Was Sirius' Bankruptcy Inevitable?

from the possibly,-but-it-had-help dept

Back in 1999, when plans for satellite radio were first talked about, I thought it was destined to fail. I had two reasons for why: I didn’t think there really was that much demand and having just closely watched the disaster known as Iridium, I was intimately familiar with the massive and business-strangling capital costs associated with running a satellite-based business. It just seemed so capital intensive that any underestimate in terms of demand would kill you. And, in fact, Sirius has a pretty long history of being on the verge of failure.

With the news of Sirius XM preparing for bankruptcy, it’s worth revisiting those original thoughts. While I’d love to claim credit for calling this a decade ago — I think my reasoning turned out to be wrong. I vastly underestimated the number of folks willing to sign up for satellite radio (though, I think I was correct in recognizing that the number of subscribers would need to be massive and that would be difficult to achieve). And, while the capital expenditure costs were large, it seems like they, by themselves, may have been imaginable. What I hadn’t fully expected, was the massive expenses the companies (now company) would ring up trying to lock up “talent” to drive subscriber numbers up. Also, I didn’t expect ridiculous regulatory restrictions. The 18 months it took federal regulators to approve the merger between XM and Sirius, combined with the ridiculous restrictions that were put on the combined company significantly contributed to satellite radio’s troubles. And, finally, additional competition in the form of internet radio and podcasts/portable media really have put pressure on satellite radio — none of which I foresaw at the time.

While the company is clearly looking to restructure and keep going, you have to wonder if it even makes sense at this point. With those alternatives increasingly becoming popular in the market, it’s difficult to see how satellite radio can possibly provide enough excess value to pay for the increased capital costs compared to the competition. Even if the company restructures and comes out of bankruptcy, who’s willing to bet it will have to through this whole process again in a few years?

Filed Under: , , ,
Companies: sirius, sirius xm, xm

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Was Sirius' Bankruptcy Inevitable?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Fushta says:

Re: Re:

Actually, Sirius is reducing the online offering. I have a regular membership and can listen online for free. They are taking that away.

Obviously, they need money, because here are the details of a mailer I just got from them. They are getting rid of the free online offering, but if I re-up my main subscription right now, I can get the premium online service for $2.99/month.

Basically, they are lowering the value of their online offering, and asking for money on top of that. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? They should be trying to add value to the online offering if they want us to pay more.

The Stern-tard above me said it right, online is cheaper and they should be adding more value to it, not taking it away.

Marius (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I had lifetime service before they started charging for (previously free) internet Sirius access. Shouldn’t Sirius be honoring their original agreement? When I bought the Sirius lifetime service a while back, that was one of the reasons I purchased it. Consumers don’t get to change their terms of agreement or payment; why should Sirius?

Twinrova says:

Anyone with half a brain could have seen this coming.

I’m not an economics professional, but even I concluded the companies would fail, especially after hearing the news of a second company forming.

Not only did this split the potential consumer base, but the products weren’t compatible, causing consumer confusion on which system to get, which was better, etc.

These two businesses shot themselves in the foot long before they even signed the first customer.

Sadly, my future plans to purchase satellite radio came crashing down when I read about the disasters stemming from the merger. The most laughable part was the entire “monopoly” it would have created (and thus, lowered costs to consumers and products). Now, everyone loses.

It’ll be interesting to see if Sirius XM falls, or tries to limp on. If they should fall, wouldn’t any potential startup then be a “monopoly”, which is what the merger decision tried to avoid? We truly have some stupid, stupid employees in government.

At any rate, this is sad news indeed. Well, I guess listening to MP3s (downloaded at no cost) continues forth for me.

Jamie says:

Re: Anyone with half a brain could have seen this coming.

You cannot get programming like Howard Stern on mp3 first of all. You cannot get sports and news. I am a truck driver, and I can tell you Sirius is the greatest thing ever, for me, and I would guess a lot of other people. I keep reading comments like MP3 and streaming being free, but it cannot compare to the programing you get with Sirius. I am sure Sirius is here to stay. I would not have a problem paying more for my entertainment.

greg says:

Re: Anyone with half a brain could have seen this coming.

