Radio sucks.

Across the dial each morning, teams of overcaffeinated on-air “personalities” start your day with jarring jive, vapid phone calls from bleary listeners, overhyped contests, and the occasional hit song of the moment. It’s all mixed into a matrix held together with weather, traffic, headline news, and advertisements—lots of advertisements. At some stations, more than a third of each hour is given over to nonmusical clutter.

As the sun rises higher in the sky, things don’t get much better. The personalities surrender their seats to the shift workers, who slog through the day playing the same records they played yesterday and the day before. Talk-show hosts struggle to be topical, but the dead air as they turn the pages of the newspaper looking for more things to talk about is telling. They don’t have anything to say.

It’s not just Washington. Radio sucks everywhere. There are 12,000 radio stations in this country, and nearly half of them play the same three formats—contemporary music, country, or news—using a common template that hasn’t changed since the ’70s.

Federal deregulation policies that began with the Carter administration and continued through the Clinton administration lifted ownership limitations and made it possible for broadcasters to buy up more bandwidth in single cities than ever before. Companies that owned a few stations were bought by companies that owned a few more, which in turn changed the stations to suit their needs, until only a few formats managed by multi-billion-dollar conglomerates came to dominate the radio airwaves—which are supposed to be used in the “public interest.”

But “public interest” has given way to “vested interest.” Radio has become a delivery system for advertisements—and nothing more. And what’s infuriating about radio—a $17 billion-a-year industry—is that it could be so much better. There are examples: All across the country, there are daily or weekly programs that engage and challenge the listener. They’re not easy to find, but when you do find them, you tend to become such a devoted listener that you never turn off the station except when the key is removed from the ignition.

KNON-FM in Dallas kicks ass each night with a revolving lineup of one- and two-hour programs by longtime volunteer DJs who live for their weekly shifts. Those jocks put into context rockabilly, death metal, trip-hop, reggae, polka, “African Ambiance,” Native American, and, for God’s sake, pre-Columbian music. KNON’s programming, streamed online at knon.org, may not be for all tastes, but the drive home at night is rarely less than enlightening. KNON’s days are filled with community talk, conjunto, Americana country, and Texas blues.

In Boulder, Colo., KGNU-FM (which can be heard at kgnu.org) lives up to its mandate of providing “a channel for individuals, groups, issues, and music that have been overlooked, suppressed, or underrepresented by other media.” Volunteer DJs cram their shifts with new and favorite tunes in genres ranging from beatbox to roots to rock en espanol to electronica to rockabilly to “space modern.” World music wakes up listeners. Community talk and less-familiar classical—including atonal and modern music—occupies the midday.

The one thing these two stations have in common is that they are nonprofit; they work hard to earn money from listeners, not advertisers. And, by all accounts, they are doing well. KNON, which signed on in 1983, has expanded its signal to 55,000 watts and now reaches 30 miles to Fort Worth, where it draws additional financial support. After 21 years of renting space, KGNU last year bought its own building in downtown Boulder, one of the most expensive real estate towns in the country, and hopes to move into it in April debt-free.

Radio consultants—the people who tell stations how to attract the most listeners—pull out their hair when they hear of a KNON or a KGNU. Those program lineups and amateur on-air talent fly in the face of what contemporary commercial radio should sound like. It’s not slick, the consultants say—listeners want consistency, and the best way to achieve that is to give them what works at other stations.

These days, the successful radio business model looks like this: Whatever your format—album-oriented rock (AOR), alternative rock, adult contemporary, urban, or country—make sure you play the same hits from the same artists that are played on every other station with your format and MTV or CMT, and separate them with up to 20 minutes an hour of advertising. Then let your on-air “personality” blab about boobs for the rest of the time.

Yeah, baby—that’s what the people want.

The radio industry’s craven practice of focusing only on the bottom line and the lowest common denominator has made it arrogant. The industry’s usual defense is that if you don’t like what you hear, you can change the station. But these days, the stations don’t change, just the numbers on the dial. By and large, there is no alternative, even including what’s called “alternative.”

