Can’t Compete?  Use The FCC As A Club…

It would appear that XM and Sirius are having an impact on terrestrial broadcasters, and like the Empire, they’re trying to strike back.

The radio wars are escalating. In a one-two punch aimed at enlisting regulators to their cause, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and National Public Radio want the Federal Communications Commission to investigate alleged misdeeds by satellite radio companies XM (XMSR) and Sirius (SIRI).

On Oct. 12, National Public Radio CEO Ken Stern wrote to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin alleging that the satellite broadcasters’ devices interfere with NPR broadcasts. And last week, David Rehr, president and CEO of the powerful NAB, fired off two letters to Martin alleging several regulatory violations.

It would appear that XM hasn’t been quite as diligent as it should have been with regards to following FCC rules with its repeaters, but this whole effort has the stink of sour grapes about it.  It seems, from my viewpoint, that the NAB wants to hobble XM rather than compete with it in the marketplace.  And if the NAB can further hobble XM (and Sirius) by making it subject to content restrictions, so much the better for them.  Or so they think (more on this at the end).

For example, this just seems silly to me:

In its second claim, the NAB contends that XM and Sirius shouldn’t be allowed to give away their products for free to new car buyers or online. Last week, Sirius streamed Howard Stern’s program for free on its Web site.

The NAB argues that such freebies ought to subject satellite radio to the same FCC regulations as those governing terrestrial radio. That likely would trigger restrictions, for example, on language and other racy content.

I think that NAB is trying to insinuate that this somehow brings in FCC broadcast standards, but if that’s the case, then all the podcasters would face a similar fate.  As far as I know, those standards only apply to content transmitted over the “public” airwaves, not to generally-available content.  To get a “free” subscription in your vehicle, you still have to be registered with XM or Sirius (it’s actually your radio’s serial number they use), so it’s still a subscription model and is not generally available to the public over the air.  Further, web content just doesn’t come under the FCC’s purview as I noted.

And then there’s poor NPR, being blasted off the air by all those inconsiderate and uncultured boors who don’t know not to interfere with their betters:

Finally, there’s the third complaint, from NPR, which claims that many FM modulators, used to feed programming from portable satellite radio devices into car stereos, exceed FCC power requirements. That means a driver listening to NPR might suddenly hear a blast of obscenities from Howard Stern from a car as far as 100 feet away. NPR stations have received hundreds of complaints from listeners, says Mike Starling, chief technology officer of NPR Labs, which has studied the issue.

In July, NPR Labs measured FM modulator levels in traffic in the Washington, D.C., area. While it found that 30% to 40% of the modulators exceeded FCC-mandated power levels, the study couldn’t conclusively determine whether satellite radio devices or, say, unrelated MP3 players used in cars were the violators, says Starling.

The majority of these modulators are just devices you can buy at nearly any store these days.  And in fact, it’s up to the FCC to make sure they’re properly regulated.  If they’re out of specifications, then it means that either the FCC failed to do its job or that the distributor of the device itself is in violation.  To say this is directly an XM or Sirius issue is silly, other than where XM or Sirius markets radios with built-in modulators.  But even that is a tenuous link, as XM and Sirius do not make their own equipment, but rather resell equipment from other manufacturers.  It’s up to those manufacturers to follow the FCC rules for transmitter output.

Regardless of whether an FM modulator’s output power is out of specifications, the issue of bleedover on NPR frequencies shows something that I think is interesting about how the market values NPR.  Specifically, it would seem that a significant number of people would prefer to use the frequency for their own purposes rather than listen to NPR.

Personally, I went to XM (and have had, and could live with, Sirius) because I couldn’t stand terrestrial radio.  Even in the unlikely event that the NAB and NPR were somehow able to drive XM and Sirius out of business it would not result in them gaining me as a listener.  I’d just go back to listening to MP3’s, like I did before XM was available in my area.  Although now I could also get more content and have it updated in a more timely fashion (i.e. podcasts).  There were no iPods or podcasts in 1999 when I got my first in-vehicle MP3 player (which required burning CD-ROM’s with the content) and flash-based MP3 players were pretty limited at the time.

This is all rather petty and just makes the terrestrial broadcasters look desperate to me.  It certainly won’t help them gain listeners. 


  1. Ravenwood says:

    Perhaps we should sue NPR for not running commercials in their free broadcasts. They are using taxpayer dollars to gain a competitive advantage over regular stations that have to air commercials.

    Or we could just sue them for sucking.

  2. Jason says:

    Personaly I wont be Happy until I can hear Paul Harvey and Niel Speirry in full HD surround sound.

    Goood   Day