Thursday, January 29, 2009

Slacker - a competitor for sat radio? Not...

I've been occaisionally drifiting over to Orbitcast, a blog devoted to news about satellite radio. As a subscriber, I've been interested in what's going on with the merger of Sirius and XM. (Lately, it's been some rate increases on some subscription packages and more changes to channel lineups.)

A few posters in comments there have been referring to Slacker, with some saying they may switch to the service. It's and intriguing idea, but I'm not convinced.

Slacker is a streaming audio service that offers apps for a Blackberry and an iPhone, as well as their own branded mp3 player. You have different channels devoted to popular genres of music (currently, it appears, about a dozen coverning major rock, pop and country). It basically downloads a whole bunch of music, along with commercials, when you're in range of wi-fi and you take the music with you to listen to in your car or whereever. And, it's free and ad supported, though a small subscription fee lets you listen without commercials and "skip" more songs.

I'm not convinced it's a viable competitor for satellite radio as much as it's a competitor for online streaming services like Shoutcast. Slacker works well for people who listen to a narrow range of music all day - if you're into talk, sports, or more esoteric genres, you're out of luck. It just doesn't have the variety of sat radio (or Shoutcast) - no classical, no oldies, no talk stations, and, more importantly to me - no old time radio shows.

That's the beauty of sat radio - it really does have something for everyone. And, since it's live and you're not depending on a mini "library" of songs you've downloaded through wi-fi, you can change channels and explore if you're looking for something new.

It's just too bad the folks running XM and Sirius don't seem to be able to get their act together to make sat radio a viable business. The problem is that the two companies made some very big mistakes. They concentrated too much on getting "names" like Howard Stern and Martha Stewart or expensive sports packages, spending way too much on programming. They were never able to hammer to the American public how cheap the service was for what you get in terms of great uninterrupted music. They concentrated too much on the auto market. Finally, they offered way too many models of radios with varying esoteric features - it was just too complex.

Now, as part of their restructuring, they're taking away free access to online streaming of channels that was formerly part of a basic subscription - you'll have to pay extra for it each month. It was valuable to people who wanted Sirius or XM in their offices where they couldn't have their radio and represents a big downgrade in service for many fans.

There's some dumb people running Sirius-XM.

As much as I've enjoyed the service and dislike the paplum of broadcast radio (even with the added channels of paplum on HD Radio), I'm thinking that sat radio might not survive at all unless they get their act together, particularly with the economy the way it is.

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