A Better Bailout for Sirius XM?

Could Mr. Softy handle Howard Stern? One of you thinks so.

A reader responded to my earlier proposal that Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) buy Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  ) by suggesting that CEO Steve Ballmer bid for Sirius XM (Nasdaq: SIRI  ) instead, because having satellite radio might save the Zune.

MicroSirius? It sounds creepy; like the menacing big brother of an '80s comedy film actor who's short-lived trip through the spotlight lives on via the Web. (Crickets chirp as everyone misses my Yahoo Serious reference.)

But I digress. This idea strikes me as equal parts brilliant and absurd. Here's why.

Brilliant!
The Zune needs saving. Revenue from this little-media-player-that-couldn't fell 54% last quarter. Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) collected less from iPod sales over the same period -- 16% less, to be precise -- but moved more units. The iEmpire also still controls roughly 70% of the music player market.

If Microsoft is to continue with the Zune it needs to do something drastic to loosen Apple's grip on the market. Retail could help but, frankly, stores would be more of a tailwind for the Xbox and a thumb in the eye for GameStop (NYSE: GME  ) than any real threat to the iPod. A bigger idea is needed.

How about broadcasting Howard Stern, live from your pocket?

This idea isn't new. Four years ago this month, Sirius XM CEO Mel Karmazin said he'd approached Apple's Steve Jobs about creating a satellite radio enabled iPod. Jobs' response? Not interested. And he still isn't, apparently, even though both the iPod Touch and the iPhone receive Wi-Fi signals and, thereby, have the basic technology to stream Sirius.

There's only one problem. StarPlayr's uSirius Playr is now available for Windows Mobile and the iPod Touch and iPhone. So much for a differentiator.

This deal only starts to make sense when you think of Ford (NYSE: F  ) , Microsoft's partner for Sync. If you haven't yet heard of it, Sync is voice-activated like OnStar but also integrates entertainment and communications services. Plug in your Zune, or your iPod, and access any of your saved tracks by speaking their title.

And if there's a MicroSirius? Just say "Howard Stern" and your Sirius XM tuner would do the rest.

But this idea is also bigger than that. If you think of the automobile as yet another smart platform for combining function and entertainment -- we already have smartphones, and iTVs aren't far behind -- then Sync is just another version of Windows. Exerting control over what broadcasts to the cockpit would only make sense.

Absurd!
Just not at the price Microsoft would have to pay for the company; over $3.5 billion in equity and assumed debt at current prices, or almost 20% of its available net cash and investments.

Debt accounts for the bulk of the acquisition cost. Debt derived from old space junk that's one day going to be rendered useless by wireless technology here on Earth. Why pay for it? Content is what matters and, thanks to the Web and infrastructure suppliers like Akamai (Nasdaq: AKAM  ) , distribution is mostly a matter of software.

Sync is software. Microsoft is a software business. Why buy Sirius XM when it can embed the Sync technology with car stereos that carry Sirius XM tuners? Ford would surely support the effort. No space junk required.

Buying Sirius XM for the sake of the Zune would be even worse. Not only would Microsoft be paying billions to patch a platform that's struggling to bring in, um, far less than that, but Mr. Softy would also inherit dozens of new talent contracts.

Tell me you see the irony of Microsoft getting into the talent management business after laying off 5,000 people.

Don't touch that dial. Please.
I can appreciate the fervor investors have shown in suggesting ways to save Sirius XM. The company is an innovator. There's a lot to like about its content, regardless of whether you like or loathe Howard Stern.

Sirius XM was a rebel. An upstart. As investors, we love these stories because, when they succeed, they can unleash billions in wealth. But when they don't, we're often left with pocket change and lint.

Or in Sirius' case, pocket change, lint, and a few billion dollars in debt. You'll have to forgive Ballmer if he's holding out for a better opportunity.

Apple, GameStop, and Netflix are Stock Advisor selections. Microsoft is an Inside Value pick. Akamai is a Rule Breakers recommendation. Try any of these Foolish services free for 30 days. There's no obligation to subscribe.

Tim had stock and options position in Apple and a stock position in Akamai at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. Its disclosure policy is from the old school. It remembers Howard Stern on WNBC.


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