As the hours tick by while interested observers of the XM/Sirius digital radio merger await word on final approval by the FCC, it may be worthwhile to wonder how in the heck we even got here. We're holding our collective breath, but aren't we supposed to be laughing?
The merger of Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio Holdings -- the only two providers of digital audio radio service -- creates a satellite radio monopoly. Look in the dictionary. They have no other entities to compete with in the entire digital audio radio space. That's what a monopoly is.
The guy in charge of this lovely noncompetitive shebang is Mel Karmazin, CEO of Sirius and CEO of the monopoly-to-be. He is a real charmer with a long history of sexism and racism. Some of his finer moments include saying he wouldn't have fired Don Imus for his racist comments last year about the Rutgers women's basketball team. (Don't take my word for it, take his.) He's a great supporter of shock jock and fellow charmer Howard Stern who, as we all know, loves women of all colors--that is, as long as they show him their breasts. Now Karmazin says he will allocate four percent of the public spectrum for coverage of minorities and women. He's keeping the other 296 channels -- a vast amount of spectrum, or enough programming for every local market in the country -- for his own delights. That's peanuts. Maybe he thinks putting Imus on to denigrate African Americans constitutes coverage?
There was a time when the very idea of XM and Sirius coming together was verboten. The FCC itself distributed licenses to XM and Sirius in 1997 on the condition that the two companies never merge. Then in March the Justice Department said nah, a monopoly satellite radio provider would not harm consumers because there are other alternatives for consumers. Not digital radio ones, of course. But they're right -- there are all kinds of alternatives for consumers. They can listen to local radio, or go to the movies, or read comic books. (Can you imagine the Justice Department saying you can't find minority programming on cable TV but you can always put up bunny ears? Hope you kept yours.)
Yet the FCC is now hard at work deciding how to make sure the merger can satisfy public interest standards by setting aside channels for noncommercial and minority programmers. You go right ahead, FCC, think up some nice tight rules to force Karmazin into some kind of position of fairness to women, minorities, and consumers. You've got your work cut out for you.