Sirius/XM Merger an Opportunity for Openness & Access? LPFM for Satellite?

Matthew Lasar continues his excellent reporting for Ars Technica with an article on a recent letter from House Energy and Commerce Chair John Dingell (D-MI) and Internet subcommittee Chair Edward J. Markey (D-MA) to the FCC urging an open platform for satellite radio if the Commission approves the Sirius/XM deal. What they’re calling for is the ability for any manufacturer to make Sirius/XM compatible satellite radios, without the ability for the merged company to prevent things like iPod docks or HD Radio capability.

Lasar also notes the gathering steam in support for setting aside some of the merged company’s channel capacity for noncommercial programming, similar to what has been required for direct-broadcast satellite TV. Apparently even Clear Channel wants 5% of capacity set aside for “public interest” programming, whatever Cheap Channel means by that.

I oppose the merger on the principled basis of the fact that such a merger was specifically prohibited as a provision of the original authorization of the service. Nevertheless, I recognize that principle rarely rules the day in DC. Therefore I very much support setting aside channel capacity for non-commercial broadcasters as a necessary condition if the FCC chooses to approve the merger.

Obtaining a non-commercial channel on Dish Network was vitally important for Free Speech TV and has allowed that organization to distribute its radically critical grassroots programming in a way that it simply could not before, feeding public access TV stations around the country.

Although internet distribution is still more practical for radio programming than for TV programming, having several nation-wide progressive and grassroots radio channels nonetheless would be a great opportunity, and could be of great service to community radio stations.

A channel I’d love to see is one built on an Indymedia type of model, mixed with Current TV. It would be fed by programming from independent producers and community stations, like the programs you find at the A-Info Radio Project and Radio Indymedia. But, like Current, it should be edited and curated. That is, I’d like to see things selected and knit together into a coherent program flow. Maybe a whole show would be carried, or just a particularly good segment. And then combine these shows and segments with regular hosts and other original content related to particular themes and topics.

In a way, this idea is a lot like what a lot of people over the years have hoped would come of NPR or Pacifica, that they would function truly more like networks connecting up stations than as program syndicators. But I do understand how the overhead of the kind of operations they need to run make playing that networking role more difficult.

That’s the beauty of having new channels on satellite radio — the overhead is comparatively low because you don’t have to worry about physical broadcast stations, licenses or signing up affiliates. Like an internet station, but with a different kind of reach, the low overhead allows more opportunity for experimentation.

Of course the kind of channel I’m envisioning is not necessarily well suited to distributing programming in the same way that Free Speech distributes Democracy Now to stations. That’s why we need to have multiple channels set aside, so there is room for multiple models. Compared even to satellite TV channels, satellite radio channel capacity is cheap. I don’t see any reason why the FCC can’t or shouldn’t make this a condition of approving the merger. It could be like creating LPFM for the nation.

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