Well actually, Sirius invented the technology, then XM came in, got the government to force Sirius to give XM half of their spectrum to allow “competition”. Which lead to the deaths of both companies. In the end, the government wouldn’t let them recombine the two spectrums, or reinvent themselves by using some of their spectrum for broadband wireless internet, etc. After enron, the housing bubble, etc I’m 90% communist, but in this case the government totally fucked things up. I think the main reason is because a lot of douches in the government hate Howard Stern.

Aonymous Coward says:

XM Was Hot!

XM was a great service. The radio top 40 format had died. Audience fatigued at hearing the same shallow songs over and over sprinkled between commercial. XM brought back radio. It was a great service that once again brought a huge diversity of music and culture. It also brought access to radio content – like NHL hockey – that was otherwise unaccessible.

The reason XM Sirius is doomed is not what you said before. As a radio service, people who love radio love satellite radio. The reason it is doomed is the way over priced personalities like Howard and Oprah. There is no way Sirius made its money back on the Howard contract. Those were absolutely losers. So now the smerged company is ladened with all this expensive personality contracts while it is gaining no subscriptions.

Oh, and Sirius is not as good as XM. The radio format is too close to top 40 play – the play lists are tight and tired. For example, Sirius cut XM Cafe – one of the more popular XM channels. In its place are stations with top 40 format (pop, alternative, whatever, they still only play “the hits” and just a few of them). If you cant differentiate from FM radio – well, the subscriptions will cancel.

josh says:

Re: XM Was Hot!

I disagree that the problem is Howard he has brought listeners, but I do agree with Oprah, Martha Stewart, and all of the other non radio personalities they have hired. The need to understand that you have to have people that know how to do radio. I don’t know what I will do if Sirius goes away I drive all day and live in middle of nebraska so the local radio is just awful.

John Plushburn says:

Re: XM Was Hot!

The idea that Sirius is not as good as XM is your opinion, but I don’t believe you have heard all the channels (before the merger) that Sirius had to offer. Of course they have pop music on one or 2 channels, but there are many other channels that play an incredible selection so I must defend the claim you have made. Before you spout off at the mouth, you need to know of what you speak, Clown.

Dan J. says:

Re: XM Was Hot!

I completely agree. I was a HUGE XM fan. With the merger, all of my favorite XM channels went away to be replaced with Sirus channels that aren’t nearly as good. Then, to make matters worse, they want to charge me extra money to access “exclusive” Sirus content by ponying up for the “Best of Sirus” plan. This teed me off so bad that I’m almost hoping the company does fail. If XM and Sirus are still two different systems, then bring back my XM channels. If it’s now one system, then let me have access to all the content for one regular subscription price. I know they’re hurting for money but you don’t save your business by screwing over your regular, loyal customers.

bjc (profile) says:


The “disaster known as Iridium” was a group of very smart investors who built a multi-billion dollar satellite network, declared bankruptcy then bought it back under a new corporation for cents on the dollar. Perhaps it was a disaster for its suppliers and creditors, but someone ended up owning Iridium for 90 to 95% less than it cost to build!

One problem with Sirius that hasn’t been mentioned is that they have made a large number of ridiculous programming changes in the past year, removing popular channels without notice and with no recourse for subscribers. When the XM merger finally went through, Sirius seemed to start choosing music from an entirely different playlist, losing anything ‘alternative’ or edgy and leaning more towards disco and pop. Annoying DJ’s now yammer through our favorite songs, and idiotic ‘news’ updates interrupt our listening.

Like many subscribers, I have been renewing my Sirius radio on a month to month basis, just to see how else they were going to screw loyal listeners.

JDub says:

XM No More

I’ve been a subscriber to XM radio for years, almost as long as they have been in business; with three radios on my account. I was guaranteed that when this merger took place my rates would not go up. Low and behold not more than a few months have gone by and guess what… yep my rates went up! So like someone else said, back to MP3’s full time. All of my XM radios are gone!

