Working in new product development for a top consumer electronics company some years ago, one of the things I had to do was evaluate the benefits of new technologies such as satellite radio. In the course of developing a satellite radio accessory kit for one of the world’s most popular tabletop radios, I had the opportunity to evaluate both the Sirius and XM services extensively from many different perspectives.
Satellite Radio was a New Business
At the time, satellite radio was a new business. XM had a large lead over Sirius in its subscriber base and was the popular choice to win the satellite radio war. I believed that Sirius had the superior management team and business style and would ultimately succeed over XM, and I, therefore, elected to pursue joint development of a satellite radio accessory kit for the Bose Wave Radio with them rather than XM, despite the disparity in subscribers between the two at the time. Still, it wasn’t entirely clear that either company would be able to produce a viable business by charging for its radio broadcasts. After all, radio was something consumers expected to be free. Why should they pay a subscription fee for radio they could get for free elsewhere?
National Radio Coverage
One of the earliest marketing talking points of satellite radio was that a subscriber could keep the same station while traveling long distances in their car instead of losing the signal as they moved out of range of the broadcasting station. That’s true, but for the majority of potential customers it is of little or no benefit during their ordinary day. For a satellite radio in the home, it is of no benefit whatsoever.
Satellite Radio Offers Themed Music Channels
Each of the two satellite radio companies offered more than a hundred channels of music and other content. With such a wide number of channels, the average consumer could find a station that delivered exactly the kind of music they liked, and even the music that might suit their different moods throughout the day. Sirius Radio even featured one channel that was entirely devoted to the music of Elvis Presley. Other channels might be focused on a particular decade of music from the 1940’s through today. Listener’s might find a channel devoted to top songwriters, where music by Billy Joel, Elton John, Carole King, and other musicians known for their song-writing abilities can be found. Many other genres and styles of music from grunge rock and classical music, to love songs and show tunes have specific dedicated channels.
Is Satellite Radio Better than an iPod?
Still, in my mind, this isn’t enough. In today’s age of digital music, putting together a play list on an iPod or an MP3 player is literally child’s play. Putting together an extensive suite of music to fit one’s individual taste is nice, but isn’t worth a monthly subscription fee. After all, these are the same songs that one can buy or download and keep forever.
The Real Benefit of Satellite Radio
The real value of satellite radio, to me, is the availability of unique content, programming that simply isn’t available anywhere else. The number of available channels on satellite radio makes this possible. For example, baby boomers might enjoy listening to some of the radio programs that were popular in their youth. The Jack Benny program, The Shadow, the original Superman radio serials, and dozens upon dozens of the classic radio programs from the era when families gathered around the radio to listen are available. There are dozens of talk radio channels of all political bents, and all the 24 hour news channels like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC for news junkies.
Howard Stern, Oprah and Martha Stewart Join Forces on Satellite Radio
Additionally, Sirius in particular went out and acquired exclusive rights to the biggest names in terrestrial radio. Howard Stern and Chris ‘Mad Dog’ Russo, are two such names. Channels have been devoted to popular TV personalities so that they could develop their own programming as well. Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey both have channels. Sports fans can find every Major league Baseball and NFL Football game broadcast live along with much other sports content on satellite radio as well.
Pause, Play, Rewind Satellite Radio Broadcasts
Since the merger between Sirius and XM, the best content from both companies is available for one subscription. The availability of a wide variety of unique programming content is the number one benefit of satellite radio. Another nice feature of some satellite radio receivers is the ability to pause and even rewind live satellite radio broadcasts in the same manner that a DVR does with television programming. This means you can pause your favorite program, or the big game, when you take a phone call at home, or get out of the car to pump gas.
The Downside of Satellite Radio
The downside of satellite radio is spotty reception. Satellite radio requires a direct line of sight from the radio antenna to the orbital satellites from which the signal originates. This means that reception under a thick tree canopy, from downtown areas surrounded by tall buildings, or inside a building without an externally mounted antenna can be a problem. Although there is a small buffer, passing under the branches of tree-lined country roads invariably results in sporadic signal loss in cars equipped with satellite radio systems.
Other Satellite Radio Reception Issues
Although there are terrestrial repeater stations in many major metropolitan areas to minimize the obstruction of skyscrapers, the signal can still be lost as one drives around in some areas of most cities. Tunnels are a particular problem for satellite radio reception. For home use, satellite radio often requires an externally mounted antenna, or an antenna that faces the satellite through a window. Although I had the opportunity to experiment with an early prototype of a high gain antenna designed to pick up weaker signals through an ordinary house roof, this was only marginally effective and was never marketed. Furthermore, the satellites broadcast in the 2.3 GHz S-Band and other home networks operating in this range can cause interference and drown out the satellite radio signal in some cases.
My Verdict on Satellite Radio
All in all, the niche programming makes satellite radio a good deal for those, like myself, who enjoy that content. In addition to my own subscription, I pay for a subscription for my wife’s parents and they listen constantly when in the car. I programmed in their favorite channels for easy one button access, allowing them to choose between their favorite music channels, old-time radio programming, news, weather, and talk radio programs that they enjoy. They are not what one might call technology enthusiasts who rush out to get the latest gadgets. If anything, the reverse is true. The unique content of satellite radio, however, offers them a compelling benefit a sit does for me.