Satellite Synergy

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 21, 2007 10:24 AM

In all the very fine stories about the proposed XM-Sirius merger, there was one glaring omission.

The reason these two companies have 13 million subscribers willing to cough up $12.95 a month for something we all grew up thinking should be free is that commercial radio has self-destructed.

All these folks (including me) are paying for satellite because they're tired of cookie-cutter radio formats stuffed to the gills with commercials. They're also fed up with focus-grouped music stations that play the same 60 songs until you start hearing the chords in your sleep.

And local radio stations covering news? There are a few across the country. For the rest, forget about it.

Really, can you think of an industry (okay, maybe American automakers) that has frittered away such huge advantages and sent its customers scrambling for alternatives? I know 13 million isn't huge, but buying a radio and getting it installed is a hassle; if you could pre-order it in cars, which is the wave of the future with GM and other manufacturers, a lot more people would take the plunge.

In short, I think the appeal of satellite radio transcends Howard Stern, Oprah Winfrey, and baseball and football games. It's filling a void created by the utter sameness and existential lousiness of commercial radio. Just as the timidity of broadcast television gave rise to cable, the same thing is happening on the radio side.

Interesting to read that XM and Sirius decided to move now because they think Bush regulators are more likely to approve the combination than in a Democratic administration.

On the surface, it seems that a corporate marriage of the only two outfits doing this kind of radio would be anticompetitive. But the companies have lost a combined $6 billion, and the argument is that they're not so much competing against each other as against the world of iPods and Internet downloads.

I just wish they had more competition from terrestrial radio (with the obvious exception of exciting new ventures like Washington Post Radio).

Former Boston Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy sees a VHS/Sony Betamax problem:

"There's one aspect to this that bugs me. The reason that an XM-Sirius merger sounds at least mildly attractive is that the two services are technologically incompatible. If you want to listen to Howard Stern on Sirius and Bob Dylan on XM, you don't just have to pay two bills a month -- you also need two separate radios. That's ridiculous, and I'm sure it explains why there are still only 14 million satellite radio subscribers. . . .

"If XM and Sirius had to go head to head using the same technology, rather than existing in their own separate universes, consumers might benefit even as the two services save costs. That ought to be the direction in which the FCC encourages them to move."

Sirius Addict isn't a fan of the deal:

"If there is one thing I am happy about is that Sirius knows how to do music and can teach XM a lesson or twenty. At the same time, Clear Channel still owns a huge stake in XM and I assume they'll want to get a bit greedy and say, 'Well, hey . . . you have all of these channels now so we can make a few more' and there's not a thing either company can do about it' . . . I think the whole deal is ludicrous and I hope it's never approved."

King's Chronicles is more optimistic:

"One of the frustrations of being a Sirius subscriber was that I always wondered if I picked the right company. Since much of their premiere content is mutually exclusive I knew subscribing to Sirius meant I would not get any of the good content from XM. So while it sounds like it will take about a year for their programming to merge, it is nice to know I that eventually I will have the best of both worlds."

Shawn's Blog (self description: "a hair-band lovin' techni-junkie") doesn't like change:

"Am I happy? Hell, no. While this could bring some good things to satellite radio, I was quite happy with the way things were. I have listened to XM radio online, and to be honest, I didn't like it nearly as much as I like Sirius. One of my biggest concerns is that the channels I listen to regularly will be messed with.

"I am pretty much assured that the Stern channels will remain unchanged, but the music channels I listen to all have similar format channels on the XM provider as well. There is no doubt in my mind that the channels will be merged at some point, as there is no sense having duplicate stations on 1 provider."

Meanwhile, there seems to be a media drumbeat over why Hillary won't say she's sorry, rather than what she would do now about Iraq--especially now that she's told those who disagree to vote for someone else. Paul Krugman likens HRC to W.:

"For the last six years we have been ruled by men who are pathologically incapable of owning up to mistakes. And this pathology has had real, disastrous consequences . . .

"The base is remarkably forgiving toward Democrats who supported the war. But the base and, I believe, the country want someone in the White House who doesn't sound like another George Bush. That is, they want someone who doesn't suffer from an infallibility complex, who can admit mistakes and learn from them . . .

"Although she's smart and sensible, she's very much the candidate of the Beltway establishment -- an establishment that has yet to come to terms with its own failure of nerve and judgment over Iraq."

Markos says Hillary is off his list:

"The last thing we need in the White House is another out-of-touch, tone-deaf Bush-style presidency, unable or unwilling to admit mistakes and change course as a result. Hillary will now see her campaign events hijacked by anti-war protesters, with people demanding she defend her vote at every corner."

Time's Ana Marie Cox calls the senator stubborn (but why is it stubbornness if she doesn't agree?):

"Hillary's 'never apologize, never explain' approach to her Iraq vote has confused me for awhile and I agree with Joe that, as far as primary voters go, it will soon become clear that hewing to this line was a mistake on her part. (Though she'll never admit that, either.)

"Her stubbornness is puzzling not just because the vote itself may cause problems for her with anti-war Democrats (hell, anti-war Republicans), but because it signals the kind of verbal hairsplitting that led to 'the definition of 'is' ' and 'I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it': Most people, when they say, 'If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have done it,' the next logical sentence is, 'I made a mistake.' I know Mark Penn has this weird theory that to even SAY mistake relating to her own position somehow takes responsibility for the war off of the Bush side of the ledger, but, let's face it, there's more than enough error (and death and destruction) to go around. She may have been misled, she may have been lied to, but just because someone else gave you the wrong directions doesn't mean you're not lost.