If ever an industry were ripe for competition, contemporary radio is it. Its hubris has left it wide open for a hit—and not the Billboard Top 40 kind. That challenge may arrive this summer, when two new satellite radio services begin beaming down what they promise will be a whole new kind of radio programming: a combined 200 channels of music and news/talk available anywhere across 48 contiguous states in automobiles equipped with the right radio receivers. Three satellites owned by Manhattan-based Sirius Satellite Radio are already in orbit, and two satellites operated by D.C.-based XM Satellite Radio are scheduled to be launched into geostationary orbit over the United States—one named “Roll” on March 18 and “Rock” in early May.

Each company is planning to deliver 100 channels, subletting half of them to other content providers: XM Radio is granting channels to BET, CNN, C-SPAN, NASCAR, BBC, the Sporting News, and Discovery, among others, while Sirius is partnering with the Kennedy Center, PBS, CNBC, Public Radio International, A&E, and the Outdoor Living Network.

The other 50 channels will be music programmed by, and operated from, the companies’ headquarters, where in-house staff will play old, new, and yet-to-be-established music and entertainment formats.

The programming won’t be free—each company is planning to charge a subscription fee of $9.95 per month. But most of the channels—all of them from Sirius and 10 to 15 of them from XM—will be free of commercials; the other XM channels will have about six-and-a-half minutes of national advertising each hour.

“The bottom line is, we’re going to change the way people listen to radio, and we’re going to flip the concept of radio on its head for the average consumer,” says Joe Capobianco, Sirius’ senior vice president of programming. “That’s it. It is a quantum difference from conventional radio.”

The concept tends to have a lightning-strike quality for radio haters and, apparently, investors. XM CEO Hugh Panero, a Bronx native who in the ’90s was president and CEO of the pay-per-view company Request TV, has managed to raise $1.3 billion in his first 20 months and bring on board a list of strategic partners that includes General Motors, Clear Channel Communications, and DirecTV—”the largest car company, the largest radio company, and the largest satellite television company in the U.S., if not the world in some cases,” Panero says. Sirius raised $1.5 billion from a set of similarly well-endowed companies. That’s a lot of lightning strikes.

“We don’t think people are going to pay for what they can get for free,” says Capobianco. “People are used to getting more and better from their other media choices in everything except radio, and for the first time, they’re going to get more and better from radio, and they don’t have to do anything differently than they do now.”

Notes Panero: “A lot of people said nobody would pay for television. If you offer people a product they want and they feel they’re being underserved by the existing distribution system, they will migrate to support the new product.”

Satellite-enabled radios are initially being targeted for the automobile market, and it won’t be hard to get one: Sears, Best Buy, Circuit City, and other electronics merchants will carry and install them. Model-year 2002 Cadillacs will have XM-brand three-band radios (AM, FM, and XM), with other makes following shortly behind, including Hondas, Saabs, and Chevy pickups. Sirius radios will be installed in Fords, Chryslers, BMWs, Mercedes, and Jaguars, among others. Last month, XM showcased 24 models of radios and previewed 20 programming formats at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where the company won Best of Show for the mobile electronics category. (To avoid the infamous VHS vs. Betamax dilemma, XM and Sirius radios—costing between $250 to $400—will be compatible.)

The economics of focusing on the auto-radio market makes sense to XM and Sirius. There are 200 million cars on the road, and some 15 million new cars are sold each year. By next year, many of those new cars will come equipped with three-band radios, and in some cases, new-car purchases and leases will have satellite radio subscriptions bundled into the purchase price. Sirius’ Capobianco says that if 2 million car owners—representing just 1 percent of the 200 million cars—sign up for the Sirius service, the company will break even. XM’s vice president for corporate affairs, Chance Patterson, says 2 million “permanent” customers would head his company toward the black, but a more realistic number is 4 million, once consumer acquisition and retention rates are factored in. But after that, he notes, everything is gravy, in perpetuity.

