30 Million Subscribers Later, FM Is Still Standing & Satellite Radio Is Still In Orbit

Robin Marchant/Getty Images
Marnie the Dog visits at SiriusXM Studios on August 21, 2015 in New York City.

"This is the death knell for terrestrial radio, right?"

That was a daily question in 2004, poised to me constantly by journalists covering the news that Howard Stern was joining the then-Sirius Satellite Radio. 

By then, I'd been getting regular phone calls about satellite radio from daily newspaper writers, usually the rock critic, for several years. Nobody loved the first years of then-rivals Sirius and XM more than radio writers, giving it glowing write-ups with titles like "Why Radio Sucks and What You Can Do About It." Ironically, Stern's hiring was acknowledgment that consumer press love wasn't going to be enough to turn a profit.

For their part, broadcast radio (the word "terrestrial" was satellite's attempt to reposition FM) was ready to declare satellite radio a non-occurrence when it failed to put FM out of business. Having "only" 20-million listeners, then 21-million and so forth wasn't so scary. Now, Stern is celebrating a decade with SiriusXM and the service has just passed the 30-million subscriber mark.

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So here's what has happened a decade later. Satellite radio is not a non-entity. Nor has there been any death knell for broadcast radio. A recent Edison Research survey found that even SiriusXM subscribers give 39 percent of their in-car listening to AM/FM radio. But the other 61 percent of that in-car time is going somewhere else. Broadcasters have a firm policy of "that which does not kill us, didn't happen." Yet, AM/FM radio has clearly felt the TSL siphoned off by SiriusXM, Pandora and other new choices.

Here's what else satellite radio has done over the past decade:

Satellite radio has done the best job of organizing audio's "infinite dial." SiriusXM offers listeners a manageable number of choices, and a mix of mainstream and eclectic choices. It is easy enough to use that I know people who would rather pay to subscribe to satellite than learn to negotiate the 100,000 offerings of the streaming radio universe.

Satellite radio has shown up broadcast radio's failure to provide its own alternate radio offerings. HD Radio, from the start, did not have the ease and symmetry of satellite radio. But had it yielded a consistently well-crafted suite of stations, broadcast radio would at least be able to offer a viable alternative to satellite. Instead, a listener who wants a genre not on the FM band in their market, and doesn't want to pay for a satellite subscription, can more easily search out a Pandora genre station.

Satellite radio has made the eclectic viable. It was telling that Kenny Chesney's eclectic No Shoes Radio, a station seemingly made for Internet radio, recently returned to satellite radio. There are places to hear reggae, classic alternative, blues, or garage rock on Internet radio, too. But the ones on SiriusXM gain instant viability through North America and they promise more consistent programming than the hobbyist garage rock channel you might encounter online.

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Satellite radio has had an influence on broadcast radio. For years, broadcasters told label reps not to bother quoting satellite radio stories. They positioned satellite as determinedly non-commercial and therefore not relevant. But the impact of SiriusXM's Hits 1, Alt Nation, and contemporary country The Highway cannot be dismissed. Alt Nation in particular provided an incubator for the true-alt approach to alternative radio at a time when the broadcast version of the format barely differed from active rock. At the very least, it provided encouragement for alternative PDs who were looking for their own excuse to play more White Stripes and less Trapt.

Satellite radio has provided a safety valve. The people who were maddest at radio a decade ago had nowhere to go. Music and radio touch people personally and the inability to hear exactly what you want is taken far too personally by some. The ongoing "radio sucks" stories are less common now, partially because there aren't that many people left to cover music and radio in the daily press, but also because there's a home for almost anything now. The only question is whether broadcasters, by better setting their sights beyond the AM/FM dial, could serve as a safety valve as well.


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