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Breaking Down XM vs Sirius and Their Potential Merger
2007-02-20 22:13
by Scott Long

As an early proponent of Satellite Radio (bought XM the first week it came out), I'm very interested in how the potential merger between the 2 providers will shake out. After having XM for all this time, I purchased a Sirius radio right at the end of 2006. I spend an inordinate amount of time in my car driving to comedy gigs, so I figured that I would get Sirius as well.

Just like how some people love Chevy over Ford, because their first car was a Corvette, I've touted XM. While performing at the DC IMPROV, I met both guys who run the XM comedy channel (Great guys) and was even given a tour of the XM compound. I'm not a fan of the term "state of the art", but there is no better way to describe the XM studios. I've always thought that XM had the superior business model, as Sirius has incurred major debt trying to catch up with the advance start that XM had over them from beginning nearly a year earlier.

While I'm still not sure I'm a fan of the way Sirius conducted their financial business by throwing money at talent like Jim Hendry during free-agency, after being a subscriber for the past 2 months I can tell you it's a superior product. The amount of original programming is much greater on Sirius, with the 2 Howard Stern channels anchoring everything. XM's big move was to sign Oprah to her own channel, which would be a good move, except Winfrey is an infrequent guest on it, instead programming the channel with her friends like Gayle King.

Howard Stern is the greatest radio personality in the medium's history, but since the new millennium on terrestrial radio, he had been emasculated by new FCC restrictions. While still not at his peak levels of the mid-90's (Billy West days), Stern has recaptured much of his energy. With so much time to fill on his 2 channels, he has hired news reporters who break stories and do recaps on all things Stern, which makes for a great meta-comedy experience.

While many outside of the major east and west coast markets think of him being just the sleaze merchant from his Howard Stern E! Channel show, his radio show has always been more than that. The thing that I've always appreciated most about Stern is the way he goofs on celebrities during interviews or when commenting on the news. While Stern's major celebrity guest list isn't as strong since many now ignore him because his listener-ship has dwindled, the show has made up for that by focusing more on the freaks that work on his staff or have become attached from being members of his wack pack.

Sirius has hired many other original talents to host shows on their numerous talk channels. A big surprise to me has been how well-done the Playboy radio channel is put-together. Legendary porn actresses Ginger Lynn and Christy Canyon host a daily show on the channel, where they interact with callers and themselves, discussing most subjects with a candor that would make even Charlie Sheen blush. Another porn actress, Kylie Ireland, does a similar show and is also very good on the mic. It's nice to be able to turn to a station which can provide you with enough inspiration that you feel you can drive sans-hands. Now when is the last time you felt that way when listening to Oldies 104.5?

Both satellite providers give you great options for commercial-free, diverse music channels. Take a click and you will run the gamut from bluegrass, hair metal, techno, punk, blues, alternative or most anything else you would ever want to hear. I don't know if it's because of the particular unit I get the music from, but the Sirius (S50) has a better sound quality than the XM (MyFi).

When it comes to news, XM and Sirius both have similar options, as they have run audio feeds of cable networks such as CNN and Headline News, Fox News, CNBC, Bloomberg, and C-Span. One trump card that XM had was they carried the great MSNBC, but dropped it for reasons unknown to me in September 2006. Outside of listening to C-Span every Sunday to hear the replays of the Sunday Talk programs (Meet the Press, This Week, Face the Nation, etc.), I don't listen to these news channels much, as I'm an MSNBC fan. Still, when there is a major news event happening, it's nice to be able to go to one of these providers, instead of going to your local AM affiliate.

One other plus for Sirius is they have 2 national feeds from NPR. Both have right-wing and left-wing political talk radio channels, but I've personally fallen away from the genre. Air America was a concept that seemed to be desperately needed, but the poor production quality of its broadcasts, plus all the behind the scenes financial f-ups has left it a bit of joke. With Al Franken's departure, it's hard to see how Air America going to stay afloat, unless a voice like Jon Stewart or Bill Maher steps in to bring a high-profile talent to the lineup. Not a likely scenario.

Sports are a big selling point in purchasing satellite radio, with Sirius controlling most of the major events. Sirius is home for the NFL, NBA, NASCAR, and many college sports. XM basically hangs it cap on MLB and the ACC, Big 10, and Pac-10. While the NFL is the glamour name, on radio, baseball is the far superior product, plus it's a godsend to cable subscribing out-of-towners who will now suffer with Direct TV owning the MLB season-pass. Production-wise, Sirius' NFL network talk programs sound superior to the XM's MLB offerings. Like most everything on Sirius, their sports channels seem better thought out.

