Tunes From Outer Space

Satellite radio promises 60 channels of digital music, 40 channels of talk radio 24 hours a day.

September 24, 2001|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

More than 22,000 miles from Earth, two satellites named "Rock" and "Roll" are getting ready to rock 'n roll.

The two aptly named orbiters are set to begin bathing North America in waves of digital music in the long-anticipated launch of satellite radio.

So what makes these different from the 12,000 radio stations that already service the country? Think of it this way: with a satellite radio you can drive from Baltimore to Los Angeles and never be out of range of near-commercial-free tunes that match your tastes. Madonna, Frank Sinatra, and Metallica won't ever fade out or die in a roar of static.

"We'll be doing for radio what cable has done for television," said Charles Robbins, a spokesman for Washington-based XM Radio, which launched "Rock" and "Roll" into space this year. "It's going to change the radio experience altogether."

XM and its only rival, Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. of New York, both hope to have nationwide, subscription-based satellite radio services running by the end of the year. Starting tomorrow, XM will make the service available in Dallas, Fort Worth and San Diego, offering 100 channels of digital music, news and talk via satellite.

The companies cover the nation by transmitting encrypted digital signals to geostationary satellites (Sirius has three of its own.) Their high orbits synchronize with Earth's rotation, so they're always in the same position relative to ground receivers. The satellites bounce the signal back to Earth-based "repeaters" scattered around the country. They in turn broadcast it to cars equipped with special radios that not only play the song but also display the title, artist and genre of music.

Although satellite radio has been hailed as one of the hot technologies of the new millennium, its long-term future is far from clear. Some analysts think the service, which will cost users $10 to $13 a month and requires that they spend at least $250 for a new radio, is too expensive and won't deliver enough local content to keep listeners interested.

Its chief competitors are the nation's local radio broadcasters, many of whom aren't worried about the competition, at least from an artistic standpoint.

"I think they have a tough row to travel," said Jeff Beauchamp, vice president and station manager for WBAL radio in Baltimore. "Satellite radio is a very difficult business model to make work, and one of the big reasons for that is that the one thing they can't be is local."

Beauchamp said he doesn't reject the notion of satellite radio out-of-hand, but predicted that local news and talk show listeners won't find a generic, "Any-City USA" approach appealing.

"One thing people like a lot about local radio is that if there's an issue in town or the state or the region, they can talk about it," he said. "If you want to talk about the Orioles, you can. If you want to talk about the CSX train tunnel fire, you can. We can talk about the big issues, too. But satellite radio can't do both. It can't talk about crime in Baltimore."

Some experts and former local radio personalities are more optimistic, arguing that satellite radio will bring a breath of fresh air to a stale radio scene. Both Sirius and XM laud their new channels - about two-thirds of which will be music, the other third news, talk and comedy - as having hip content with few, if any, commercials.

XM's Robbins said 30 of his 71 music channels will have no commercials at all. Others will be limited to six minutes an hour, compared with 20 minutes per hour on many FM radio stations. All 50 of Sirius' music channels will be commercial-free.

Mike Saffran, a former radio personality who now writes about radio issues from Rochester, N.Y., said he believes the time is right for satellite radio because traditional broadcasting has grown too dull and predictable.

"As more and more broadcast radio stations have been gobbled up by big, deep-pocketed media empires across the nation, corporate radio programmers, often blinded by bottom-line mentalities, have resorted to format duplication, computer automation and syndicated programming," Saffran said. "It's resulted in bland, boring, sound-alike radio stations from town to town, up and down the dial all across America."

Local broadcasters are concerned, but largely by the satellite system's network of hundreds of low-power, land-based relay antennas. These repeaters compensate for obstacles such as mountains or tall buildings that can interfere with radio signals from thousands of miles away in space.

The National Association of Broadcasters says it's worried that satellite radio companies could eventually use the ground stations as local radio antennas that would compete against its members.

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