By Carol Traeger
One of the greatest things about driving alone is being able to play whatever music you want, as loudly as you want, and sing along to it as crazily as you want, without anybody giving you grief about it.
Hear sample programs
To find out more about channel offerings, subscriptions, vehicle availability, and to listen to some sample programs, check out the companies' Web sites at www.xmradio.com, www.sirius.com
But sooner or later, even you get tired of listening to yourself. Or the same old radio station. Or your same old CD collection. Suddenly, you hunger for something more. Something different. Something new. Something totally beyond your normal listening horizons.
That's when you'll discover satellite radio.
Anyway, that's how it happened to me. I was about two hours into a six-hour drive in a Cadillac CTS, when I got so sick of my CDs and searching for a station with decent reception, that I deigned to give satellite radio a try.
I wound up listening to four straight hours of XM satellite radio. During that time, I encountered absolutely no static, no lost signals, no inane disc jockey banter, and only about five minutes of commercials. Better yet, I learned important things like what Christina Aguilera sounds like (MIX channel), what kind of plants grow in the Grand Canyon (Discovery Channel), what kind of childhood L'il Kim had (VH1), and what the weather in Los Angeles was like (Weather Channel). Oh, and I laughed at a Bob Newhart comedy special (Laugh USA). Every time a new song or program came on, the Cadillac's navigation screen displayed the channel, artist's name and song/program title.
What is satellite radio?
Think of satellite radio as the audio equivalent of satellite TV. Unlike AM and FM radio, which are broadcast locally, satellite radio uses satellites to beam digital signals to specially equipped cars and homes throughout the contiguous 48 states.
Currently, only two companies offer satellite radio in the U.S.: XM radio and Sirius Radio. Both companies offer more than 100 stations - many commercial free - to subscribers for a monthly fee.
The most established company is XM Radio, which started broadcasting in September 2001, and currently boasts 1.3 million subscribers. Operating out of 80 studios in Washington, D.C., XM produces shows and beams them up to two satellites (one nicknamed "Rock," and the other "Roll"). The satellites transmit the digital signal to 1,000 repeaters spread throughout the country to ensure that listeners in every nook and cranny receive the signal. Subscribers pay $9.99 per month for access to all of XM's 100 stations: 68 music channels, and 32 news/talk stations.
The younger and smaller of the two companies, Sirius Radio, began broadcasting in July 2002 and currently has 261,000 subscribers. Operating out of studios in New York City's Rockefeller Center, the company beams its programs to three orbiting satellites, which in turn transmit the signal to 100 repeaters across the country. Sirius offers 105 stations and charges subscribers $12.95 per month.
If you're a new-car shopper who wants satellite radio, you can usually have it factory installed, but you won't always get to choose between XM and Sirius.
GM and Honda/Acura are part owners of XM Radio, and therefore they offer only XM in their vehicles (including Isuzu and Saab). XM also is offered in Toyota/Lexus/Scion vehicles, and in select Avis rental cars.
Sirius has signed deals with Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, Ford (including Mazda, Volvo, Land Rover, and Jaguar), and BMW (including Mini). Sirius also is available in select Hertz rental cars. Currently, Audi and Nissan/Infiniti are the only automakers that offer buyers a choice of either Sirius or XM.
Virtually every aftermarket radio manufacturer - including Delphi, Alpine, Clarion, Kenwood, Pioneer, Sony - now offers satellite-ready radio receivers for cars. They can be found at retailers such as Best Buy, Circuit City and Sears. A typical car satellite receiver costs $300, and a complete installation can run up to $500. Look for costs to drop drastically as competition heats up.
There also are a variety of adapters available for upgrading current car audio systems. XM Radio recently introduced two new wireless FM audio adaptors ($29.99) that will deliver XM to any car with an FM radio system (after you sign up for the subscription, of course). For more information on adapters, check out the company Web sites at www.xmradio.com and www.sirius.com.
Variety is the spice
XM and Sirius separate their music stations into sub-categories. For instance, XM offers Classical, Country, Dance, Decades, Hits, Jazz & Blues, Kids, Latin, Rock, Urban and World. XM's news/talk channels are grouped into Comedy, News, Sports, and Talk & Variety. One button lets you switch between categories, and another button lets you switch stations within that category.
After variety, satellite radio's biggest advantage over FM radio is its sound quality. Satellite radio music is broadcast in a digital signal, so it sounds as bright and crisp as a CD. Regular radio music sounds muddy by comparison.
The joy of discovery
Besides variety and great sound quality, satellite radio offers an element of surprise and discovery you can't get from conventional radio or your personal CD collection. On XM, I stumbled upon, and listened to, stuff I wouldn't ever find on conventional radio (classical music, a documentary on the Grand Canyon, biographies on rap singers, R-rated comedy shows), and my time on the road flew by because of it.
Both Sirius and XM have gathered up some of the finest radio talent in the country, and the DJs select the best music and add illuminating commentary. Both providers offer "live" programming, where listeners can interact with the on-air talent.
New for 2004
On Feb. 1, Sirius will lose one of its biggest advantages over XM - 100-percent commercial-free music stations - when XM's 68 music stations go 100-percent commercial free, as well.
In March, XM will begin rolling out Instant Traffic& Weather channels in 21 U.S. cities, including New York, Detroit, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Both Sirius and XM provide national weather news via the Weather Channel.
For its part, Sirius recently added three weather channels - one channel each for the Eastern, Central and Western regions - which will provide round-the-clock updates. The Central weather channel will broadcast weather updates for Cincinnati every five minutes.
At this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Sirius announced it will offer satellite video/movie service to cars within eight months. The video systems will use the same car antenna as the radio, so it'll be cheap, but the available movies will be aimed primarily at children. After all, they're the ones trapped in the back seat who need entertaining.
Sirius subscriber football fans will be glad to know that, starting in September, Sirius will air every NFL game - including preseason and play-off games - with coverage provided by the home team's announcers. Sirius also will introduce NFL Radio Network to provide fans with year-round coverage of the NFL.
Which is better?
So, which is better: XM or Sirius?
Both companies offer commercial-free music stations, original programs, "live" programming, and many national channels such as ESPN News, Discovery Channel, CSPAN and Fox Sports. XM claims to feature more live programming than Sirius, and also offers local traffic and weather channels. But Sirius will soon provide in-car video - and soon will offer live NFL coverage.
Diehard NASCAR fans might prefer XM, since it's the exclusive satellite radio provider of NASCAR Radio. Open-wheel race fans, on the other hand, will appreciate Sirius's Speed Channel coverage of F1, IRL and Champ Car races.