Media Matters

Satellite Killed the Radio Star

Satellite radio is an idea whose time has come -- so naturally government is doing what it can to stifle it.

By 6.8.04

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As a statewide reporter in New Hampshire a couple years back, I spent several hours driving each day. Although the Granite State is not the hokey farmland often portrayed in popular movies like Mr. Deeds (Do you feel guilty yet, Sandler, you sell-out?) there are some pretty desolate areas, especially in the northern part of the state and that much car time could be dreary.

My trusty radio was of little comfort on these journeys; stations bobbed and weaved in and out of tune. Sometimes I listened to white noise with a beat, or talk radio that sounded like it was being transmitted from a space station through a bad microphone, just to cut through the boredom.

Life changed for the better, however, when I got an XM satellite radio unit. Suddenly I had access to more than 100 mostly commercial-free stations, encompassing every style of music, news, and talk radio. To wit, there are three stand-up comedy stations, separated depending on the amount of filthy language you can stomach. Out in the granite hills of New Hampshire, I was suddenly able to hear the Sage from South Central, A.K.A. Larry Elder, spout off, from his mouth to outer space to my car speakers.

I never lost the signal, and at less than ten dollars a month, along with 1.7 million people I found satellite radio to be a bargain. But, of course, the federal government cannot stand for this sort of efficiency and thus is trying to limit the potential of this minor wonder in what is, let's face it, an otherwise drab broadcasting world.

HERE'S THE DRAMA: Satellite radio has recently patented the technology to break out of the box of purely national broadcasting. Using "repeater towers," basically ground-based hubs which strengthen the signal coming from space, XM Radio now wants to start supplying local news, weather, and traffic to subscribers.

This has triggered a temper tantrum by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which doesn't want people in communities across America to have the option of changing the channel from NAB member stations. This is not a surprise. Since its inception in 1923, NAB has fought progress every step of the way. It tried to stop television, it tried to block FM radio, and it is attempting to slow the next major advance. Satellite radio is in good company.

Reps. Charles Pickering (R-Miss.) and Gene Green (D-Tex.) have decided to come to the rescue of the Luddite simpletons over at NAB with House Resolution 4026, the Local Emergency Radio Service Preservation Act of 2004. Like most stupid ideas to come down the pike in post-9/11 Washington, D.C., the bill is being portrayed as one of the bulwarks of national defense.

The bill's rationale is something to behold. Since, "in case of emergency," local radio broadcasters are likely to be "the last line of defense" for giving info to local communities "under extremely adverse conditions," and since the ability to provide news services "could be jeopardized by a diversion of the listening audience away from local radio programming," XM should not be allowed to compete.

That's right, folks, if you listen to satellite radio, the terrorists will have won.

THAT'S A RATHER DUPLICITOUS way of dressing up the fact that a very powerful lobbying group is bullying the legislature into hamstringing their competition. "We are free and local," Dennis Wharton, NAB's senior vice president of communications told Wired. "If you can get what you want and it's free, there really is no argument for satellite radio."

And yet the marketplace has created satellite radio and 1.7 million people have flocked to it. It seems the argument for satellite radio is too persuasive for Mr. Wharton's taste. Since NAB's broadcasters cannot counter it, they seek to crush it.

Reps. Pickering and Green lecture that there is a "substantial governmental interest" in regulating traditional radio's competition, because "the local origination of programming" is and has always been one of the "primary objectives and benefits" of the government's meddling in radio.

It seems clear enough that "the local origination of programming" is a good thing, but it is not so clear why it is a constitutionally protected virtue. Further, the government talking about "local origination" is hypocritical when one considers the firestorm federal regulators have consistently rained down upon local pirate and low-power radio broadcasters across the country.

After the Clinton administration instructed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to open up radio frequencies for low-powered stations the NAB and others threw a fit, just as they are doing now. As a result, more than 70 percent of the available frequencies were eliminated by Congressional legislation in December 2000 at the request of commercial broadcasters and National Public Radio, who used bogus studies to claim that smaller stations would interfere with their signals.

PERHAPS IF LOCAL RADIO stations weren't so coddled they might turn out a better product. Then there truly would be "no argument" for satellite radio. I won't hold my breath waiting for that day.

The truth is, like television and FM radio, satellite radio is an idea whose time has come. The government can put hurdles in front of any idea. Lobbyists can try and smother it in campaign cash. But in the final analysis, just as you cannot unfire a gun, you can't cram a brilliant idea back into the darkness of some inventive chap's mind and hope it will go away.

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