These people are not fooling around. In Washington, hundreds of technicians, programmers, and on-air talent are being hired locally or are relocating from around the country to work at XM. Similar start-up activity is taking place on 30 very expensive floors in midtown Manhattan at Sirius.

The XM building, on Eckington Place at Florida and New York Avenues NE, promises to be a $62 million, 350-employee, state-of-the-art broadcasting and recording facility, with some 82 independently suspended studios, one of them big enough for an orchestra. Renovations to the 100-year-old former printing plant began last July.

The excitement inside the XM facility is palpable. The dozens of cubicles that outfit the third floor—where there’s the 24-hour XM Cafe and bubbler jukeboxes in common areas—are occupied by people who love music. Many of them are happy to have the opportunity to make an impact in an industry to which they’ve devoted their lives.

Redbeard, for instance. As much a household name as a DJ gets these days, Redbeard—his long beard is his trademark (and besides, he refuses to reveal his real name)—was music director and afternoon DJ at Dallas’ alternative-rock Q-102 FM, beginning in 1984. On Aug. 27, 1998, the station’s owners, the broadcasting giant formerly known as AM-FM (it’s since been bought), “blew up” the station overnight, firing the staff and changing the format to “jammin’ oldies” (which shortly failed).

Fan reaction was swift and prolonged, not so much for the loss of the rock format as the loss of Redbeard. Redbeard, who got into the business in 1971, was revered in Dallas for playing not just hits but breaking new bands not on the consultants’ approved playlist. Now the veteran DJ gets to capitalize on that expertise at XM, as program director of what he describes as “the ultimate classic-rock station.”

“‘Deep Tracks’ is the working title,” Redbeard says. “It will have a little bit wider footprint musically and chronologically than some of the XM channels. We’ll take it from the Beatles in ’65, when they started changing the way the music business was done, to middle-to-late ’80s, but it won’t be that limited.”

Redbeard pauses. “Rock ‘n’ roll for adults, basically.” As if that were the most natural thing in the world. Which, of course, in contemporary commercial radio, it is not.

Then there’s Jessie Scott. Scott, a former DJ in New York and elsewhere, was the Nashville-based editor of the radio and music trade publication Gavin’s emerging-Americana music section and Top 40 album chart; she also hosted the syndicated This Week in Americana show before Gavin pulled the plug on its Americana coverage, and the show, in October.

“It’s going to be ‘XM magic,’” says Scott, who will program the alternative-country channel for XM. “We’re positioning ourselves to re-create the magic of radio, the real theater of the mind. We call it ‘Amazing Radio.’ Most people know radio sucks, but they don’t know why. We’ll show them the difference.”

Scott cites the ’60s channel, which will have sound clips and news blips from the period. “We’ve even thought about making the sound scratchy so it will sound really old,” she says.

What really jazzes Scott is the dream of all music fans—a virtually unlimited spending account to buy every piece of music they ever lusted for, along with a place to keep it.

“We’ve purchased almost 2 million [CDs],” says Lee Abrams, senior vice president of programming for XM. Those discs have been saved in computers with 21 terabytes of storage capacity; any DJ on any channel at XM will have the ability to call up the songs at any time.

“We’ve bought pretty much every album,” says Abrams. “I can’t imagine a musicologist looking through those [industry catalogues] and finding anything we didn’t order. It’s everything. We were goofing around, trying to stump the system, and we bet we didn’t order From the Witchwood by the Strawbs. Sure enough—’Oh, there it is.’”

When all the hiring is done, Abrams will have 200 people on the programming staff, with a programming director for each of the 50 music channels. (A sizable contingent of local college interns is also being counted on by the network, if the long row of desks on the second floor in the “Interns’ Section” facing New York Avenue is any indication.)

