(The Star's books editor, John Mark Eberhart, posts here occasionally about music and music technology.)
Bring me down, Scotty.
The proposed merger of the XM and Sirius satellite radio systems is being touted by the two companies as good for everybody. Listeners, they say, actually would have more programming choices after the merger, in addition to “a la carte” purchasing that would let them pay for stations they like and skip those they don’t.
Right now, the two companies are kind of like cable TV systems (your Time Warners) or satellite TV providers (your DirecTV and DISH) in that the radio firms offer a package of programming that you can supplement by paying extra for certain channels. Satellite radio differs from terrestrial radio in that it employs satellites in geosynchronous orbit to beam signals down to customers. “Geosynchronous” means the satellites match the Earth’s rotation, so their positions are always roughly the same in relation to what, and who, is on the ground. The “what” is your satellite radio and the “who” is you, which means you can drive from Maine to Washington state while listening to, say, XM’s “Real Jazz” station.
Or at least that’s the aim. I’m an XM subscriber, and I can tell you that XM doesn’t like mountains and sometimes even cringes at tall buildings. But the signal interruptions, I concede, tend to be rare and of short duration.
The cool thing about all this has been a radio system that lets you take it with you virtually anywhere. In addition to car systems and home theater satellite radio receivers, there are portables and combos; with a combo, you can plug the thing into your dashboard, home stereo or even a compatible computer.
The bad thing has been that the companies don’t seem to be making much money. They think a merger will help them do that – and why not? Get the FCC to drop its existing ban on such a merger, and instead of that pesky competition, you’ve got a sweet deal – till somebody else manages to launch satellites and, oh yeah, hire some DJs and engineers along with the usual gofers, paper pushers and sycophants.
So if XM, which is based in Washington, D.C., and the New York-based Sirius says it’s all gonna be hunky dory, why am I grumpy? Because there’s something I don’t trust: Corpthink.
The two companies can say, as often as they want, that the consumer is going to benefit from more and better programming along with a more flexible purchasing structure, and that may be perfectly true. But Corpthink changes things. Right now, the two companies have a different feel. Not much different, as the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher pointed out in a piece last August in which he dubbed them “Coke and Pepsi.” But different. As Fisher wrote, XM has Major League Baseball and Sirius has the NFL. There are other contrasts, but both systems have your satellite versions of shock jocks, your satellite versions of terrestrial radio formats such as classic rock, and your premium programming, which can mean blue language or, uh, “spicy” stations. Not surprisingly, those latter aren’t very interesting, but then I’m a man and as such, sex benefits from visuals.
To generalize, I think XM is a bit closer to traditional radio. As Fisher observed, it also has more original programming, such as interviews with musicians and singers. Those tend to be very well done, and in some cases they’re downright fascinating. It’s also fun to hear people like Bob Dylan and Tom Petty talk music and play tunes.
But Sirius is edgier. It has an all-gay station, for one thing. For another, it has been a bit more adventurous in music selection, whereas some XM channels can seem like the worst excesses perpetrated by “classic rock” stations. Honestly, I’m not sure I ever need to hear Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” again in this lifetime, but maybe that’s just me.
If the merger goes through, Corpthink will start to grind away at the two companies’ identities, in my opinion. Branding is branding, on Earth or in orbit. Marketers and such like to work with one big ball of twine. And one perhaps unintentional result of Corpthink is that anything that doesn’t seem to fit with a “vision” or “mission” of the Corp eventually gets tossed.
In the case of satellite radio, the result could be “Blandness Falls From the Air.” Listeners might find less programming that’s unusual, startling, memorable. That’s bad for any art form, and yes, good radio is an art. With any artistic endeavor, I, the receiver, enjoy being surprised or delighted at something I didn’t expect. Sure, there are times I’m up for blasting The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” for the three thousandth time, but not always, or even mostly.
One of my favorite XM channels is the uncensored comedy channel, which makes me laugh out loud at times – I even had to pull over to the side of the road once during an especially uproarious stand-up session by Lewis Black. I’m not saying a “Sirius XM” would destroy that channel, but it might dilute it, especially since Corpthink tends to produce worry, and worry can result in fear to be edgy, and fear to be edgy can be bad for bad-ass comedians like Lewis Black.
I think listeners of both systems would be better off with the status quo, but I’m also a skeptic -- or at least a realist. As such, I don’t see the weak-kneed Federal Communications Commission standing up to this. They have so many other things to do, you know, and for all we know they still might be tuckered out from fighting Janet Jackson’s boob. If I had to predict, I’d say the merger will happen – and that’s the name of THAT sad little tune.