It’s easy to take for granted the riches that have been delivered to our doorsteps by improvements in entertainment technology.
To put things in perspective, just go out for a drive. There, you’ll be at the mercy of an entertainment device that hasn’t changed significantly in decades: the car stereo.
Oh sure, analog tuners and eight-track tapes have given way to digital displays and CDs. And we can’t overlook the introduction of those giant woofers that provide earthquake-deprived communities with tremors worthy of the San Andreas Fault.
But these changes haven’t improved the basic choices available to drivers. If you tire of the music you bought and brought from home, you’re stuck with the repetitive songs and mind-numbing chatter of local radio.
It won’t be long, though, before your car radio stops singing the same tune. In the next few years, many of the same technologies that have revolutionized home entertainment will be ready to hit the road.
The revolution will begin next year, when two companies will debut satellite radio services that deliver 100 or more channels of digital audio to your car. For $10 a month, you can rise above lowest-common-denominator programming and tune in to Sirius or XM Satellite Radio, the erstwhile HBO and Showtime of the audio airwaves.
Both companies will rely on satellites and land-based repeaters to broadcast their signals nationwide. To pick them up, you’ll need to pay about $300 for a new car stereo.
But satellite-ready radios will be offered as either options or standard equipment beginning next year in cars made by Ford and a few other manufacturers, and XM has negotiated deals to deliver its signal to trucking companies, boats and Avis rental cars.
The timing for these services couldn’t be better. Local radio is already losing listeners to the Net, where music fans can download their favorite songs through Napster and other MP3 swapping software.
But today’s online music scene is far from the final solution. Fans must spend hours sitting in front of their computers, downloading music and looking for hints about new tunes that might be worth a listen. And if you want to take your music on the road, you’ve got to buy a portable MP3 player and start downloading all over again.
This process is fine for those who wish to exercise total control over their music. But for people who just want to turn on a car radio and hear something they’ll like, satellite radio holds much more promise.
Just as cable TV caters to audiences fascinated by history, cooking and other niche interests, satellite radio will deliver an unprecedented feast for fans of genres like opera, industrial music, world beat and reggae.
Sports nuts will be able to listen to their favorite teams play, even if they’re someone else’s local team. And everyone will be able to tune out smarmy morning DJs, wacky car dealers and other atrocities of local radio.
Satellite radio will give drivers the kind of choices Net users already enjoy. And it ought to hold us over until a few more years down the road, when the Internet itself appears on our dashboards.
Tuning out commercials
General Motors already is introducing limited Net access to its on-board On Star system, but it delivers only the company’s own ad-supported content. What I’m waiting for is a full-on audio browser that can play the same streaming music I hear through my PC.
A company called PenguinRadio announced plans earlier this year to produce just such a device. And if car manufacturers aren’t working toward their own audio browsers, they ought to be sued for a negligent lack of foresight.
Will drivers pay for high-quality channels and original content of satellite radio when they have a choice of thousands of commercial stations through the Net? Or will home-brewed pirate stations rule the road, pumping pirated MP3s through satellite links to drivers around the world?
Will artists themselves launch their own nationwide channels, routing around the record labels directly to their fans?
The possibilities will be endless. And that’s quite an improvement over today’s radio, where only the commercials seem that way.
To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill., 60611.