XM, iPod can't touch that dial

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.

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.)

Still, say proponents of independent radio, a lot of promising, low-profile talent – the type that is today more likely to be self-promoted on YouTube or MySpace – increasingly finds itself blocked from an old favorite avenue.

"As you get consolidation on the national level seeping down to the local level, what you get is a loss of local content," says Derek Turner, research director at Free Press, a Washington-based organization that advocates public participation in media-policy debates. "You don't have local artists being able to break through anymore because these stations are dictated a format and a playlist from the top down."

Phoenix-area band manager Nancy Stevens was a program director in 2001 when Hispanic Broadcasting Company bought out the indie station at which she worked and changed its format.

"Everyone was out," she says. "We were such a great family at that point and making a true name for the Edge, I couldn't let the brand die."

Ms. Stevens found a 50,000-watt station called Party 103.9. "[They were] playing anything they could get their hands on," she recalls. She met with the owner and was able to find work for her staff.

But four years later, when she was operations manager, came another buyout. Riviera Broadcasting moved in. (It would later pick up another Phoenix station.)

"Riviera's main gentlemen were straight from Corporate Radio and definitely brought the vibe along," Stevens writes in an e-mail. "[They] made a lot of changes in personnel, and we lost the independent vibe fast."

For Stevens, "Part of being a program director was to go out and see what my community was listening to and watching in concert," she says. "It gave me a great insight on where the music was headed.... Nowadays, I believe radio is in a lost world."

But if hometown airplay isn't helping local artists break out in the way it once did, local markets are hardly being ignored by big radio players, says a spokeswoman for Clear Channel, the 1,000-plus-station giant based in San Antonio.

At Clear Channel, "the business model is locally focused because of the nature of the business," she says. "The vast majority of advertising dollars are local, so it's all about local content." Clear Channel has program directors spread around the country, she points out.

The broadcaster's shows already include city-tailored offerings – live gospel talent in Atlanta, for example. "Live & Local" is a major category on the Clear Channel website.

And HD radio, she notes, will help broadcasters of all sizes to broaden programming, even within small local markets. "The market reality that you don't want to compete with yourself actually pushes diversity," the spokeswoman says.

"The beauty of HD is that you can send two and maybe three program streams simultaneously," says Dennis Wharton, an executive vice president at the National Association of Broadcasters. "A station in Boston that has an all-news talk station as its primary signal would be able to send a second program stream that might be a hip-hop station."

"There is a lot of experimentation going on," Mr. Wharton says. "We're evolving and responding to listener demands."

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