Dear Mel Karmazin,

Dear Mel Karmazin,

: I’ve been a Sirius satellite radio customer for three months now and a Sirius shareholder for twice that time. I’m a happy customer; I’d far rather have satellite radio than not. But still, I have some advice for you, Mel:

: First, you are not a satellite company. You are not a distribution company. You are a content company in the age of consumer control. So let me control my content.

You already stream your channels online — though you make it a real pain in the ass to get into it (you have to send me passwords when I should just be able to get there from the account I already have). Just last week, AOL and XM agreed to replace AOL’s sad online radio with XM channels. See also how millions more people watched MSNBC’s pope coverage via streams instead of cable.

Streaming’s OK, but it’s not enough; it’s already so yesterday. Listening to a PC just doesn’t cut it.

So when Howard Stern finally gets fired and rejoins you, I will want his show as a podcast I can download so I can listen to it when and where I want. I’m paying for it, so give it to me that way.

And when I get a broadband phone, I’ll want to stream my favorite shows over the phone instead of your satellite (since it doesn’t work everywhere and it’s bulky and balky).

: As for your music channels, why not let the DJs create iTunes playlists according to their nichey tastes so I can buy from them (and you get a cut, Mel).

Why not also let your audience program some channels: Let various communities submit their playlists and may the best taste win.

: The programming you have now needs work. Lots of work. That’s what I’m paying for: the content. And the content is iffy.

The Elvis channel is a cute idea but it’s a sinful waste of spectrum. Some of the rock channels don’t have clear identities. The classical channels are pap.

Sirius also does a crappy job explaining what the channels are and what’s on them. You should treat every channel as if it were a radio station with clear format and strong marketing.

: I’m glad I can listen to cable news channels in my car. But the obvious killer ap would be to listen to broadcast channels. I’d listen to Today. I’d be happy not to miss Desperate Housewives (though, of course, I would be missing the nicely tight fashions). Go do the deal.

: Your technology — how do I put this? — sucks. In my car, I lose the signal too often. I don’t know what you can do about it, but that’s unacceptable. If you have to microwave my car, get me a stronger, more reliable signal.

At home, the room where I want to listen to Sirius doesn’t happen to be on the right side of the house and so I have to put the silly little antenna on top of bookshelves and wear tin foil to listen; it reminds me of the old days of rabbit ears, man. You need to come up with wireless antennas that can send the signal anywhere in the house. Think wi-fi, Mel.

The design and user interface of my radio is the worst of it. It’s dreadful. The buttons operate differently on the radio and on the remote control (honestly: hit the “up” button on one and the display goes one way; it “up” on the other and it goes the other way… didn’t anybody use this thing before they started selling it?). The screen is impossible to read in the daylight. It takes a damned engineering degree and skill, patience, and time I don’t have to hook and unhook the radio in the car (it should just pop in and out, damnit).

No, I lied, the worst of it is getting the satellite signal into my car radio. Now I have to transmit an FM signal in the car and in a market like New York, where every bit of spectrum is taken, that simply doesn’t work. The sound is awful. I could use a cassette adapter but in my car, the cassette play makes a terrible racket (again, not your fault) and, anyway, cassettes are going the way of dodos. That’s not your fault, Mel. For years, I have wished that car radios came with a simple input plug, like any cheap stereo. You don’t make the cars but you can lobby car manufacturers to fix this for satellite radio… and iPods…. and even using stereo speakers with cell phones. And, no, buying a car radio with the receiver built in doesn’t do the trick since I don’t want to have to buy another radio for my home and pay another monthly fee.

: Which reminds me: Charging me additional fees for additional radios is the mistake the cable industry and the phone industry before it made: Don’t penalize me for wanting to use your service more.

: Now about your advertising: It is unbearable! Sirius is not commercial free — only the music is — and I didn’t get that message when I signed up. I understand that you have to put something in the spots when CNN goes to commercials on TV. I could even tolerate commercials then if it lowered the cost of my subscription. But the commercials and promos you put in there are all for a truckdriver demographic and they’re repeated to the point of getting me to turn back to broadcast. Mel, you’re a salesman, so go sell some real commercials. Anything would be better than that junk.