Among the programming directors already on board is blues maven Bill Wax, formerly of the local Pacifica affiliate, WPFW-FM, who last month accepted a special recognition award from the Washington Area Music Association for his work in Washington music. As well, there’s Martin Goldsmith, former program director for National Public Radio’s Performance Today and author of the well-received The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany. Bobby Bennett, formerly of D.C.’s WOL-AM and WPFW-FM and co-author of The Ultimate Soul Trivia Book, is programming the soul channel. Eddie Webb from Chicago’s rock station WRCX-FM will be programming the “Liquid Metal” channel. Bluesman Bubba Jackson, producer for the Los Angeles Blues 4 U Festival, will run a blues channel. “Native Wayne” Jobson, the Jamaican-born former host of the top-rated reggae show at KROQ-FM in Los Angeles, will handle the reggae channel.

Then there’s Abrams himself. As a radio consultant in the ’70s, Abrams designed a format to reach the first FM generation: the mighty AOR. (A curator at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York says that, although no one has officially documented the birth of AOR, Abrams has a good claim to being its father.)

FM was the playground of the hippies, and it was this younger generation that rushed out and bought stereo components to hear the Beatles, the Doors, and the Strawbs from both sides of the room.

Abrams introduced the AOR format on a station in Raleigh, N.C., in the ’70s. “We called it ‘album-oriented rock’ because we changed the familiarity factor from the titles to the artists. Instead of hearing familiar songs, you heard familiar artists, and as a result you played much more music. It was still Santana, but it wasn’t just ‘Black Magic Woman’ again.”

The Raleigh station, Abrams says, “went from a zero share to No. 1 in 30 days.” He repeated the feat at stations in “New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Kansas City, one after the other. And it showed the industry that FM could be financially viable.”

Other formats conceived by Abrams and colleagues shortly followed. “Urban dance, classic rock, Triple-A [adult album alternative], New Age jazz, hard rock—the function was to keep inventing new formats,” explains Abrams. “The big one was the AOR format, because it sped up the whole process of FM being taken seriously.”

Now put the tape on fast forward: “It’s unbelievable that the scenario in 1970 and now is almost identical. In 1970, AMs dominated, and all of a sudden FM got itself together and started providing new content,” says Abrams. “At that time, AM was not playing the emerging new music—Cream and Hendrix, for example. Basically, AM was pretending this new music did not exist, and FM came in and embraced it.

“AMs were running 18 minutes of commercials [an hour]; FMs were running six. AMs were not part of the new audio standard, which was the 33 RPM album, which sounded terrible on AM but sounded great on FM. Then there was the stereo revolution—people were buying stereo albums, eight-track cassettes, stereo components—and AM wasn’t a part of that. And AM was very tired. The playbook for AM was written in the ’50s.”

Now, Abrams contends, FM is the AM of the new millennium. “It’s the same scenario. There’s a whole world of music out there, and FMs are avoiding a great majority of it. I saw a figure that said 40 percent of CDs sold last year got no commercial FM airplay. Take Enya, who has sold millions around the world and can’t get arrested on FM,” he says, referring to the best-selling Irish New Age vocalist.

“XM is going to embrace [neglected music] just like FM did 30 years ago. We’re part of the technological retooling that’s going on—PalmPilots, the Internet, cell phones. FM is not. We’re digital; FM is not,” Abrams continues.

XM’s channels will include “Fine Tuning” (the titles are tentative), “the world’s most interesting music,” says Abrams, “aimed at someone 40 and over who grew up with rock but now probably listens to talk radio because music radio is just too unchallenging for them. This format will play, in a very controlled way, everything. It will range from Celtic music to flamenco to [classical crossover artist] Charlotte Church to a really cool Van Morrison song.”

Then there’s “XMU,” “which is going to be a true alternative station. Not watered down for mass tastes, no oldies, no Nirvana songs, no grunge songs. It’s truly what’s happening right now. A disciplined college station, professionally run, but right off the streets. Don’t expect to hear hits,” says Abrams.

And “Music Lab,” “which could be named ‘For Musicians Only,’” Abrams says. “It will be aimed at people who are musicians or are extremely sophisticated about music, because the music will be geared to great playing. It’ll have everything from 20-minute Yes epics to Junior Brown to the late Danny Gatton. People who are fabulous guitar players but are too good to get played [on regular radio]. Not geared for mass appeal taste by any means.”

