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Airwaves: February 23, 2007

Any Good News?

By now you've read in the Breeze and lesser papers that satellite radio services Sirius and XM hope to merge, either as equals or as a takeover, depending on what day and time you read the story.

And, while I'm sure that there are supposed business benefits for having one company provide the programming that currently is handled by two, as a Sirius subscriber myself, I join with the millions of satellite radio subscribers expressing concern with the effects of the proposed merger.

On the technical side, it would appear that one half of the subscribers of the combined company will have to acquire new equipment. Why? Because XM and Sirius use totally incompatible systems to send and receive their signals, and the companies never produced the FCC-mandated receivers that were to be able to use either. If Sirius-XM decides to use the Sirius system, seven million XM subscribers suddenly have obsolete equipment. Go with the XM system, and six million Sirius subscribers have the same problem.

Programming may not seem to be a problem on the surface, as both companies offer similar stations. But there are differences, and it could cause subscribers to think twice about renewing. For example, the "decades" channels from both companies play music from the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s. But XM also has a '40s channel that Sirius does not. And the musical mix from the two is distinctly different, with some people strongly preferring one over the other.

The competition from Sirius led XM to drop extra fees for certain channels; the combined company promises to have "tiers." Translation: fee hike, for all but basic subscribers.

Do I sound negative? I am. I may be wrong, but I cannot see any benefit right now to subscribers. Indeed, I liken it to the merger between AT&T Wireless and Cingular, when former AT&T users had to buy new equipment and everyone ended up with higher rates. Only this time it's like Cingular bought AT&T in order to run your cable system. Nothing good can come of it ... at least that I can see so far.

I also have this weird feeling that the merger is more like the merger between On TV and SelecTV back in the 1980s. Yes they merged; no they are not around any more.

Interestingly, the National Association of Broadcasters is fully against the merger. I cannot fathom why, as the merger is the best thing to happen to terrestrial radio since the FCC allowed conglomerate radio to flourish in 1996. In the last two years due to satellite competition, station owners have actually had to start paying attention to their product. With one less competitor, they won't have to do that as much and can go back to generic formats with 20 minutes of commercials each hour.

In the final analysis, will the FCC and the Justice Department even allow this to happen? Just last month the FCC said no, and a proposed merger between satellite television services Dish Network and Direct TV was indeed stopped by the government. Yet if the companies are losing tons of money and can't survive on their own anyway, does it really matter?

Old Days

Getting ready to donate some books to the local library, I found an old clipping my Dad had cut out of the San Pedro News Pilot in 1954. On the back of his clipping is the radio and television column from Gene Inge, Sights 'n' Sounds, wherein he highlights weekend programs.

What caught my eye is the radio log, which lists a grand total of 16 stations, all on AM, ranging from KBIG on 740 to KOWL at 1580. Programs listed included the Lone Ranger on KECA (790) at 8:00, dinner melodies on KHJ (930) at 6 PM, and the Bill Ballance program on KNX (1070) from 11:45 PM to 12 midnight.


Copyright © 2007 Richard Wagoner and Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

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