You’ve been on the job for only a few months. You don’t even have Howard — and his new channels — yet. I’m patient. But I thought a few suggestions might be helpful….

  • Does anyone have these same problems with XM? Is the above a Sirius only thing or is XM lacking as well?

  • Doug C.

    I don’t have these problems with my XM SkyFi2 and I live in Queens. It has built in wireless FM modulation and it works great – both in my car and in my apartment. Delphi took all the complaints of the previous SkyFi (display not readable in sunlight, line out weak) and corrected the problems – even adding a memory buffer so I can pause and fast forward – really awesome. Not to slight Sirius, but one of their biggest problems is their awkward hardware. I’m looking forward to subscribing to their programming once they come out with a nice receiver. The Rego looks pretty hot, but it doesn’t come out for another month or so.
    Here at my job in Jersey City, I have no problems either. XM also has commercials on their news channels, MLB and Opie & Anthony. The news channel commercials are truly annoying – repetitive and boring. Opie & Anthony’s commercials are more entertaining with live reads and occasionally spicing it up with comedy bits. Good stuff.
    What I’m curious to know, is if I get a Verizon Treo 650 with EVDO, can I use XM online? I doubt it, but once Verizon gets its act together, I’m going to make it happen somehow…

  • David

    I believe XM has even more commercials on it. It’s just technology. I’ve had Sirius for about 2 years. I recently bought the Sportster unit to replace my Kenwood Unit which was bigger. The Sportster is much nicer and in 2 years the equipment they sell will be even better. Your using bleeding edge stuff here. The second problem is with all cars that don’t have AUX plugs. I have a Kenwood Stereo with AUX inputs so my Sportster sounds crystal clear. Sometimes I get a dropped signal but no much and I drive an hour to work and and hour home. It’s still better than regular radio signal wise. The music is far better than anything on the FM dial. But you need and AUX input of some kind to get really good sound.
    I’ve heard if you plug in the FM antenna that comes with home stereos, which are cheap anyway at Radio Shack you need to add a headphone jack on the end though and you’ll get almost perfect reception using the FM transmitter.

  • The future is on demand. These holy-rollers and their indecency crusade could free us from high cable bills by forcing debundling of channels and side-step their indecency regulations by having us DIRECTLY CHOOSE what we want to listen to or watch. And us, as consumers, pay for what we watch, and don’t subsidize that other eleventybillion channels we don’t care about. Broadcast=old and busted. Choicecast=teh new hotness.

  • Dennis Mosher

    Problem is, the censoring holy-rollers won’t stop.
    Every modern TV has the V-chip. Most cable boxes have channel filtering functions. They’re still not satisfied.
    As soon as ala carte cable channel ordering arrives, blue nose Miss Grundy is going to demand HBO and Showtime — but she’ll want it cleaned up first.

  • Paw

    rzklkng: while unbundling of cable channels from enforced packages makes sense on paper, the sad fact is that if this occurs (and I believe basic cable services will accept some form of content regulation before it does), prices will not drop commensurately. One, the services you are most likely to unload cost the cable company a fraction of what the services you are most likely to keep do. Two, since cable companies are a virtual monopoly in your neighborhood, they will be free to change pricing by channel as they see fit, while maintaining a discount if you take the full menu. This will minimize any savings you think you may be entitled to.
    As far as broadcast being old and busted is concerned, cable penetration is roughly 85% to 88% of all TV households in this country – almost 9 of 10 households are wired. I invite you to peruse the weekly listings of the most popular programs on television. Invariably, at least the top 50 are seen exclusively on broadcast TV. Seems like someone’s still watching…

  • Great post Jeff, but after that extensive list of Sirius shortcomings, it’s hard to imagine you as a “happy customer.”
    In fact, if my experience were to even approach yours – I think I’d take a pass on satellite radio for a while. (Not Ready For Drive-time?) I don’t need more frustration in my life and passwords, antennas, nickel/dimeing additional fees are a prescription to send me right back to over-the-air radio where I can get hassle-free content – for free.
    Yes I’ll miss the Chinese hymn stations, but I’ll get along. And my heart will be empty not hearing Howard tossing the F bomb – but I can always invite my Uncle Lenny over.

