dissatisfaction with commercial radio, Wyllie said.

“Radio as I knew it and loved it is gone forever,” Wyllie said. “Unfortunately, it’s on its very final lap in a very long and glorious race.”

Not A Replacement For AM/FM

A hindrance to the success of satellite radio might be its lack of localized programming and its monthly fee, Wyllie said. “Local radio is a communication tool for a community of people. People need local weather, sports and traffic.”

The new satellite services have no plans to develop local programming.

“We want to make it clear that we’re not eradicating AM/FM local terrestrial radio,” XM’s Patterson said. “Listeners can still continue getting their local sports, weather, traffic.”

Soon, consumers will have the choice of two satellite services when Sirius debuts in four cities — Denver, Houston, Phoenix and Jackson, Mississippi — on February 14. Sirius plans to roll out nationwide by August.

The company, which has so far spent $1.8 billion, will offer eight pop channels, 11 rock, eight urban, six country, four dance, seven jazz/standards, five Latin, three classical and eight additional music channels, said Joe Capobianco, senior vice president of content for Sirius. Details can be found at www.siriusradio.com.

Unlike XM, Sirius is completely commercial-free. Among the musical minds programming Sirius will be hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash, who also will host his own show. Randy Travis, Ray Manzarek, BeBe Winans, Michael Feinstein, MC Lyte and Al Jarreau are also working with Sirius.

Sirius will be playing more album cuts from artists such as Gang Starr and Talib Kweli on its hip-hop channels, Flash said, in addition to the hits.

“I guess I come from a DJ’s perspective — I listen to the whole album,” said Flash. “I want to rock the dance floor.”

And for a radio service that’s programmed from that perspective, the sky’s the limit, Flash said. “We’re commercial-free, and that’s the key. If we play the right music, it’s a no-brainer.”