"As recently as two weeks ago, there was still some debate within Hillaryland about whether the 'I won't admit it' position made her look more like John Kerry, rather than less. Her comments in New Hampshire mean that she definitely can't change her message now.

The Nation's John Nichols also employs the S-word:

"At the very least, Clinton's steadfast refusal to admit that she was wrong to vote to give George W. Bush the power to launch a preemptive war against Iraq sets a news standard for stubbornness.

"According to the New York Times, top Clinton aides have done everything in their power to get her to acknowledge that she read Bush wrong back in 2002. 'Several advisers, friends and donors said in interviews that they had urged her to call her vote a mistake in order to appease anti-war Democrats, who play a critical role in the nominating process,' reports the Times. 'Yet Mrs. Clinton herself, backed by another faction, never wanted to apologize . . .

"Is it really courageous -- or politically smart -- to suggest that voters who want a president with good judgment should vote for someone else?"

Why doesn't anyone view this as a Sister Souljah moment? (For younger readers, this was Bill Clinton in '92 going before a liberal audience and denouncing a rapper whose lyrics were filled with violence.) Dick Polman at least says Hillary isn't kowtowing to the left:

"What's most striking about McCain is the contrast between his political strategy and the path currently being charted by Hillary Clinton. Whereas McCain is working overtime to pander to his Republican base (and especially the religious right), Clinton seems increasingly committed to ticking off her Democratic base (and especially the antiwar left)."

Slate's William Saletan flatly declares:

"This is an amazingly stupid and arrogant position. If she sticks to it, it will probably kill her candidacy. And it should . . .

"Voters just repudiated a president who thinks that stubbornness is responsibility and that admitting mistakes is groveling. The way to act responsibly is not to act like him. It also happens to be the way to get elected."

What about Rudy? The New Republic's Jonathan Chait is trying to figure out how "he has somehow built a record as a foreign policy guru despite having no experience beyond the municipal level.

"What are Giuliani's credentials? Everybody knows the basics. On September 11, 2001, he rolled up his shirt sleeves and gave reassuring speeches. He has a tough guy persona. He expresses extremely strong disapproval for enemies of the United States. (For instance, Giuliani has bragged about asking President Bush to let him personally execute Osama bin Laden.) . . .

"If having a macho swagger and talking tough about bad guys were enough to make a good commander in chief, we wouldn't have the worst foreign policy disaster in U.S. history on our hands right now in Iraq."

It sounds like ABC's Terry Moran is just being provocative by asking, Is Giuliani White Enough? But he's got a serious point about the Republicans:

"This is a party, after all, that has nominated precisely one ethnic immigrant candidate for national office in its history--Greek-American Spiro Agnew."

Murtha-bashing is in vogue on the right, and Arianna is fed up:

"The GOP's escalating war on Jack Murtha took an ugly -- and pathetic -- turn on Sunday morning when Brit Hume launched a vicious attack on Murtha's mental acuity.

"During a panel discussion on Fox News Sunday, the normally expression-challenged Hume slapped on his finest sneer and said of Murtha: 'It's time a few things be said about him. Even the Washington Post noted he didn't seem particularly well-informed about what's going on over there, to say the least . . . This guy is long past the day when he had anything but the foggiest awareness of what the heck is going on in the world.' He went on to call Murtha 'dotty' and 'an absolute fountain' of 'naiveté.'

"That's right, unable to win the fight against Murtha's ideas -- and not content to swiftboat his war record -- the GOP hit squad is now making the desperate play of raising the notion that the 17-term congressman may not be playing with a full deck. Call it the Senility Surge. Classy.

"Ever since Murtha first stepped forward back in November '05 and courageously called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the pro-war rhetorical thugs have been after him. But Hume's on-air mugging is an all-time low."

"Naive" seems fair game, "dotty" sure doesn't.

I'm glad the two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who broke the Barry Bonds story aren't going to jail. But the LAT's Tim Rutten says they're no heroes:

"Two San Francisco Chronicle reporters -- Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams -- have made themselves poster children for advocates of a federal shield law by risking jail to protect the source who leaked them federal grand jury testimony by three professional baseball stars, including Barry Bonds.

"Thursday, we learned just who they were protecting when Troy L. Ellerman, a defense lawyer for one of BALCO's vice presidents, pleaded guilty to contempt of court, obstruction of justice and filing a false declaration with a federal court. Ellerman leaked the testimony to the Chronicle reporters, then went out and argued that the ensuing publicity would deny his client a fair trial. Worse, he actually filed motions with the court alleging that prosecutors had leaked the testimony and that charges against the BALCO official should be dismissed.

"The two reporters maintained their silence while all this occurred. Worse, Fainaru-Wada returned to the defense attorney's office to obtain still more leaked testimony after their source had lied in public and to the court."

Finally, the networks in breathless pursuit of the hiccup girl:

"The notes under the door. The incessant phone calls. The impassioned pleas, all begging for a piece of the story.

"It wasn't reporters in search of secret intelligence involving the war in Iraq.

"The subject: St. Petersburg's Jennifer Mee, a 15-year-old who started hiccuping four weeks ago today and has yet to stop.

"The competition for her story became so frenzied over the weekend that NBC's Today show changed Jennifer and her mother's New York hotel after another network's exhaustive attempts to get an interview . . . Representatives from ABC's Good Morning America called Jennifer's home 57 times on Sunday and slipped notes under her hotel room door, her family said."

What a relief that some news organizations are now focusing on the problems of ordinary people.

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