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Radio isn't just AM and FM anymore, or necessarily free.  People are paying to have music is delivered to homes and cars every day via satellites.  And traditional radio broadcasters are looking to spice their stations up with new digital services.  Competition, free radio, and even questions about indecency over the airwaves are at stake as these new services gain in popularity. 

Satellite Radio

Traditional radio broadcasters have faced a barrage of complaints recently for what many perceive as monotonous song playlists interrupted by lots of commercials.  The FCC licensed two companies to launch satellites and challenge radio broadcasters.  The two satellite radio providers, XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio, have both rolled out lineups with over a hundred radio stations. 

On satellite, the channels are devoted to targeted audiences.  But they don't share channels — for instance, only XM has the NASCAR sports/talk, an African-American talk channel and games from Major League Baseball, while Sirius has games from the National Football League, National Public Radio, a lesbian and gay-themed channel and Catholic-themed programming.

While there are more channels and fewer ads on either satellite radio service, they require expensive upfront equipment costs, possible installation charges, and monthly service fees from $10-13 per month.  But this new technology is drawing the ire of some, including traditional radio broadcasters who are fighting the satellite companies' efforts to distribute local traffic and weather to listeners in large cities. 

Satellite radio companies are not allowed to broadcast local news, nor are they obligated to serve the public interest like local radio stations or subject to FCC rules on indecent programming. That's why some popular radio DJs that have entertained huge audiences decided to move their programs off traditional radio to satellite radio.

Digital Radio

Audiophiles, music enthusiasts who strongly prefer high-fidelity sound, have always complained about the sound of AM and FM radio stations.  Because analog AM radio stations delivered a fine signal from old vinyl LP records and analog FM stations delivered a signal on-par with cassette tapes, radio stations and technology companies are delivering radio to consumers used to high-fidelity CDs.

The FCC promises that Digital AM radio can sound like the current FM stations, and that digital FM stations can provide crystal-clear sound.  Additionally, digital radio stations plan to introduce new data and information services.  Some data streams might send new software to your car's computer systems, while other digital radio broadcasts might be pay-services similar to satellite radio.

Drawbacks to Digital Radio: Media Activists Get Heard

But some media activists like the Prometheus Radio Project aren't excited about digital radio at all because it still relies on the tired, monotonous playlists of current radio stations — and it potentially blocks low-power stations from ever getting off the ground.

Like digital television, there will be a transition from the current analog radio to digital radio.  Unlike DTV, however, broadcasters aren't given new spectrum to use as distinct digital radio channels.  This means that analog signals will continue to work for the foreseeable future, and that digital radio is merely an additional option. 

Engineers, however, like Jonathan Hardis, told the FCC that the group they chose to come up with a technical standard for digital radio decided on an incomplete standard--the details of which will protect companies who promised to develop open standards but instead those details as trade secrets. 

Artist coalitions, like the Future of Music Coalition, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), and the American Federation of Musicians, among others, are using the transition to digital radio (particularly in comments (PDF) and reply-comments (PDF) to the FCC) to remind policymakers that artists aren't paid for their creations when played on the radio. These groups argue that broadcast radio should act more like satellite radio (XM and Sirius), music over television (which many digital cable subscribers get) and streaming webcasts — all of which compensate artists and record companies. 

Personal Copying of Radio Broadcasts

Recently, the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade association for music labels, proposed changes to the way consumers could use songs and programs broadcast over the radio. Consumers Union, Public Knowledge and Consumer Federation of America filed comments and reply comments with the FCC focusing on this proposal from the record industry.

Among other things, their proposal would prevent consumers from:

  • Programming recordings of less than 30 minutes
  • Storing a single song from a programmed recording
  • Listening to a recording session and choosing to save one or two songs only
  • Combining recorded songs into a single "mix tape"

The consumer and public interest groups found that the recording industry's proposal was not aimed at merely to stopping consumers from redistributing the songs over the Internet -- the industry was attempting to prevent noncommercial home recording of material broadcast over the public airwaves — a right that Congress expressly protected when it passed the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992.  The FCC rejected their proposal, but the recording industry took the fight to Congress.  Public Knowledge and Consumers Union publicly decried these efforts.