Jim says:

I'll stick with them

I’ve been a Sirius subscriber for years and I love it. I will keep paying for it as long as they’re around.

I do a lot of traveling and not having to search for new fuzzy channels every hour is worth it for me. I’m a big talk radio fan, and there are no free alternatives out there that could compete. Regular radio has too many commercials and different content in every town which is a massive hassle.

Internet radio can’t compete in my car, I won’t pay $150/month for an iphone with a data plan, my $12/month for Sirius makes a whole lot more sense.

Brien Lee (user link) says:

Merger killed creativity and competition

I had both for a while. Sirius 5 years ago was adventurous, full playlists, etc. When Karmazin took over, it became FM radio on steroids– dj’s, voiceovers, tight playlists, repeats, etc. Only its talkers distinguished it.

Now the merged services are still only distinguished by the talkers, as the music is 100 percent the same on both services, with deep playlists being weaned away.

I’m down to one Sirius radio, from one Sirius and 2 XM. That may end when their Left channel loses its Sirius only personalities.

Freedom says:

100's of channels and nothing on :)

This is a bit off topic, but if you aren’t a big music person then XM/Sirius have little to offer to justify their service. With their bandwidth/system you’d think they would have brought in a lot of smaller talk talent and so on and experimented with a ton of different formats, etc. Being able to get the same cr*p I get on local AM/FM but having to pay for it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Sadly, with that said, we have 5 XM radios active right now. I guess I just keep hoping that I’ll find something worthwhile to listen to. This latest notice of price increase will probably cost them 3 of my radios/subscriptions. Can’t justify it now and definitely don’t want to pay more for something where I literally can’t find anything decent to listen to on it that I can’t find on AM/FM.


Jeff (profile) says:

Satellite radio

To those who think that there are other choices for radio in the vehicle – which is where most people listen to the radio – there are no good choices anymore. AM & FM radio is filled with the absolute worst dreck available. I have been a Sirius subscriber for 5 years now, and since I started subscribing – I’ve never looked back – EVER!!
The Sirius vs. XM discussions are specious – if you listen to radio in your vehicle alot, satellite radio was the only choice. My current setup allows me to hook up my iPod to my car stereo, but even then, I still listen to Satellite. The discussion isn’t about wether Sirius is better than XM – it is about the potential loss of a great service. My only fear is that if Sirius XM does restructure, and re-emerge, they will add commercials to there music channels, and then I’ll be forced to cancel my subscriptions.
I could go on and on about how much I hate today’s putrid programming on FM by robo-troid dweebs, forcing the latest teenybopper garbage on me, but then I would be just stating the obvious.
I’m gasping for breath, hoping against all hope that Sirius XM won’t abandon their original promise to us… music without commercials, and without dipshit commercials…

Maybe we should petition the FCC and congress to bail them out, and keep us from the horrors that are modern FM radio.

Dave Long (profile) says:

The last nail...

is only now being tapped into position. Mobile broadband is a reality but this nail will soon be driven home when Wimax/LTE are proliferated. Internet Radio offers top quality sound, incredible diversity and low cost–more often free.

There are no “personalities” worth $120/year of my money, no matter how foul-mouthed these sophomoric jerks try to be.

Damit (profile) says:

What about car based XM?

I don’t know about anyone else, but I listen to XM when I am driving. I do a ton of driving! I really enjoy it, and I can not listen to streaming internet radio when I am driving. I could listen to MP3s, but I don’t want to have to hook up the damn player every time I get in the car and take it out every time I get out. My XM is built in and I just start my car and listen. I hope they survive. I really do have a hard time with the fact that they have been around for so long and are just now having problems, normally this kind of thing happens in the first couple of years, before you have a trillion people invested in the hardware and lifetime subs.

very anonymous says:


How the heck does Iridium even compare to Sirius/XM? If you want to compare something similar, look at Globalstar (they also failed). Iridium was an exponentially complicated system that had no chance of being allowed entrance into half the world due to its satellite-to-satellite communication capabilities. From the get-go they were doomed to fail as only US government and its allies (may be!) would be able to use the phones, mostly illegally anywhere outside those said countries. Incidentally, you might want to note who the largest single customer for Iridium is.

