Local radio, RIP

Under the tree on Christmas morning, I found a Sirius satellite-radio package with my name on it.

Even though Howard Stern endorses this product, it seems like a great idea. More than 120 channels of music, sports, news and entertainment are now mine. And everyone else who’s seen my Sirius receiver in action wants one too. Even my teenage sons think it’s cool.Under the tree on Christmas morning, I found a Sirius satellite-radio package with my name on it.

Even though Howard Stern endorses this product, it seems like a great idea. More than 120 channels of music, sports, news and entertainment are now mine. And everyone else who’s seen my Sirius receiver in action wants one too. Even my teenage sons think it’s cool.

Sirius, along with its cousin XM Radio, is the wavelength of the future. But as I have contemplated the impact of satellite radio on the political part of my life, I’m worried. It promises to complete the triangle of media upheaval that earlier affected television and newspapers to the detriment of political communications.

A proliferation of regular cable channels came first, swamping a handful of local over-the-air offerings. Thirty to 40 channels were not unusual. Then satellite TV upped the ante to offer millions of American households more than 100 channels. Many Americans quit watching their local broadcast stations altogether. With satellite, the local stations may be wholly nonexistent.

The newspaper business has changed in different and similar ways. While the number of newspaper choices has declined, satellite and high-speed data communications have grown the circulation of such national newspapers as USA Today, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Twenty-five years ago, we had the Sunday New York Times delivered to College Station, Texas, by airplane courier service. Daily delivery was impossible. Now the paper is printed in a Texas plant and is as easy to order for home delivery as the Houston Chronicle.

The impact of these changes has been to make local communications more difficult, especially in such fast-growth areas as the Sun Belt states. Many new residents of a state such as Florida never connect with the local scene by subscribing to a local newspaper or watching local TV. They just move from Chicago to Tampa, tune in WGN on cable or satellite, and have USA Today with its daily Illinois news capsule delivered to their homes. Or they read the Tribune online.

In the early 1980s, I even co-wrote an academic paper on this topic, dubbing the practice “cable diversion,” and suggested that it could undermine the building of a polity. Little did I know about how significant this trend might become.

In the mid-1980s, you could run a TV commercial in Florida for 600 gross ratings points — meaning that the average person would see the ad six times — and the impact was huge. Tracking polls would show that most voters recalled seeing or hearing the ad in a week to 10 days. In 2004, you could run an ad for twice as many points and yet register only two-thirds as much recall of the ad.

Because people are watching one of the 100 channels that didn’t have our ads this year, we’re just not getting through. Local newspaper penetration is so spotty that even bad news from investigative journalism doesn’t have the impact it once did.

Throughout all this change, radio has been a steady beacon of messaging. You can be sure that you are reaching certain target demographics, young women for example, or evangelicals or senior citizens, with certain radio stations or programming. And the geography is known and fixed. Some buyers consider local radio too expensive for its coverage. But at least you know what you are buying. Or at least you have until recently.

Now I fear that Sirius and XM are going to take away the one certain channel of local messaging. When you consider the advantages of satellite radio, it would be a miracle if it doesn’t overwhelm over-the-air stations faster than cable overtook broadcast TV stations.

Satellite radio is also going to eliminate the one source of news that force-fed some voters, even if it is only one or two minutes of headlines read at the top of each hour. Less news flow will probably mean lower turnout.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.