Friday, May 25, 2012

Does Sirius XM suffer from a lack of differentiation?

Television was supposed to be the technology that would liberate us from the base, crass banality of radio. Within a decade, however, television was described as a "vast wasteland."

Cable television was supposed to be the technology that would liberate us from the base, crass banality of over-the-air television. However, cable telvision's major "innovations" were HBO (slogan: "We say @#$%& a lot") and Showtime (slogan: "We say @#$%& more than HBO").

Which brings us to satellite radio, originally dominated by two competing firms, which eventually consolidated into a single firm. And Rocco Pendola isn't impressed with the result:

Mel [Karmazin] runs Sirius XM like a cluster of New York radio stations. He made the move from broadcast radio to satellite and, for all intents and purposes, got right to programming Sirius XM’s channels like the standard Clear Channel or CBS offering.

Karmazin hired loads of old terrestrial radio guys (some incredibly talented ones, for the record) and instituted the types of policies (e.g., voicetracking) that contributed to the almost-complete demise of the AM dial and FM radio’s pending extinction. The things Mel does with Sirius XM are the exact same types of things that caused your disenchantment with traditional radio and triggered your hatred for Clear Channel. Very little distinction exists between satellite radio and your run-of-the-mill terrestrial radio outlet.

An eHow article notes two positives of the Sirius XM experience. First, the stations are available over a wide area, without interference - an important point if you regularly drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix, but not as important if your commute takes you from San Bernardino to Orange County.

The second point?

Sirius ... also lacks censorship, because its listeners are all voluntary subscribers.

See my comments on HBO vs. Showtime, above. Now this presumably resulted in a difference in Howard Stern's show, but I wouldn't know - I haven't heard Howard Stern in years.

Which indicates another difference. You know how the New York Times and many other services are located behind a paywall and are therefore uncool? Well, Sirius XM is behind a paywall also, which means that more people hear Ryan Seacrest or Rush Limbaugh every morning than hear Howard Stern.

Now this isn't necessarily a bad thing, provided that the paid service offers a good deal of variety that makes up for its cost. However, even if you don't believe Rocco Pendola's negative outlook, I can obtain a much greater variety of sounds from a free service such as or Pandora than I can from Sirius XM. Now perhaps the threat is overstated - this was supposed to kill Sirius XM back in 2009 - but the threat is still there.

Why? Because Sirius XM shares one feature with terrestrial radio that even Mel Karmazin's worst enemy can't overcome - the concept of pre-programmed channels. No interactivity - you get what you get, and there are only 130 slots available to get it.

Even iHeart Radio, Clear Channel's online initiative, doesn't have such limitations. Sure, iHeart Radio allows you to listen to pre-programmed radio stations, but it also allows you to customize stations to your liking. So far I've programmed a Brian Eno station and a Royksopp station. Sirius XM wouldn't let me do that. I'm not sure how Clear Channel makes money off of its custom radio stations, but if nothing else they provide Clear Channel with a wealth of intelligence about listening habits.
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