Obit: Commercial Radio? 

Satellite radio dishes up a serious challenge.

Nothing can kill commercial radio — except, perhaps, radio itself, in an emerging new form. I spent a few weeks at a distant locale in the Caribbean where television signals could be picked up only by satellite or cable. And the only commercial radio signals you could depend on came from small regional stations that specialize in reading lengthy obituaries of every person who has died in the islands that week. And I mean l-o-n-g-g-g obituaries, death notices that list each of the 43 surviving aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, cousins and in-laws, individually, by name, so that nobody is offended by being left out.

After the obits, there was a local talk-show host who seemed bent on debating, day after day, the pressing question of whether the judging of the junkanoo competition at last year's carnival parade had been rigged by evil political forces.

I can attest from previous trips to this locale that there's nothing more disheartening for a poorly conditioned 55-year-old man who's trying to do manual labor than to do it to the tune of three hours of broadcast obituaries.

It makes one nervous that every simple muscle ache or chest palpitation might be what Fred Sanford used to call "the big one." And whether the locals would deign to slip my obit in there among the rest, as a tribute to that strange outlander who kept making such an early morning racket with his power tools.

So this year I did something different. I packed along a boom box that has a satellite receiver installed, and I subscribed to a satellite-radio service.

Upscale automobiles have been offering satellite radio for a couple of years, as have some of the TV satellite services. But manufacturers have now rigged portable radios to get the same signals. I bought one the very morning it arrived at Radio Shack, just days before I left town. I know better, from commercial radio's history, than to predict its death. But if I were a DJ, a drive-time shock-jock, a talk-show host or a radio advertising sales rep, I'd be very, very nervous about what's coming out of the skies on the satellite radio bands.

What I got every morning over coffee was a roundup of global events from a choice of National Public Radio, MSNBC, Fox News, CNN and others, including the venerable, informative and highly entertaining BBC out of London.

When I'd had enough news and needed a shot of music to paint by, there was an endless list of commercial-free music "streams" to choose from: alternative rock, classic rock, classic album rock, just plain classical, Latin, reggae and world-beat dance-hall tracks — about any music choice you can imagine.

When the sun started to sink low, when it was time to drop the power tools and pick up a power drink, it was pure heaven to tune to the blues channel.

What could possibly go better at sunset with a cool vodka tonic and a sliver of fresh lime than a cool, little sliver of Bessie Smith or John Lee Hooker?

What was missing from the mix was an endless barrage of mattress commercials, mortgage shills, gold-coin scams and miracle herbal cures, angry talk-show screamers, their mouth-breathing listeners who seem even angrier — and, of course, the broadcast warnings of storms that already have passed and traffic accidents that are said to be tying up the roadways hours after the tow trucks have hauled away the wreckage. All that goes without mentioning that if you do get lucky and hear some music, you'll likely hear the same 11 songs over and over and over again. You'd have to decide for yourself whether it's worth a subscription fee of $9.95 a month to be free of that relentless babble. But even as a dedicated cheapskate with a deep-seated Scottish genetic code, at 33 cents a day I found it to be a pretty good deal. Less than a pack of chewing gum.

Commercial radio may never die. But if someday I hear its obit broadcast over a satellite radio feed at a remote Caribbean outpost, it won't come as a shock.

And if "free" commercial radio in America gets any worse than it is right now, its funeral won't draw many mourners. Probably won't draw flies. S

Dave Addis is a columnist for the Virginian Pilot.Contact him at (757) 446-2726 or dave.addis@cox.net.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.



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