- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

Once upon a time, disc jockey Vin Scelsa believed radio’s accessibility served as the industry’s bedrock — a transistor radio and fistful of batteries is all one needs.

Now, the veteran gabber isn’t so sure.

Mr. Scelsa is spinning discs for Sirius radio these days, one of two satellite radio companies offering consumers a new way to hear music and talk.

The disc jockey’s conversion may smack of pragmatism — his long-running “Idiot’s Delight” program long ago ran out of homes on the commercial radio dial.

As the number of satellite radio subscribers continues to climb, it seems likely that Sirius and industry leader XM Satellite Radio could become the HBO and Showtime equivalent for commercial airwaves.

That transition could be quicker if the industry’s “killer app,” radio bad boy Howard Stern, ever makes good on his threat to bring his crude show to censor-free satellite radio.

XM recently inked former NPR mainstay Bob Edwards for a morning slot, while Sirius landed Eminem to help flesh out its hip-hop content, moves which should bolster each’s programming cachet.

Tom Taylor, editor of the industry trade publication Inside Radio, says content will be the ultimate factor in whether satellite thrives.

“People subscribe to HBO because they wanna see ‘The Sopranos,’” Mr. Taylor says. “It’s content. What made cable successful is that it delivered programming that wasn’t available [elsewhere].”

Mr. Taylor isn’t so sure the HBO/satellite comparisons will work for much longer.

“All analogies break down,” Mr. Taylor says, when the Internet wild card gets played.

“I’d argue that the technical innovation that’s hanging over everything in the media is wireless broadband,” says Mr. Taylor, who adds he can surf the Internet while riding in a car in his New Jersey neighborhood, thanks to the fledgling Wi-Fi technology.

Music-based Internet sites could allow for the kind of audio alternatives that satellite currently boasts, he says, lessening the need to shell out a monthly subscription rate.

“It’s one of many new technologies that will become a part of our lives,” he says.

For now, the satellite radio companies can point to some promising news of their own.

After picking up more than a million subscribers in just over eight months, XM Radio now claims a total of 2.1 million plus. The company projects 20 million subscribers by 2010.

Sirius comes in second in the two-company race with 500,000 subscribers. They expect that number to double by year’s end.

Arlington resident Gary Haney, 33, signed on to XM Radio last September after being frustrated by the musical options on the District’s radio dial.

Mr. Haney praises the sterling sound quality, variety of programs and relatively modest expense — about $10 per month for XM.

Some of his gadget-friendly pals have joined the satellite family, but he says within his peer group the market is “as saturated as it’s gonna get by now.”

Chance Patterson, vice president of programming operations with XM Satellite Radio, says the new radio options his company provides fall back on a very American concept — freedom of choice.

The choices his firm makes possible, he says, are having an impact on the competition.

Commercial television used to foist repeats upon us every summertime, he says. As soon as cable channels began seeding the summer months with original programs, the networks were forced to follow suit.

“Survivor,” he notes, made its first appearance in the summer.

Mr. Patterson credits XM’s rise for news like Clear Channel’s recent announcement it was cutting back on the commercial minutes aired on its stations.

A call to Infinity Radio in New York, a major radio chain whose stations include WJFK-FM, was not returned for this story.

Longtime DJ and current Sirius talent Meg Griffin says satellite radio “is just radio the way I grew up with it.”

“Nobody told me I can like [only] one kind of music,” says Miss Griffin, whose show veers madly from folk to rock to jazz depending on her mood.

Radio, she says, shouldn’t be programmed “like stocking shelves in a supermarket,” where every decision is based on market research.

Today’s young listeners, she says, didn’t grow up with radio that allowed for subversive thought.

“It’s a foreign idea to them,” she says.

Satellite radio is meant not to kill the commercial radio stars, she says, but simply to offer a more varied menu.

“People I know who have the [satellite] radio, none of them have abandoned their AM/FM radios,” she says.

Mr. Scelsa says the kind of free-form radio he embraces no longer fits into commercial radio’s strict guidelines. Even public radio stations aren’t subsidized enough to support unconventional programs like “Idiot’s Delight” — his blend of talk, music and live performances.

That doesn’t mean the show lacks supporters.

Satellite radio has “so many channels to offer, it can afford to devote some space to specialized shows,” he says.

Rising subscription numbers aside, Mr. Scelsa says all the optimism in the world may not keep satellite radio afloat.

“This good thing we have right now could easily go away if not enough people eventually adapt to it,” he says. “It’s still an experiment.”

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