Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Cloudy 46° Cloudy
News >  Business

Voices from Above

John Petkovic Newhouse News Service

Samantha Fryberger is no gadget geek. And that’s what makes her radio’s biggest nightmare.

She is one of more than 2 million subscribers to the up-and-running technology known as satellite radio. The Lakewood, Ohio, resident didn’t sign up with XM — the bigger of the two providers of sat-rad — just because it’s The Latest Thing.

She just got tired of the bland DJs, canned music and endless commercials she endured during a long commute.

“It drove me crazy having to listen to the same old garbage for two hours a day,” says Fryberger.

That might not sound like some grand intersection of cultural phenomena, but it’s a veritable perfect storm that’s blowing satellite radio into the mainstream. As commuters spend more time in cars — an average 26 minutes, each way, according to radio ratings book Arbitron — the sad state of radio is making the ride seem longer and longer.

“Corporate consolidation has increasingly made radio cookie cutter,” says Kit Spring, who follows the radio industry for Stifel Nicolaus, an investment house in St. Louis. “The formats are the same, and there are more commercials. It’s fostered a sense, even among casual listeners, that radio is bland.”

It’s also driven the next level of user to satellite radio. When sat-rad debuted in 2001, it relied on gadget geeks — the same early devotees of cell phones, high-speed Internet, premium-channel cable TV and MP3s. Then came truckers. Then stock traders. News junkies. Music buffs. Sports fans.

“When you add it up, satellite radio exceeded 1 million users faster than any other technological device except the DVD,” says Spring. “And when you factor in unheard-of satisfaction rates — up to 98 percent — it’s a matter of time before it becomes huge.”

Spring estimates 25 million subscribers by the end of the decade. The number will explode if the Federal Communications Commission has its way. In the wake of the Wardrobe Malfunction, the FCC has cracked down on “obscene” content, targeting shock-jocks Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge.

In response, Stern, with 15 million listeners according to Spring, has threatened to bolt to sat-rad, a move that could do for it what “The Sopranos” did for HBO — namely, deliver critical mass.

“There are no restrictions,” says former “Sopranos” star Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore, host of a weekly show on Sirius, the other of the two big sat-rad services.

“Actually, I encourage cursing. Every time someone curses, I throw $5 into a hat and donate it to the church.”

Pastore’s “Wiseguy Show” is a freewheeling mix of “goombah forum” and reviews of flicks, food and, yep, “The Sopranos.”

“This is the best place for guys like me or David Johanson,” says Pastore, referring to the former New York Dolls singer, who also has a show on Sirius. “I do whatever the hell I please.”

Sat-rad content isn’t regulated by the FCC because it is subscriber-based. That freedom fuels rumors that Stern eventually will take his wet-T-shirt show to Sirius. But the station already might have The Big Ticket.

“Having all the NFL games opens us up to people who never thought of satellite radio before,” says Ron Rodrigues, spokesman for New York-based Sirius. “It connects us with the average Joe.”

Like most industry followers, Rodrigues believes that sat-rad is more akin to cable TV than traditional radio. Like HBO or Showtime, it requires an extra commitment on the part of consumers.

Ultimately, sat-rad will have to offer something big and unique to pose a threat to “terrestrial” radio, says Rodrigues.

Or a whole lot of little unique things, says Chance Patterson, vice president of XM. The Washington, D.C.-based company has assembled an ear-popping roster of music.

“Our formats are too cutting edge or narrow for local stations, which cater to such a broad demographic that they no longer have a core audience,” says Patterson.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter

Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.