February 8, 2005
New York radio has never done it for me. In all my stints of living here I've listened to exactly one station, WFMU. And WFMU isn't even based here, it broadcasts out of Jersey City. LA had a couple of good stations, KCRW being the big gorilla of radio goodness. There were also several good college stations scattered about although I could only ever pick them up in the Valley.
Anyway, frustrated with local NY radio, in my general quest to make everything digital, and because of Jenn's desire to have music in the kitchen, I impulsively bought a Tivoli tabletop radio with Sirius satellite radio.
Spying the attractive Tivoli box, visiting friends instantly assume we are in radio nirvana, but it hasn't worked out that way.
First the satellite radio sound quality is poor--probably worse than normal radio. This is, I'm sure, a consequence of living in a city with lots of tall buildings, but even with a clear view of the sky... not so good. (normal radio on the Tivoli sounds great).
The second issue I have is the whole concept Sirius is built on, namely mainstream narrowcasting. There are 184 channels each one very specifically focused on a certain type of music. So for example, there are 6 jazz channels, each dedicated to a different type of jazz, but each is basically a "greatest hits" channel. None delves deep. And many of the DJs are just record spinners who just read label info and put on records almost at random. My idea of a jazz dj is some former beatnik who lives in a house whose foundation is crumbling from the weight of the records it bears, a guy who gets furious when you make a mistake identifying a session drummer on Bill Evans live show... a guy who wants to share what he knows because he loves and breaths the music.
Ditto for the punk DJ, ditto for the old time country DJ, etcetera. Wait. Sirius has no pure punk channel. Nor does it have a real classic country channel (it has something called the roadhouse prone to playing 70's crap. Where's my Tex Ritter, Hank Snow, and Jimmie Rodgers? How about some Collins kids.) How about playing music that music buffs actually get excited about?
Sirius has it all wrong. They are taking the same approach that Clear Channel used to destroy commercial radio, except they have more bandwidth available and are making each channel more specific. There is logic to this, but ultimately this strategy will always lose out to the ipod. The ipod is the ultimate narrowcast, it's only the music you already love, commercial free delivered whenever you want it.
How does satellite radio compete against this? By offering real DJs in the mode of the late John Peel. People who are fearless musical explorers with a taste for the unordinary. A good DJ brings you into his world, if he is happy, he plays happy songs, if he's sad he'll play an hour of music that will break your heart, if it's raining he might play a couple of rain songs. He doesn't stick to one genre or time period. He just plays the next song that needs to be played because it feels right. That's radio that excites and draws people in, not this mindless polite stuff they are now broadcasting from too many channels.
Sirius also has commercials (for Sirius!). The shame.