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XM, iPod can't touch that dial

By Clayton CollinsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 23, 2007

Satellite-radio firms XM and Sirius announced this week their intention to merge in the interest of boosting program offerings that now reach a combined 14 million listeners.

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Meanwhile, consumer interest grows around high-definition (HD) radio – which lets even "terrestrial" programmers deliver digital clarity and also piggyback multiple signals for simultaneous broadcast.

You might think traditional radio's golden age had long since passed. But despite the rise of deep, personal libraries of digital music, MP3-ready cars with 10-CD changers, and yes, subscription satellite-radio channels for every listener niche, broadcast radio still sizzles.

Although total listening time may have declined a bit, the medium still reaches more than 90 percent of Americans age 12 and older, year after year.

"It's free and it's readily available," says Thom Mocarsky, a senior vice president at industry-tracker Arbitron. "The average household has about a half-dozen radio receivers, in the home and in the car, and it's an established part of our lives."

It's a part facing some change of its own. All these digital developments have renewed debate about the evolution of programming. There's the rise of radio with a Web-based video component. And there's the continuing effect of an older trend toward a more "corporate" brand of radio.

At its best, many experts agree, radio has traditionally been "local" and personality- driven in its programming, even advancing local artists. At least some of the time, even choice-happy audio consumers like being surprised. Local focus, say Mr. Mocarsky and others, has helped make radio somewhat bulletproof in the face of all that clamoring for ear-share.

But even as HD promises new levels of clarity for many listeners – the worldwide market for digital radio receivers will grow from 5 million units in 2005 to nearly 25 million in 2010, says market-research firm In-Stat – consolidation of the broadcast industry has threatened that vital localness by imposing cookie-cutter playlists and formats, some experts say.

A recent draft FCC report showed a nearly 6 percent increase in the number of commercial radio stations in the US between 1996 (a year of major deregulation) and 2003. The same report indicates the number of radio-station owners declined by 35 percent.

Some big-chain stations call themselves by a male first name – "Mike" or "Doug" – and boast of being mostly DJ-free and open-format, inclined to play just about anything, like a broadly programmed iPod on shuffle.

"[It's] the 'Jack' format," says Todd Spencer, a writer and former managing editor of the renowned radio trade journal Gavin.

Hark, say some, the tinny ring of automation. "A person might recognize good local radio if they heard it, but they won't recognize what's wrong with the bad radio they do hear," Mr. Spencer says. "That's what big radio has been banking on since 1996 and the Telecom Act, as they've taken it from an art form and a conduit for community service and turned it into an ATM."

Not that freewheeling local content is consistently brilliant. Some stations ramp up their antics, perhaps in an effort to compete with less-regulated satellite. Consider the much- publicized episode last month at a Sacramento, Calif., station in which a woman died after participating in a contest for a video-game system that involved drinking copious amounts of water. (A lawsuit is pending.)