Breaking Down XM vs Sirius and Their Potential Merger
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.