Friday, December 10, 2004

In orbit yet?

Endless Conversation by Tony Evans

Tony Evans

For the Mountain Express

David Bowie's Major Tom once complained that, "It's lonely out in space." Nowadays he'd have plenty of company. I don't do satellite radio yet, but something tells me it's just a matter of time. Any media organization that can find room for both Howard Stern and recently deposed NPR host Bob Edwards probably has enough going on to keep me interested.

That is, if it can lure me away from my recently discovered Internet radio broadcasts from around the world. These are turning me into some kind of 21st century ham radio geek.

Sometimes late at night I feel as though I can almost understand the Hebrew lady broadcaster on Galagalatz' Israeli Military Radio, the latest Middle-Eastern hip-hop back to back with Sinatra. When I am bored with the local Wood River Valley political gossip I can turn to call-in talk shows and traffic reports from South Africa, or see what NPR considers newsy in Wood's Hole, Massachusetts.

Sometimes this kind of interlude is enough to relieve Northern Rockies cabin fever without actually getting on an airplane. Armchair travelers never had it so good. Punch up a live Webcast of Piccadilly Square, tune into ClassicGold.UK and bake some scones. You'll swear you've died and gone to London.

So why all the fuss about XM and Sirius Satellite Radio? And why should I have to buy another gizmo? Luckily my brother-in-law already has one in his truck. Well maybe it's the clarity of the signals, the indexing of genres and the absolute lack of commercials. Nobody else can afford to cut loose completely from advertisers for a $10 per month activation fee. I try to imagine NPR without the fund drives and "who's who" list of politically correct "sponsors" and I get a little giddy. Advertising has become such the fabric of culture, I wonder if I might be feel naked and lost without it.

Of course, geo-stationary satellites can follow you steadily even as you drive across the INEEL basin in a snowstorm. On my car stereo I sometimes lose NPR at the end of my street.

With satellite radio you can program in at least 12 stations based on genre, including news and talk radio. And there is a "seek" button for the other hundred or so channels, some of which will carry uncensored broadcasts from Howard Stern, Whoopi Goldberg, and Snoop Dogg.

In case you are wondering what censorship can do to alter an artist's message, listen to AllComedy Internet radio and you'll find out that Bill Cosby and Howard Stern have more in common than the FCC regulators would ever let you know.

I've already missed the exclusive XM Satellite interview with Cat Stevens, a.k.a. Yusaf Islam, the former pop singer who was recently denied a U.S. travel visa, presumably for wearing a turban and praising Allah. No doubt the FCC and commercial advertisers will do their best to follow satellite subscribers into outer space. But for now the lack of restrictions and increased choices has sent the stock prices of XM and rival network Sirius soaring.

The best thing about radio of any kind is the element of surprise, whether it's a favorite Elton John song you would never bother to purchase, or the latest news. Who wants to constantly plan what they are going to be hearing throughout the day? With Satellite radio you have to learn to trust the broadcasters' genre descriptions. What's their idea of "alternative," "classical" or "Rock"? Moontaxi Internet radio has a channel that plays only classical fugues. For pre-Bach fugues, you're on your own. Satellite radio will not get this specific, carrying only about 100 stations, compared to the many thousands on the Internet. Satellite radio will not bring you the latest garage bands from Sofia, Bulgaria, like Radio Otzvuk will, but it does promise to bring expanded playlists to those bored with the increased homogenization of U.S. radio since the 1996 Telecommunications Act. This legislation freed the likes of Clear Channel to own as many as 1200 radio stations. The previous limit was 40.

So, Satellite or Terrestrial Radio? Push a button and take your pick.

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