At this point, the only thing that keeps me with XM is the baseball package and the best radio show on the planet, the Ron and Fez show. Host Ron Bennington is as good of a performer as I've ever heard on radio. Bennington uses his uncensored opportunities provided by satellite radio to bring realism to the discussion. Bennington uses profanity in a natural way, bringing a young DeNiro attitude to talk radio. Add to this that he is well-versed on almost every subject that comes his way, plus he has remarkable comedy timing and I can't wait to listen to him every day.

It will be very interesting to see if the merger is allowed to happen between the 2 satellite companies. Considering they have enough different programming between the 2 of them, I can see why I would like to have them merge into one product, but I'm also concerned about how a monopoly generally means a company is less motivated to improve. In the short-term, I think both XM and Sirius will be adversely affected, as consumers will (justifiably) be apprehensive to buy a new radio when they don't know if it will be the new Betamax by next year. I would suggest if you don't need the baseball package, buy Sirius. Make sure to check out NYC's Free FM internet simulcast of Ron and Fez between 6-9 PM to find out what great talk radio is like.

2007-02-21 01:32:55
1.   al bundy
I just moved back to the US after 3 years of living overseas. After stomaching regular terrestrial radio for a few weeks I purchased Sirius. For about 3 bucks a week it's a great deal.

I'm a big Stern fan so XM wasn't a consideration. But I'm glad to read your conclusion that Sirius is a superior product.

Based on what I've heard on the Stern show, I think your conclusion that Stern isn't pulling in as high quality or frequent celebrity guest is based on faulty information - propoganda put out by the NAB and the terrestrial radio companies. Clear Channel in particular is working overtime to smear Stern and they're using every lie that they can in order to do so. The Stern show has millions of listeners - in the same league or more than Letterman or Leno.

I hope this merger goes through. I will be incredible to have baseball, the NFL and Stern all on the same network. No wonder the NAB is fighting the merger proposal.

2007-02-21 07:55:18
2.   Dango727
I agree with just about everything you've said. I'm a dual subscriber as well, although I had Sirius much longer than I've had XM. Like you, I am also a big fan of Ron & Fez. As a matter of fact, they are the reason for which I became an XM subscriber. I have not missed one single show since they've joined XM and now that they are also on FreeFM, I haven't missed a show there either.
I look forward to the merger. One radio and one bill will be nice. I'm not a fraid of a price hike, because that will only keep potential terrestrial radio fans from exploring the product.
2007-02-21 07:58:13
3.   Scott Long
Stern used to have way more listeners. He likes to claim that he has over 6 million listeners, but that would only be if everyone that owned a Sirius had it on Howard.

In the terrestial days, you could go on his show and promote to specific markets like NYC or LA. (Bands or Comedians doing shows there) Now unless you are doing a nationwide push, it doesn't work the same.

Howard's show is great, but he isn't getting anywhere close to the ratings he used to get. He's also not getting Leno or Letterman ratings, no matter what he claims.

2007-02-21 10:36:45
4.   aboveavg
That you don't even mention Opie & Anthony, the obvious Stern competitor on XM, is appalling. Eric Logan, a VP at XM, has repeatedlty stated that they are the most listend to talk show in the company and they are actually funny, unlike Stern. Same channel as R&F, try waking up a few hours early. It's worth it.
2007-02-21 11:11:34
5.   Scott Long
When Stern was on terrestial and O&A was just on satellite, I did listen to them. Since I have a choice, I choose to listen to a radio that doesn't have all the bullshit FCC restrictions.

Opie and Anthony are great when they do their show for XM (following the walkover). I think they are doing the best they can when they are on terrestial radio. My analogy is when you are 12 and you see your first Playboy it is great, but when you later see your first Club or Swank, it's harder to get your boner over Playboy again. (Too much info?)

Now when comedian Bill Burr sits in with O&A, I think the show is the best there is. It's all about personal likes. I think Burr is at the top of the standup comedy heap right now and he's great on radio.

If you don't have satellite radio, I strongly suggest you check out Opie and Anthony, as they are the top of their profession. Since I have satellite radio, I guess I will go with fewer commercial breaks and uncensored talk.

2007-02-21 12:16:25
6.   Penarol1916
Everything I've read says that the merger has a less than 50% chance of getting FCC approval. The fact that the licenses were granted with the explicit statement that the two grantees were never to merge and the fact that a similar proposed merger between EchoStar and DirectTV was stopped 4 years ago because the FCC granted the licenses with the understanding that there would be no merger.
2007-02-21 12:18:14
7.   jgpyke
XM has the 40s, which is the greatest music channel in the history of broadcast. The songwriting is stellar, and the variety is amazing. From Hoagy to Duke, from Bing to Jordan, it's roots music. Other decades are tired and hackneyed (e.g., the 50s), rendering them unlistenable. Another cool thing is the news reports from this day in the 30s/40s. Tons of WWII stuff, obviously. It's a nice backdrop.

