Digital Horizons: Space Invaders

For a century we've been industriously broadcasting radio programs all across the globe, with the great majority of programs received free of charge. After light bulbs, radios are probably the most ubiquitous electrical devices on earth. Radio is cool. Life is good.

Suddenly, all that changes as strange spacecraft appear in the sky, thousands of miles above the earth in cold, lonely space. These unmanned relay stations, designed to receive digital audio signals from earth and rebroadcast them to earthbound receivers, are small in stature, but their footprints cover continental America. If you're a terrestrial radio broadcaster, these invading birds, which threaten your livelihood, are as menacing as Death Stars.

When I originally heard of plans to establish not one but two satellite radio systems, I was intrigued but skeptical. Sirius and XM Radio independently proposed to build studios, create and acquire programming, launch satellites, and license receiver technology. Each would offer 100 coast-to-coast channels and charge from 10 to 13 bucks a month for the privilege of listening to their heavenly offerings. But would people pay for radio? Of course, some of us wondered the same thing about TV before cable.

No matter where you live, your AM/FM radio definitely doesn't get 100 clear channels. More important than quantity is diversity. Terrestrial stations tend to be pretty much mainstream (college radio is sometimes a notable exception), and much of the programming is bland, Top 40 fare. With 100 channels available and a range of programming that's intentionally very wide, satellite radio can offer a much more impressive selection. Unless your interests are exceptionally esoteric and narrow, you're likely to find plenty of cool channels to listen to. Since XM and Sirius are national services, even a small minority of listeners to any single channel can add up to a large number. The situation is quite different from local broadcasting, where many stations cater to the same demographic in a struggle just to survive.