Kazolar (profile) says:

Sirius XM

This would be very sad if they go under. I’ve been a subscriber for close to 3 years, and even though I signed up to listen to NFL and Howard, I now mostly listen to comedy, talk and music stations. Don’t give me the crap about internet radio, and podcasts or MP3s or whatever. I’ve listened to all of my MP3s 10 times over, I can’t get internet radio in the car. And as much as I love listening to podcasts, there is no comparison to always on 24/7 200+ channels of programming. The fact is anything on your MP3 player requires effort to find, keep sync’ed up and so forth. Sirius is there when you turn it on, the merger might have cut some channels for XM folks, but there is still nothing out there to take it’s place. Let’s hope they can fix what’s wrong and be around for a while.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: "thought it was destined to fail..."

I love when writers proclaim with a sense of certainty and blowhardiness that they knew something was destined to be after the fact.

Um. I don’t do that. What I actually did was LINKED to a post I actually wrote back in 1999 where I actually SAID that it was destined to fail.

I wouldn’t have said that if I didn’t have the proof.

Either way, if you read the rest of the post, I explain how I was *wrong*. Or, rather, why I was right, but for the wrong reasons. This is hardly retroactively patting myself on the back.

Please read what I wrote before you trash it. You’re only showing your own ignorance.

Sean says:

Much like Ruckus and similar music service providers who used DRM, Sirius’ going out of business seems like instead of leaving audio files around locked down with DRM rendering them unusable, instead will be left all these physical head-units and receivers that will no longer have any use. It’s a longshot, but it seems that whenever a content providing, subscription based service goes down, left are all these consumers with useless purchases, be it the digital rights to their own music files they purchased, or recivers and head-units that have antiquated, out-dated technology logos on them.

PW says:

I've been disappointed...

since the merger. I only really listened to two or three XM stations. My favorites, Ethel and Lucy, we’re replaced by Alt Nation and Lithium, neither of which has nearly as good of a play list as their prior incarnations, and they DJ’s are incredibly more annoying. I liked XM for the sound quality, the mix, the lack of commercials, and very little annoying DJ prattle. Now the mix is atrocious and extremely repetitive, the DJ’s talk through half the song, and the worst part is I have no choice and no recourse but to unsubscribe. There is no longer an alternative for me, which is rather depressing. I can’t go back to terrestrial radio. I’ve tried and I guess I’m spoiled.

At this point I almost wish they would crash and burn to put me out of my misery.

Kraw says:

long time user

I’ve had XM since Dec 01. My wife wanted a “country gold” station and they had it. I started listening to the other channels and had to have it too! I like the variety. Sure, I could listen to MP3’s, but with XM, I was often surprised with a new song I hadn’t heard before. I don’t like making playlists etc on my ipod.

I’ll miss XM when it’s gone. It’s partially dead now, with all the sirius crap programming. We like to listen to the 80’s channel while commuting, but lately, we hear the same song two or three times a day. Seriously???? It was a DECADE worth of music, I should NEVER hear the same song in a day!

At least the comedy channels are still good 🙁

Steve R. (profile) says:

Sirius' Bankruptcy Their Own Fault?

The Washington Post (Oct 7, 2004) reported: “The raunchy radio morning man stunned his staff by saying he has signed a five-year, $500 million deal with Sirius Satellite Radio, portraying the move as a response to “censorship” efforts by the Federal Communications Commission, which does not regulate the content of satellite programs.” So they made a bad business deal.

Question, as these companies sink into oblivion, how come we never hear of folks like Howard offering to “refund” a portion of their compensation so that these companies can survive?