These are not mere shows; these are 24-7 channels. Has the lightning struck?

Don’t think the terrestrial-radio executives haven’t been paying attention. But the attitude at existing stations seems to be a cautious “Wait and see if anyone actually buys into this.” Mixed with a little whistling past the graveyard.

“If I was programming music [at an FM station], I would be very worried, because these guys can give you every flavor of music that you could ever want,” says Jim Farley, vice president of news and programming for all-news WTOP-AM (and 107.7 FM), the No. 1 station for total weekly audience in D.C. “What they can’t give you is local news, local traffic, local weather. They don’t have the ability to break it down and tell you what you need. Stations like ours, I think we’re going to do just fine. Music stations, though, are going to have some erosion.”

“The way we present classical,” says Jim Allison, program director at WGMS-FM, the city’s only commercial classical station, “we’re very personality-oriented, bringing classical to life, and there’s no one else doing that, and I’m pretty sure satellite isn’t going to do that. And we have the great strength of being local. So those two things are going to be a big plus for stations like ours….I just hope [satellite-radio networks] do a good job of it, because the way most people present classical is dreadful and elitist, and that’s not a good thing.”

“In the end, people choose what they listen to by the compellingness of the programming,” says Arthur Cohen, vice president and general manager of radio at classical and NPR news/talk station WETA-FM, acknowledging that there has been “an issue with NPR’s participation” by signing on two channels with Sirius. (Apparently, the nation’s publicly funded NPR affiliates didn’t think too highly of NPR brass’s jumping into bed with satellite radio.)

“It’s really just a bunch more channels,” he concludes. “I don’t mean to make light of it that way, but it certainly increases the number of alternatives people have. We feel confident we can continue to attract audiences.” WETA-FM’s strong suit, Cohen says, “is localism and humanity of community….We’re in radio and media for public service, not to reach the largest number of people possible.”

But small, independent stations will be up against the proverbial wall if satellite radio hits it big. “I can’t imagine what we’ll do” to compete, says Marty Durlin, station manager for Boulder’s KGNU-FM. “I wish that the FCC had demanded that there be a nonprofit, noncommercial channel [on satellite radio], to include something beyond the big players, who are NPR and PRI [Public Radio International]. It leaves little stations like KGNU completely out of the loop.”

True, “Gnu,” as it’s known, streams its programming on the Internet, but there is pending legislation “that demands [artists’] royalties and puts constrictions around what you can play and what you can say” on the Internet, Durlin says. “That’s in litigation at this point, but that’s very harmful to small stations.”

Barbara Cochran, president of the D.C.-based Radio-Television News Directors Association, has seen this sort of industry-wide anxiety before: It reminds her of TV broadcasters’ fears when CNN went on the air with 24-hour cable news, in 1980.

“One of the great advantages that local radio stations have that can’t be replicated is localism,” she says. “We did a survey of how the public responds to radio, and they told us they really value local reporting. It’s something owners of consolidated stations should keep in mind; they should consider it an asset. It will also help [them compete] with national services.”

“Our vision is not to destroy local radio—you never have a situation where the existing business just goes away,” says XM’s Panero. “Our system will complement local radio. What’s happening on television and the Internet, you have broader choices in your environment. But in your car, in terms of broadcast entertainment, you have one choice, and we’re just going to offer another tier of choices. People will learn to utilize us in conjunction with their local stations.”

Terrestrial FM stations are already pursuing digital, over-the-air broadcasts of their programming—everything has to be digital these days, it seems—but it will take a hit in the wallet from satellite radio or some other medium to make them change their formats.

But will people really pay 10 bucks a month to listen to the radio in their cars? It’s easy for a radio hater not only to jump on the satellite-radio bandwagon but to shove aside the driver and floor it into the promised Nirvana-less nirvana. Others, however, may not be so ready to change their radio habits—or their radios.

“XM and Sirius have one opportunity to make a good first impression,” says Jerry Del Colliano, the CEO of Inside Radio, a trade publication based in Mount Laurel, N.J. Del Colliano also lectures on radio and, specifically, Internet radio at the University of Southern California.

