A Sirius Dilemma

A funny thing happened on the way to the office — I listened to terrestrial radio and it wasn’t half bad.

The reason for my defection is simple: the recent cold snap in Southern California has forced the Sirius Sportster connected to my car into hibernation during the early morning hours. Sure, after the afternoon sun has baked the receiver for a few hours there’s no problem, but while it sleeps I’m free to experiment with the medium I left behind last year. Is it still the “stagnant and homogenous wasteland” I railed against while trumpeting Howard Stern’s arrival on satellite in 2006? Perhaps. But is satellite radio any better? I’m starting to doubt it.

In the past week comedian Andrew Dice Clay appeared on both Howard Stern and Adam Corolla’s respective morning shows. It was an interesting litmus test — much of the content between hosts and guest was similar, but execution is everything and I came away feeling Corolla’s take was more substantive. Instead of the profanity-laced free-for-all Stern’s interview degenerated into, Corolla actually made the Diceman seem like an earnest, interesting individual. Stern merely perpetuated his hotheadedness.

Am I still a fan of the King of All Media? Sure, but I’m not alone in questioning whether it’s worth paying to hear his show. With only four broadcasts a week and an increased vacation schedule, it’s a definite toss-up. If you do, be prepared for the relentless assault of useless Howard 100 News Updates when Stern himself isn’t pimping his digital fiefdom. As for limited commercial interruption, the ten minutes of ads every hour or so are repetitive to the point of obnoxiousness.

But what about the hundreds of channels of commercial free music, you ask? Given terrestrial radio’s apparent inability to program beyond a 40-song playlist, satellite must be a great alternative, right? Nope.

Don’t get me wrong, lack of variety is the most frustrating aspect of free radio. There is nothing more aggravating than listening to “today’s new rock” and hearing the same tired Nirvana, Sublime, or Red Hot Chili Peppers cut. With a seeming unending catalogue of music to choose from, why replay the same few songs over and over? Why not harken back to the days of independent radio and choose songs that fit the mood, even if they’re B-sides?

Imagine that frustration times 100 and you have the programming schedule on satellite radio. Instead of a handful of rock stations that never seem to fall out of love with U2, AC/DC, or Rush, you have dozens. Each genre and decade now has, duplicated with perfect accuracy, a station devoted to some playlist you grew to hate back in the day. Remember when Soundgarden, Live, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains were driven into the ground? That effort lives on with Lithium 24. Remember how much you hated hearing Motley Crue and Van Halen singles five times a day, every day? Hair Nation picks up the slack where terrestrial radio left off. And it does it without any commercial interruptions to let you come up for air.

When I first bought my satellite subscription I was excited to be able to listen to music long abandoned on regular radio. I bitched about how programming trends had stripped my love of several bands by being overplayed. Yet satellite radio has innovated nothing in terms of song selection. It’s the same music, merely repackaged.

For the record, I have not reviewed Sirius’ entire programming line-up. I bought satellite radio for two reasons: rock music and Howard Stern and readily admit there are stations of music that do not appeal to me at all. If you’re a fan of bluegrass or freeform jazz, or you want to listen to the pit crews of NASCAR, satellite radio might be for you. But if you’re like me you might find regular radio acceptable for your needs. At the very least, you’ll be getting the same level of service — just with commercial breaks.

So that’s why I found Sirius’ recent merger advertisement funny — satellite is not the savior of radio by any stretch of the imagination. Providing unique content is. And while combining XM with Sirius would create an innovative pay service for many people, until they work out the kinks on their music programming, I wouldn’t recommend it to people if they need to spend the $12 elsewhere. When I start the car in the morning and the Sportster sits silently to the left of my steering wheel, I simply change the station and enjoy what anyone with an FM tuner can. Adam Corolla may not be able to swear like a sailor thanks to the Federal Communications Commission, but you know what?

I don’t need him to.