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The day the music died

One 24-hour satellite radio service gave scores of Indians – and most restaurants – all of their digital music. An obituary.

music Updated: Jan 09, 2010 19:22 IST
Prasanto K Roy

Star Trek

On New Year’s Day, customers of Barista and other coffee shops, and thousands of restaurants, noticed a subtle change in the air. With all the glitter and balloons, there was something missing.

The alert ones put their finger on it immediately: it was the music. In most places, it had switched off. In others, the soft, contiguous pop or country or jazz they were used to was replaced by jarring, poorly selected CDs that kept repeating (or stopping), or, worse, loud and talkative RJs from local radio stations.

On January 1, WorldSpace switched off its service to India. It wasn’t unexpected. The notice was on for a couple of weeks: “Due to the financial difficulties facing WorldSpace, Inc, which has been under bankruptcy protection since October 2008, the satellite radio broadcast service will be terminated for all customers serviced from India on December 31, 2009.”

Other than some customers who hadn’t read the notice, the only people it really appeared to take by surprise were the Indian employees of WorldSpace and their call centres, who got us to renew one account in November and were busy calling us in December with yet another special offer.

WorldSpace was the world’s first satellite radio network, and the only one focusing on emerging countries. It started up a decade ahead of the other two prominent (and US-based) satellite networks, Sirius and XM. In fact, it’s still only company with rights to globally-allocated spectrum for digital satellite radio. Of its 200,000 direct subscribers in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, over 95 per cent came from India. Another 200,000 came via Airtel DTH, which offered ten WorldSpace channels as part of its bouquet, and which has replaced them with, oh horror, ten All India Radio channels.

WorldSpace was started off by Noah Samara, an Ethiopia-born Sudanese, who became founder-chairman of World-Space at age 34, trying to fill the gap in Africa of the nationwide FM radio networks that he had experienced in the USA. He raised $1.5 billion to buy a nearly-retired satellite, called it AfriStar, and launched operations. They later added the AsiaStar satellite, to cover Asia.

The company, which renamed itself 1worldspace in July 2008 (doubtless so advised by a numerologist), went heavily into debt, filed for bankruptcy protection in the USA, and faced scathing attacks by Wall Street analysts, all in the same year. In December 2009, it terminated services to India, with subscriber refunds unlikely.

Strangely, the Indian user isn’t clamouring for refunds: most I have spoken to, and others whose posts I’ve seen online, just want the service back.

For many, it was a constant companion. At home, we’d listen to Country and Maestro (Western classical); my mother to the Sonar (Bangla) channel, my in-laws to Farishta and Gandharv, most restaurants to Riff (Jazz) or UPOP or one of the several other popular music channels. It wasn’t terribly endearing in terms of customer service in India – I remember the several run-ins with them, trying to fix the cable and get the damned signal to appear, over the 10 years that I’ve had the service and the sturdy old Hitachi receivers.

But the music, sans ad-spots and sans irritating, moronic jockeys, was irreplaceable.

A coffee-manager I spoke to was devastated. No, he wasn’t a music lover: it was just the economics. “For less than Rs 2,000 a year, we got an unlimited supply of digital music,” he said. “To replace WorldSpace, we now need CD players that will run through the day, a huge supply of CDs, and someone to keep changing them.” I told him about alternate digital music players, but he wasn’t impressed.

Technically, WorldSpace isn’t dead, just comatose. Another company, Liberty Media, acquired the company and its debt-ridden assets, but excluded India. That decision excluded, incredibly, 95 per cent of its listener base. What Liberty Media intends to do (perhaps reflecting the first-worldish 1worldspace name) is focus on the first world – especially Europe, where it plans to use terrestrial repeaters to give high-quality ground-based radio programming to digital receivers, especially those in cars.

Why isn’t it doing that in India? There are two good reasons, with the revenue potential being the second of them. The bigger one is that with India’s famous slow-and-steady pace, it would never get the license for terrestrial radio service here, not before all the present India staff retired or died of old age...

And over the way, that decision also knocks off a staff of 300 that run the 20 stations of Worldspace India, who bravely kept the show going till the last day of December, in fact right up to the last hour, ringing in the new decade – when the music finally died.

The author is chief editor and green evangelist at CyberMedia, publisher of 15 specialty titles and sites such as