“The question is, Are they going to offer anything so exciting that it will motivate young people? I say that because technology is the bastion of young people; if it motivates an old fart, even if they fall into a desirable demographic, it will mean nothing in the long run,” Del Colliano says.

“The major reason why [terrestrial] radio is in trouble,” Del Colliano continues, “even though they don’t know it, and why the satellite business could be in trouble, is because young people don’t need radio. When you talk to these classes of smart kids, they don’t need radio the way we needed radio. We identified with our radio station. They don’t need that. Their lives are built around e-mail, Napster, Internet, and not radio—I don’t care if it’s terrestrial or satellite.”

Michael Kelley, a professor of telecommunications and English at George Mason University, takes a similarly dim view of the new medium.

“My personal feeling is, those guys are going to go broke,” Kelley says of Sirius and XM. “There’s no reason for it. How many people are going to pay to get radio?”

“It took 20 years to get FM going,” says Kelley, a former station owner, noting that satellite radio has to make an impact quickly to keep its nascent industry alive. Moreover, XM will have 1,500 land-based repeaters around the country to ensure that its satellite signal is received even when there are physical obstacles, and Kelley notes that “that’s a terrible expense. They’ve had to build what amounts to the expense of 1,500 local stations—you’ve got a tower, power bills, land rent, all that crap. And how can they ever make that money back with the number of people who are going to want to go out and pay $10 a month to hear something without commercials?”

Last month, Kelley surveyed the 15 students in his master’s-degree class in telecommunications on their radio usage. If the results are common among others in their young adult demographic, XM and Sirius may want to make sure their satellites can double as something useful, like a nuclear missile shield.

The students, Kelley writes in an e-mail, “agreed overwhelmingly” that:

1. They do listen to free radio in their cars, and while getting going in the morning.

2. They would not ever consider paying $9.95 a month to listen to a satellite-based station with 6 minutes of commercials an hour.

3. They would not ever consider paying more than that per month to listen to stations without commercials.

4. They would not consider purchasing and having installed a satellite radio receiver in their cars.

They universally thought the whole concept of pay radio had little chance of success.

“Radio people are so arrogant, they don’t think satellite is that big a threat,” says Del Colliano. “The Internet is going to kill them both. I have two kids in a class of maybe 30 that actually admit they listen to the radio.”

Indeed, Internet radio and MP3 files (the compressed format that allows music to be transferred easily over the Internet) both loom large on the horizon, particularly as new hardware continues to make both formats more portable.

“There’s no question that all music is going to be delivered digitally at some point in the future, and not too far from now,” says Daryl P. Friedman, executive director of the D.C. chapter of the Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, the folks who put on the Grammys.

Do the Internet and MP3 files pose a threat to the incipient satellite-radio industry?

“With satellite radio, you’re having somebody program it for you, and there’s probably a broader selection of songs,” says Friedman. “With MP3, it’s like having a CD player in your car. The question is, Did your CD player supplant your FM radio? The answer is probably no. MP3 is going to be the next CD player, and satellite radio is going to be the next radio.”

But Dave Garner, director of engineering for the Bonneville-Washington Radio Group (which owns WTOP), is hesitant about the satellite technology. “There are some concerns about dead spots for the service—under a bridge, in a tunnel,” he says. “There are a lot of questions about will it work and will people adapt to it. It’s kind of like [telephone] cell service—it’s there, but there are dead spots. That will always be a challenge for any delivered service.”

But Sirius’ Capobianco is not troubled by the naysayers. “We’ve done more research on this than probably most companies do, including hard-products companies. We’ve done over 10,000 discrete interviews. Ten years ago [when Sirius bought its FCC license, for $83 million], the idea then was to do for radio in the car what cable did for TV in the home. The idea for it now is even stronger than it was then.”

