Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On the Long Tail of Satellite Radio

The decision of Sirius XM to raise their subscription prices seems to be creating a lot of reverberations on the CNET Blog Network. Today's contribution came from Don Reisinger's Digital Home blog and includes a hyperlink to Steve Guttenberg's recent rant on his Audiophiliac blog. Reading these two pieces side-by-side has left me wondering about just who the 18.6 million subscribers (according to Guttenberg) are, what their demographics are, and what they actually do with their subscriptions. The one thing I know for certain is that my own listening habits bear absolutely no resemblance to those of either Reisinger or Guttenberg. Now, to be fair, regular readers may recall that I have previously attacked Guttenberg for promoting listening habits that have more to do with the physical properties of signal reproduction than with the content actually being reproduced; and today's post by Reisinger gives the strong impression that he cares about little other than providing his daily existence with a "background soundtrack." In other words, by the criteria set by Igor Stravinsky, neither of these guys is really listening; and there may even be some question about whether or not they are hearing!

I have what I think is the first XM receiver model that went on the market, manufactured by Sony. I purchased it shortly after XM launched; and after many years of satisfied listening (and remaining satisfied after the merger with Sirius), I have five presets that are pretty firmly ensconced on my device. Two are for "news and information," the BBC World Service and C-SPAN. I have the Real Jazz channel for my jazz and two channels for classical: Symphony Hall and Met Opera Radio. All of these channels demand serious listening, albeit in different ways; and it would be safe to say that I take my receiver far more seriously than any device that receives FM or AM.

The problem is that those latter devices no longer provide much that holds up to serious listening. Where radio is concerned, San Francisco has become the new generation of the "vast wasteland." NPR has become so overloaded with audio pabulum that I have pretty much abandoned them in favor of Amy Goodman's DemocracyNow!, while classical music is represented by KDFC, a station that may have become financially viable by attracting considerable advertising but has, as a result, reduced listening experiences to inadequate excerpts inserted between incessant chatter. Even Stravinsky's duck (which hears but does not listen) would probably be frustrated with this station!

In traveling across this country at various times, I have discovered that just about every community has some core of classical music lovers. They rarely make for a sizeable majority of the demographic, but they are serious about their listening. If a city as large as San Francisco can no longer satisfy such listeners over either FM or AM, I can imagine what it is like in less populated areas of the country. Satellite radio may now be the only way for much of this country to hear classical music through a broadcast medium. Now someone like Reisinger probably gives little thought to this demographic, and he also probably assumes that they could always solve their listening problem with some combination of iPod and iPhone technologies. However, this would miss the point: The broadcasting of classical music used to be a primary medium for discovery; and those two channels on my presets still serve that purpose (as does my jazz selection). The question now is whether both serious listening and discovery are so far out there on the long tail to be recognized as significant in the economy of "new media."

Over on I wrote that those of us currently on a tight budget can turn to cyberspace for "alternative" concert experiences. It was not that long ago that we had radio stations that could bring us broadcast performances of both symphony orchestras and opera companies from across the country (and sometimes from around the world). I think it is admirable that cyberspace is now playing this role (and, in many cases, playing it very well); but the result may be that large chunks of the American population are now being cut off from the experience, lacking both suitable Internet technology and a radio station as providers. This may turn out to be yet another variation on the ways in which Google may be "making us stupid," as Nicholas Carr put it, not by providing us with impoverished content but by cutting off the opportunities for those with more substantive content to get through to us. In other words the same forces that are gradually depriving us of the benefits of a local newspaper are also taking away our opportunities for a richer cultural life, even if we draw upon such opportunities only occasionally.

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