"I drive in to work every day, and there are days when I want to just bang my head against the car window because I can't find anything on the radio to listen to," says Mark Kalman. He won't have that problem for long. By next spring Kalman, who happens to be vice president of the National Broadcast Studio at Sirius Satellite Radio in New York, should be able to listen to no fewer than 100 of his own company's radio channels. Sirius is one of two firms licensed by the FCC to begin broadcasting a completely different kind of digital radio service and to do it via satellite. If all goes well, the 115 million U.S. commuters stuck in their cars for half a billion hours every week will soon be able to pick and choose exactly what they want to listen to— usually without commercials— and the sounds will never fade away, no matter where they drive, coast to coast.
Beginning in the middle of next year, all the major auto makers will begin building cars with satellite radio receivers as standard equipment, appearing first in luxury models. At about the same time, adapters and replacement radios will be offered for autos already on the road.
What will be broadcast on each channel is still up in the air, but Sirius is predicting they'll be able to offer the following: five channels devoted to country-and-western, three classical, one big band/swing, one Broadway, six rhythm and blues, nine Top 40, three jazz, eight rock, and five Latin, plus others carrying more esoteric interests, such as New Age, children's, Christian, world music, reggae, dance, and blues. And that's only half the selection. Another 50 channels will be devoted to talk of sports, news, entertainment, motivation, health, science, history, how-to, show business, and books. XM Satellite Radio in Washington, D.C., Sirius's competitor, expects to offer a similar mix of 100 stations next year.
Because the XM and Sirius satellite signals are digital, other information such as the song's title and artist will pop up on the receiver display screen at the same time a channel is playing. Eventually, listeners will be able to push a button and receive the CD they're listening to by mail, or buy a ticket to the artist's next performance.
And those are just a few of the services that could turn autos "parked" on freeways in rush-hour traffic into virtual offices. Motorola plans to offer a voice-operated combo receiver by 2003 called iRadio that will bring in global positioning system signals for navigating, satellite music frequencies for listening, and cellular phone signals. It will also read e-mail and stock quotes aloud, connect with a nearby garage to diagnose funny sounds in the engine compartment, and open car doors when keys have been locked inside.
Yet another company, Command Audio in Redwood City, California, plans to offer drivers not only choices but control. "I hate to arrive in the middle of a piece, because then it's gone," says Don Bogue, chief executive of Command. So his firm has designed a system that allows listeners to hear what they want, when they want it. In a recent test in Denver and Phoenix, subscribers logged on to a Web site and set up a playlist. Command then sent those programs to their auto receivers.
"We look at our cars differently now," says Brian Gratch, marketing director of Motorola's telematics group. "Sitting in traffic or commuting to work has been viewed as downtime, but it has become found time. People are connected at home and in the office and while walking around talking on cell phones, so they feel there is no reason why they shouldn't also be connected while in the car." There are two catches: monthly subscription fees of $10 for each of the satellite radio services or about $15 for Command Audio, and satellite radio listeners must switch back to AM/FM bands for local traffic and weather.
The channels from XM and Sirius will be broadcast using a data stream of X-band radio waves. The phase of these waves is shifted to one of four possible positions millions of times a second, to produce a signal that is nothing more than a digital system of ones and zeros. The signal is fed to uplink towers aimed at orbiting satellites. Transponders on the satellite beam an S-band signal back down to Earth, where it can be picked up by small antennas attached to rear windows on autos.
Antennas don't need to be big dishes, partly because the frequencies used are not as prone to fade-out from rain or even blockage by trees, as are the KU-band signals used for satellite TV. Nonetheless, the XM and Sirius systems use completely different constellations of satellites, and no one yet knows which system will work best. "The Sirius constellation of three satellites is actually going to rise and set, but it has a higher elevation angle," says David Layer, director of advanced engineering at the National Association of Broadcasters' Science and Technology Department. "The two XM satellites are going to be geostationary, but they're more powerful. It's really an experiment."
Owners of earthbound radio stations have not been thrilled about the new competition. "The concern is that this new satellite service could harm local radio's business to such an extent that they won't be able to survive," Layer says. "That would not be in the public interest, because by its very nature, satellite radio cannot provide the kind of local support to communities that terrestrial radio does." But Robert McChesney, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, argues that local radio isn't really that local anymore: "One of the reasons why satellite radio has such an excellent chance of succeeding is that local commercial radio has gotten so homogeneous and concentrated in ownership that it's made itself wide open for someone to come along who makes no pretense of being local."
However, McChesney doesn't see satellite radio as the people's entertainment champion. "The public doesn't have a dog in the race of satellite versus the current existing system; we aren't connected except by who's going to manipulate us better," he says. "If the satellite system were free and noncommercial, that would be a different thing." Kalman disagrees: "This is the closest thing to democracy in entertainment you'll probably come to in a while, because you vote with your credit card. When you're paying for it, you can say, 'I'm not giving you $10 next month' if you don't like it."
A nation of devoted radio listeners will ultimately decide these arguments, but the 22 million Americans who receive fewer than five radio stations on their AM/FM sets are likely to have only three words to say: "Bring it on."
Information about Sirius's repeater network was reported by Alan Pate in "A Repeater Network for the Augmentation of Satellite Digital Audio Radio Service (SDARS) in the 2.3 GHZ Band" at the IEEE Broadcast Society Symposium, September 27-29. See www.ieee.org/organizations/society/bt/index.html for proceedings.
Command Audio: www.commandaudio.com.
Robert McChesney writes often about media of all kinds, including radio, and their influence on politics and society. More information is at www.robertmcchesney.com.