Whether satellite radio takes off into the broadcasting stratosphere or not, the big winner in this high-stakes game of hi-fi—besides the bands that will instantly get national airplay where before they got none—is Washington, D.C. The intersection of New York and Florida Avenues in Northeast—a busy few blocks of service businesses, fast-food restaurants, and row houses that could use some new paint—is convenient to most of the city, to Maryland, and to Metro’s future New York Avenue Red Line stop, which could open as early as 2004.

Federal Express has a major processing facility there; a former People’s Drug warehouse is being turned into a new office building; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms recently broke ground on a 1,100-employee headquarters that will further anchor the neighborhood. Shops and restaurants cannot be far behind.

“We’ve chosen to be here in D.C. because we will be the nation’s radio station,” says XM’s Patterson. Patterson was once a location consultant to XM when he worked for KPMG in McLean. But then he found out what the business was about and, he says, he felt that lightning-strike sensation. He joined the new satellite company when it was still called American Mobile Radio Corp. and had fewer than a dozen employees.

“I live in D.C., and I saw this was a huge opportunity for Washington—not the Dulles corridor, that concrete jungle,” Patterson says. “We looked at Silver Spring, but it just wasn’t us. There’s really no connection with Maryland or Dulles and what XM wants to do. Radio is urban; D.C. is sort of a gritty, up-and-coming place, with a mix of politics and business. There’s a convergence, and D.C.’s coming around.”

An entertainment company, Patterson says, “shouldn’t be in an office park near Dulles Airport. If you’re Marilyn Manson or Neil Young or Puffy Combs, you want to go to Dulles Airport? We think we can make a case for making this a nerve center for entertainment activity. People you know of will be coming in and out of here all the time.

“We have a long way to go, and so does the neighborhood,” Patterson concludes. “We need more retail, and the traffic flow of this area is a mess. But it’s going to happen. There’s no inertia. There’s no turning back.”

“We serve as a bit of a salesman for the area,” says Panero. “When someone else is interested in [bringing a business] to the area, we say, ‘Come by and see our place.’ But the Metro stop is the foundation of the whole thing. It’s a critical element. It will totally transform this area.”

Patterson and Panero credit city officials with establishing XM in the District. “There’s always the typical bureaucratic stuff you have to get through, but it was a real joint effort led by the mayor’s office,” Panero says. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the D.C. Council “moved legislation for accounting issues to make sure we actually fell into the right category for tax issues. They updated arcane legislation and moved it pretty quickly.”

As part of its deal with the city—and to add security to its open-round-the-clock building—XM donated 5,000 square feet and new furniture to open a Metropolitan Police Department station on the first floor of the building.

But what if the skeptics are right and satellite radio crashes and burns?

“The success of the technology community doesn’t rest on any one participant,” says At-Large D.C. Councilmember David Catania, who helped write the incentive-loaded New Economy Transformation Act of 2000. “XM is one of the largest and most dynamic of these new-technology companies, and I’m thrilled they’re where they are….XM would feature as an important component of our marketing plan [to attract new high-tech businesses].

“Now, should it fail—and I don’t think for a minute that it will—it would simply be one less marketing device for the city, but there are many others from which we could select,” adds Catania.

In the end, however, XM and Sirius may turn out to be nothing more than FM radio that doesn’t fade out when you leave town. Look at who is buying into the concept and sitting on the boards of the new companies—DaimlerChrysler and the Ford Motor Co. (among the owners of Sirius); the Motient Corp., General Motors, DirecTV, and Clear Channel (part-owners of XM). These major multinational corporations and broadcasting behemoths are not investing because they want the nice folks in Boise to finally have a reggae channel. Clear Channel, which owns some 1,500 terrestrial radio stations, has a significant piece of XM. If there’s one thing that company knows, it’s how to homogenize radio for a buck.

These companies got to be big because of capitalistic savvy and, often, blithe market cruelty. Look at Redbeard. Don’t think for a minute that if his “Deep Tracks” channel isn’t attracting and retaining subscribers it won’t be dumped for a different format, perhaps one that is a proven draw—say, the All-Britney-All-the-Time Network.

But at least, in this new radio universe, if you don’t like the station, you can change the channel—99 times. CP