Remember all those great XM Radio launch ads from a few years ago, with David Bowie and Snoop Dogg falling from the heavens like baby Superman? I do. They’re what helped convince me to install an XM receiver in my car when I moved to L.A. a while back. And I loved what I got out of the satellite radio service — lots of commercial-free music, channels devoted to public programming and comedy and political talk, Major League Baseball and Big Ten football games, Frank’s Place on Channel 73, and so on. But that car is now gone, and it’s been a while since I’ve listened to XM. And I can’t say that I missed it too much — after all, CDs have plenty of commercial-free music and I can play podcasts of my favorite shows whenever I feel like it.
So the announcement that XM and its slightly smaller rival, Sirius (you know, the one with Howard Stern, pictured), are planning on merging got me thinking about satellite radio again. It’s a good idea, in theory, but I’m curious whether, with the rise of iPods and such, it has already passed its moment. Moreover, while the union of satellite radio stars like Oprah Winfrey, Bob Dylan, and Stern makes a great story, I question what Sirius chief Mel Karmazin (yep, the former terrestrial radio and Viacom exec who stands to be CEO of the combined company) can do to make XM/Sirius relevant. Certainly, potential competitors are hardly quaking in their airwaves: NPR, for example, has already run a few stories, including this one, about the merger. The public radio folks don’t seem too afraid.
No, in fact, I wonder if the only people who should be afraid are consumers. Some pundits trumpet the merger as offering listeners more choice. But it sounds more like a monopoly to me, one that could reduce the diversity of programming (think every channel on both XM and Sirius is going to survive the merger?) and raise prices for subscribers. And the FCC may have similar anti-trust objections. Indeed, it was the FCC that originally ruled that there must multiple satellite radio outfits; if the merger is approved, there’ll be only one. In other words, PopWatchers, the future truly is still up in the air.