Digital Interference

In this day of high-speed, two-way, digital communications, the radio has to be considered a pre-Cambrian device.

In this day of high-speed, two-way, digital communications, the radio has to be considered a pre-Cambrian device. OK, so its music has long ago gone digital, thanks to the compact disc. And most playlists are now contained on and played off of digital hard drives. But the distribution mechanism is still the analog sound wave. It seems so quaint as to be anachronistic.

Theres still beauty in this simplest of "rich media equipment. Turn one button to turn it on, another to tune it and youre set. You can try to figure out what you know with Michael Feldstein on NPR, get your psyche beat in with Dr. Laura Schlessinger on the AM station of your choice or get your ears battered with Limp Bizkit on the FM station of your preference. No error messages, no sudden lockups. Just start it up, let it go and enjoy.

Now comes the Internet and the satellite to complicate life. Just when you were happy to have one medium that seemed to support itself solely by advertising and deliver its wares for free to audiences, the end is near.

Before long, youre going to be pushed to subscribe to radio. Sirius Satellite Radio, XM Satellite Radio and Motorolas iRadio will try to convince you to spend about $10 per month to listen to commercial-free stations of almost any imaginable stripe. Heavy polka metal, anyone?

Ten bucks per month is not a heavy price to pay for the fan of pure sound. Who hasnt driven through Tucumcari, N.M., wishing for a quick hit of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg as the sun went down? Or anything that doesnt include static?

But this could get far too complicated. Do you really want 100 choices, even crossing the desert? Well, OK, maybe. Better yet: Just keep track of genres, like Sirius or XM plan to do, as you cross wavelengths. The last thing you probably want is some outfit with a transponder tracking all your listening habits and delivering "personalized" radio to your ginger ears. Somehow, its never made any sense to replace the choices of a living, breathing disc jockey with the bits-and-bytes logic of the computer. Thats driven us to the kind of formatted channels that make it inconsequential whether were listening in Biloxi, Miss., or Baltimore.

Its only going to get more confusing. With your own hard drive, you now can create your own playlist and endless radio station. Just hit random play.

If you want to hear fresh stuff, though, its going to get rough. 3Com is about to bring you Kerbango, an Internet radio. It will let you tune into 25,000 radio stations off the Net, as well as over-the-air stations in your area. Think about that. You could spend the next 68 years of your life listening to a different station every day and never repeat yourself.

There can be such a thing as too much selection. Radio has survived because of its simplicity. Its a background medium, largely. It talks, it walks, it keeps on going, without any user intervention. Its fireside theater for the mind. And all you have to do is listen.

Pretty soon, the dynamic of the medium will be broken. Interactive radio is almost a contradiction in terms. Do I want to have to do a lot of research and thinking before choosing a station? No. Do I feel compelled to "watch" the radio and see what artist is playing what song at all times, to feel fulfilled? Not really.

What do I want from the radio? Music, talk, entertainment, information of interest to me, easily, without effort.

If digital radio can improve upon the analog version, great. But Im still trying to figure out how to twist the dial on my Sony FM receiver at home. I can see what station Im on, but getting to the next one is a piece of obscure science. As it stands, I may be listening to Car Talk and Morning Edition until they pour dirt over me.

This digital revolution looks like its destined to make easy listening hard.