Joel says:

Wasting money

It’s hard to believe that enough people listen to Howard or Oprah to justify the money they pay them. I have two vehicles with factory installed radios. One is XM and the other is Sirius. Ive tried to get them to cut me a break on one of the subscriptions if I pay a full subscription on the other but to no avail. I’m not going to pay for two full subscriptions so I’ve decided not to renew both.

Lucretious (profile) says:

I lost my taste for Sat. radio when Opie & Anthony were given a month suspension for an incident that involved a homeless guy talking about raping Hillary Clinton. The guy was clearly inebriated and of course the chances of him actually even doing such a thing are so remote as to be laughable (not to mention everyone involved knew it was all done in humor). But, given the oversensitive PC babies who feel all minorities and women should NEVER be offended in any way, the management got nervous and felt they had to “do something”.

The reason I want to listen to a service like XMSirius is that its uncensored and edgy. When the powers that be remove that perk from the equation then they end up no better than the garbage we are forced to listen to on over-the-air radio.

Paying Stern a half billion, jumping through the hoops of special interest groups and political grandstanding all did their part in bringing the services down.

Internet radio anyone?…….oh……wait…..

Scott says:


Howard Stern is attributed with bringing roughly 4 million subscribers to SIRIUS. That number continues to grow as many are turned onto SIRIUS because of him. The programming on SIRIUS was far and above that of XM (NFL, College BBALL, regular DJ’s, Howard Stern,..) however XM always had the leg up regarding receiver technology.

Since the merger the company is not losing subscribers and they boast 20 million to date, a number most never thought possible. After a restructuring of costly talent things should look up for SIRIUS XM. Demand has been proven, therefore barring a prolonged depression this excellent product is not going anywhere .

XM user says:

I love XM….Hope it stays around.

But this was kinda creepy….happened today

A privately owned U.S. communications satellite collided with a defunct Russian satellite in the first such collision in space, a U.S. military spokesman said on Wednesday.

The collision involved a spacecraft of privately owned Iridium Satellite LLC and a “non-operational” Russian communications satellite, said Air Force Lt. Col. Les Kodlick of the U.S. Strategic Command.

Lionel Edwards (user link) says:

What a coincidence

Just last month I was doing research on Sirius Satellite radio. I saw all of the negative signs but I did not know that they would file for bankruptcy this soon.

Iridium, is a company I am not all to familiar with. They seem to be doing everything else the cell phone providers are doing, except they are claiming to do it much better and at much greater distances.

joeshmo says:

I drive a truck for a living and for the last three days my truck has been in the shop. I have been forced to listen to FM. It is brutal, tons of commercials no talent hacks that aren’t allowed to have an original thought if they acually had one in the first place. Scanning for a new station every 40 or 50 miles, if siriusXm does go down we are all FUCKED!!! I’ve had both Sirius and XM and both have great things to offer. We all lost some great programming in the merger but FM can’t give you anything close to what we have. Let’s hope they stick around because this isn’t about what we lost in the merger it’s about losing it all, nomatter who or what you listen too!

Cor says:

Re: Re: sirius

Hell no I don’t pay for cable, Starbucks, or bottled water! and I’m going to stop paying for the mess that SIRIUS has made out of the XM programming that I initially signed-up for. SIRIUS and their supposed programming sucks more than a $2 whore -> and that is lower than a pile of whale shit. I’ve been with XM before they hit the 500,000 subscriber mark; I am at a loss of words when it comes to expressing my disgust with regard to how SIRIUS has completely slaughtered XM.

George says:

Too much $ for hosts vs quality of investment..go back to roots...

Enjoy both Sirius and XM in different vehicles. Perhaps thay tried to become too much for too much…..overpriced hosts…..enjoy the music, news, and less cost intensive aspects of both stations. Hope they can return to their original focus and stop paying out the “big bucks” to so many for so little.

billle says:


Sirius/XM should both be investigated by the Dept of Stupidity and Greed.
You know the one in Washington – I think it may also be called congress.
GEEEEZ – How could a simple 18 month delay have any effect on the merger – also how could taking on silly and foolish debt such as Sirius did when choking down XM – you know like paying off XM`s mothers bingo debt`s….

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...