Overall, it's great music for just about any time, esp. gatherings. It offends no one. Pure, clean music.

2007-02-21 17:21:51
8.   PBR
As the guy who runs Playboy Radio, i'm honored and thrilled that you're enjoying the station.
You're not the only one surprised at how good it. Even Sirius was worried after our stint on XM. And truthfully, it's better than even I had hoped.

Some big changes and improvements scheduled for the spring.

Thanks for listening.

2007-02-21 18:48:06
9.   aboveavg
I'm with you,O&A are much better on XM only. Commercials are much easier to bear if you record the show and use the handy skip button though.
2007-02-22 14:59:51
10.   standuptriple
I'm a little worried that the lack of competition will cause the product to suffer (ie. commercials) similar to the steady slide in quality of cable television.
5 Going to see Bill Burr tomorrow night in SF. I'm stoked for his show.
2007-02-22 16:20:13
11.   Ravenscar
I'll make my mark here as one of the people who simply cannot stomach Howard Stern.

I did some work at Sirius when his whole carnival started with the moving over from Infinity. There was some word-of-mouth decree that not a single negative word about Stern could be uttered in the building, which even I admit made sense, he was making them a quadrillion dollars. But there was definitely a whispering - and mostly good-natured, even - underground movement of Stern-haters on the floor. Mostly women, go figure.

As far as the merger goes, it seems like nothing but good stuff for the sports end, if you're an all-over fan. I'm mostly a baseball guy, but I can see the benefits for many. I do wonder who and when a satellite competitor will ever come back, or will it only be internet radio and X-Sirius-M now.

2007-02-22 19:47:06
12.   Eric Enders
I've never subscribed but probably will in the next couple of months or so. The fact that XM has baseball is really the only thing I need to know in choosing between them. (If I'm not mistaken, it also has more/better college hoops, too, right? That being the only other sport I really care about.)
2007-02-22 21:00:18
13.   Scott Long
XM has Big 10, Pac-10, and ACC. Sirius will have all the NCAA tourney again this year.
2007-02-22 22:54:44
14.   al bundy
Before Stern signed with Sirius, they had 800k subscribers. Since his signing, Sirius's new listener subscriptions have skyrocketed and they will soon pass XM if the two remain competitors. If you don't give Stern the credit for the lion's share of that listener add-on, what do you credit? He is the clear difference maker in the success of Sirius.

There are no ratings on satellite radio. That's part of the beauty of it. Subscribe, or don't, that's the choice.

2007-02-28 12:45:06
15.   Rob T
My biggest issue with Howard Stern is him trying to stifle competition. If he has a say in whether or not Opie and Anthony get to compete with him on XM/S, that means the listener is getting jobbed...again. Howard Stern has a quality product. Opie & Anthony have a quality product. If everyone is up to it, let the two shows do battle and if one show does better than the other, ok, king of the mountain is determined, otherwise, Howard Stern would be doing another one of those freedom of speach applies to him only routines and that got really old, really quick. Hey Mel, keep O & A, keep Ron and Fez then you keep lots of XM dollars...rt
2007-02-28 20:48:48
16.   Scott Long
Rob- I agree with a lot of your sentiments and I completely understand why O&A hate Stern so much...however...O&A now are primarily a terrestial radio show. Sure they still are on XM, but the show's content and style is severely limited. All the commercial breaks don't help things either.

I still really like their stuff when they get to XM, but the syndicated terrestial radio gig is their main focus in life. Good for them. They lived their dreams. They have not only gotten back on the big-time markets, but they have replaced their nemesis at the same time. What a cinderella story. Just not one I want to listen to when I have other options.

2007-03-08 21:30:36
17.   xzi
So much missing from this "view".

First of all, why not mention NHL? XM's coverage of NHL is amazing, and includes every game (where Sirius only includes a few) and NHL becomes XM exclusive next seasons.

For college, XM Also has the Big East and SEC in addition to the ACC, Pac-10 and Big-10 (

Also, IRL Racing and the PGA are exclusive to XM in addition to MLB.

Next, why compare the S50 with the MyFi? The XM equivelant is the Nexus, not the MyFi (which is now 3 years old). The MyFi is "generation 1" sound quality. The Inno/Helix/SkyFi3 are the best sounding satellite radio models hands down, and XMHD channels are amazing of which Sirius has no equivelant.

Finally, it's clear you think swearing is necessary for a funny show and that's why Stern is better than O&A, however you claim the Free-FM version of Ron and Fez is just as good as their XM version? Go ahead and say you don't like O&A, but don't claim it's becuase they can't swear, that's silly.

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