  • I have both Sirius and XM right now. Your concerns about Sirius are valid from a content standpoint, but as for the programming, I’ve found XM to be virtually unlistenable. I have it for baseball and I don’t think even that will be enough to justify it. Sirius is good, though. Sometimes it’s repetitive, but at least it usually plays songs I’ve heard and more importantly, want to hear again. XM is basically extreme college radio: hipper than the listener and proud to condescend.
    The comments about the technology are accurate. I’ve been watching and trying the technology for several years now and there have been tremendous strides. XM is ahead because it launched first, but Sirius is catching up quickly.
    As for the signal, the satellite positions determine the strength. Sirius and XM have their satellites in different orbits. XM provides better coverage inside buildings, while Sirius provides better coverage in outlying areas and diverse terrain areas. I have many more issues with XM in my car than I do with Sirius, but I can barely listen to Sirius at home. So, yeah, I’ll echo your request for a way to send my signal all over my house.
    Commercials: XM has more, in my opinion. The only reason XM doesn’t have commercials on the music channels is because of Sirius. And now XM costs the same $12.95 that Sirius charges.
    I don’t really see a Stern podcast happening. I don’t see a reason not to have a timer and record feature on a receiver, though. It should act like a TiVo. When Sirius comes up with the portable equivalent to XM, this would be almost as convenient as a podcast.

  • Dr. Fager

    I’ve had XM for almost 3 yrs. I waited in anticipation for it for 3 yrs before that. Someone not knowledgable about satellite radio would gather from your post that it’s not worthwhile.
    Nothing could be further from the truth.
    Why don’t you try comparing it to broadcast radio? Broadcast radio is dogshit and has been for years.
    I don’t have time to go through your complaints one by one but I will say that XM hardly ever fails in the car. At home, my antenna is really not facing in the right direction either, but it’s still pretty reliable.
    To those of you reading J. Jarvis post, while some of his complaints have some validity, there’s really only one test for satellite radio. If you like music you want it, period.

  • spot on post…good job…I have three subscriptions to XM for three different locations…I need more locations, but it’s getting insane to pay more subscriptions for the same thing, just because I want it in a different room…
    thinking of cancelling them all and just doing rhapsody/napster streamed through the house.
    For on the road, will make do with itunes/mp3s and podcasting.
    will see if the satradio companies change their tune.

  • I’ve had XM for years now and I listen to only 5 of it’s 200 channels; and it’s worth every penny.
    Yes, I can’t choose the song I want to hear. True, there is no podcasting. It is correct there is no (legal?) way to download/purchase the music I hear. You are correct that the XM SkyFi does cut out going under thicker freeway overpasses.
    It doesn’t matter.
    It’s still way better than free radio. There are no commercials on my music channels. That’s good enough for me, for now. The best thing we can hope for is that XM and Siruis push each other to be better and provide more. The worst case scenario is where one company goes under. In that case, the other becomes immediately complacent.

  • PAW, I don’t want to make any assumptions, but you sound as though you are personally invested in this topic. Note that I said “broadcast” = old and busted, not cable/satellite. I’m sure Jeff linked to this earlier (from BoingBoing), but all of the legacy entertainment systems are shrinking, namely print, magazines, and TV, while “newer” mediums like satellite radio, internet, DVDs, and video games are growing.

  • John

    Jeff, apparently Mel has taken your suggestions to heart, thought about what Sirius really needs to do to improve its customer service and has come up with…
    The Martha Stewart Channel!
    I now don’t feel nearly as angry at XM for planning to put The Golf Channel on its system when both XM and Sirius are struggling to deal with current FCC-imposed satellite bandwidth limitations.

