Digital radio has arrived

The next phase of radio's evolution has begun. Last month, I talked about the delays in the transition to DAB for terrestrial radio, a process that is going into its 10th year of development. Less than five years ago, the FCC awarded two licenses for S-DARS service so that another form of DAB could be created. I had hoped that the terrestrial form would beat the satellite form to a service date, but this was not to be.

Listeners have been presented with a choice for portable digital radio. It's not a free choice, but it is available today.

XM and Sirius, the two satellite radio providers, have launched their services nation wide. While XM has had national service for a few months, Sirius has been slowly introducing service to selected states during the past few weeks.

The official start for Sirius was a quiet event. The service had been rolled out in small doses, and in the final weeks before the national kick-off, Los Angeles, New York City and New Jersey were the last pieces to be added to the mix.

So while the IBOC work continues, listeners are debating the merits of the two available radio choices: terrestrial or satellite. The issues of sound cost, quality, content, flexibility of service and convenience of use are part of the debate. What is a listener to do?

The debate over sound quality is subjective. Analog terrestrial radio can sound good, and FM service with few interference problems is accepted as a quality sound source. Many digital encoding schemes are even described as FM-like or FM quality. Analog AM has its problems, but in most cases delivers an acceptable quality. Both can be good but frequently are less than ideal. Satellite radio, on the other hand, delivers a clean signal at all times. While the encoding scheme is sometimes audible on the audio, it is interference-free.

What about cost? This is an easy one. Terrestrial radio is basically free. Satellite radio will cost you $10 to $13 per month plus the cost of new hardware, which starts at $300. A terrestrial-radio receiver can be picked up for a few dollars.

The issue of flexibility of service also favors terrestrial. Walkmans, boom boxes, clock radios and factory-installed car radios are everywhere. Most local terrestrial stations can be picked up without an external antenna. Satellite-radio receivers are available in somewhat portable designs, but they are still pricey items that most people wouldn't think of throwing into a duffle bag and plugging in at the beach.

Convenience of use follows the two points above. Proliferation of terrestrial receivers gives the land-based service the upper hand. One advantage that satellite offers is the RBDS-like function of displaying additional information.

The big issue is content. This is what makes a handful of AM stations the top-billing giants that they are. Listeners will sacrifice some quality for material they want to hear. The big draw is that radio offers a spontaneous listening experience. While we can easily create our own mixes, it's easier to let someone else drive. Both satellite providers offer unique content choices that are not available anywhere else. It is my hope that Sirius and XM will demonstrate to terrestrial radio stations that listeners like a true variety, and therefore entice local stations to broaden their playlists and look beyond the safe choices.

Throughout the years, satellite radio has been referred to as the Death Star. Last month I saw Star Wars Episode 2. By coincidence, the movie contains the first glimpse at the plans for the Death Star. When the official notification was made that Sirius was up and running, I was reminded of a line from Star Wars Episode 6 describing the celestial weapon (modified slightly): “Now witness the firepower of this fully operational battle station.”

Everyone is waiting to see what will happen.

What are your thoughts on satellite radio? Can two services survive? Will satellite radio kill terrestrial radio?

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Fax: 913-967-1905

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