  • Paw

    Rzklkng, not personally invested per se, just trying to put some perspective on what “growing” and “shrinking” actually mean. I looked at the link you provided and you are absolutely correct – broadcast TV share of total audience has declined significantly in the last 20 years. One would expect no less in an environment where viewer choices and channel distribution have grown exponentially over that period of time. However, it makes sense to put it in context. While the 6 broadcast services only control 50% of viewership in primetime, the remaining 50% is divided among dozens of cable program services, minimizing the individual impact of any single service. Will there come a time when a cable network, satellite service or website runs a program as top-of-mind and impactful as DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES? Probably. It may happen sooner than it would have in the past, because new technology seems to work its way into mainstream consciousness more quickly than in years past. It’s just not happening today.
    Always remember the mantra, Rzklkng: Numbers come with points of view, numbers do what we want them to…

  • Absolutely great! If he does one tenth of what you suggest, you should get his yearly bonus.

  • Christopher Rake

    That’s not your fault, Mel. For years, I have wished that car radios came with a simple input plug, like any cheap stereo
    For the life of me I don’t know why 99.99% of auto receievers don’t do this. For years before XM I was plugging portable CD players into car radios via the cassette adapters you can still get at Radio Shack, and I remember one great US Open (golf) that I was able to listen to by plugging the same adapter into a small Sangean am/fm radio that also has VHF television stations…found local NBC tv stations carrying the championship almost all the way from DC to the Outer Banks. (And why don’t car radios have UHF stations available either?)
    I actually ran across one auto receiver with a mini plug input that was being sold by Crutchfield a few years ago. Thought it was the wave of the future, but nooooooo.
    Have XM. Love it. Rare signal problems with my first-generation Sony receiver, usually occasioned by 1000-foot-tall obstructions filled with limestone, also known as “mountains.”

  • Jeff

    I think all of you bashing XM are crazy. I like hearing music i don’t know. It expands your knowledge of artist and music in general. Sirius is being run like a regular radio stration and is going to be kicking themselves when investors realize that Sirius is a bad investment and pull out. Just recently announced Martha Stewart. Mel is buying all this lame crap so he can sell commercials, not becuase it is something people want to hear. I really only listen to a few of the music channels also. To that bum that says XM is unlistenable, what are you smoking? Sirius puts station ID after every song or virtually every song. XM put station ID on about every 20-30 minutes. That i find unlistenable, i know what staton i am listening to i can see it on the display for GOD sakes. Baseball Rocks and Football SUCKS on the Radio. Yeah football has huge “viewership” but that doesn’t translate in to radio well. Opie and Anthony are way funnier and fresher than Big Baby Stern. He complains all the time and thinks he was the first to do everything. “I Invented the Radio Robin, Hoo hoo.” what a baby. Even Howard knows Sirius is the inferior prouct. Last year before he signed with Sirius he was doing XM Live Reads on his radio show. Howard has XM and Listens to Opie and Anthony and can’t do shit about them. Howard is only doing M-TH and taking ten weeks of Vacation a year, WTF. Anyone paying for Sirius should not stand for that. As for the recording of shows to listen to whenever you want, Only XM has a portable recording radio Ha Ha! I get sick and tired of dumbass people whining and crying about stupid shit. If you don’t like something XM or Sirius is doing then cancel the service. You can do that it is easy just call and say I Quit.

  • I haven’t had any reception problems with Sirius in my car. I bought the unit years ago and it is the type that you can bring into the house or on the boat with you, supposedly, but it was just too much trouble. I just listen through the computer at home and at work.
    But I have wondered, like you, why they have not partnered with iTunes. I often listen to a new song on Sirius and buy it on iTunes. If they had a “Buy This Song Now” that links to iTunes on their Web player instead of their “Buy This Album Now” that links to Amazon, it would be much more useful. (I’m much more apt to buy a song than a whole album these days.)
    The commercials are why I don’t listen to any of the news or talk content unless I’m on a long road trip. For some reason, I find the commercials even more annoying than the local fodder on the local stations. And it’s also why I wanted to scream during the Howard Stern hoopla when a reporter started talking about you paid for satellite so you didn’t have to hear commercials – the Howard Stern Show will have commercials. And they also inevitably mentioned that soon iTunes would probably kill satellite radio anyways – not getting that often the two actually feed off of each other, rather than negating each other.

  • XM is really more commercial

  • Mark