Tuning in to Pay Radio

Nonstop sound and juicy channels are a treat

Remember the little pigtail coils that meant a driver had a car phone? Or the boomerang flying on the back of a limo that was a dead giveaway to the TV set inside? Now, there's a new car antenna to envy. In its classiest incarnation, it looks like a three-inch-long black shark fin riding the roof. It's a sure sign the driver subscribes to satellite radio, the first innovation in radio since FM stereo 41 years ago.

Satellite radio offers digital, coast-to-coast broadcasts beamed from space. Because people listen to radio mostly in their cars, it's aimed at drivers and offers compelling improvements over the AM and FM bands: The sound you hear is close to CD quality, the signals don't fade as you get 30 or 40 miles away from a station's transmitter, and the vast diversity of programs means you can always find something you want to hear.

Two companies, XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio, offer similar but incompatible 100-channel services. Each requires you to buy a special radio, costing from $300 to over $1,000 depending on whether you get it as an option in a new car, a kit that works with your existing radio, or a brand-new aftermarket car stereo from the likes of Pioneer, Alpine, and Kenwood. And, oh yes--this is paid radio, at $10 to $13 a month, so you'd better spend a lot of time behind the wheel if you want to get your money's worth.

Over the past few months, I've become a "car potato" as I've tested both services, sometimes even sitting in front of my house to catch the end of a program I couldn't get inside. First, I borrowed a $299 Sony DRN-XM01 handheld XM receiver that hooks up to a car cassette player. (It's the only one that will work with your home audio system, too.) Later, I drove a Cadillac Deville for a week with a factory-installed XM radio, a $295 option. In between, I spent time with Sirius executives in a BMW X5 for a demo of its system in Las Vegas. You can get Sirius in Denver, Houston, Phoenix, and Jackson, Miss.; it will finish its national rollout in August. XM Radio has been available nationwide since November.

Both satellite systems offer a marked difference in sound from conventional analog radio. You don't hear any crackly static, and the signal doesn't fade and distort in hilly terrain. Both use low-power transmitters on the ground to fill out any holes in the satellite coverage. Even in long tunnels, the Sony receiver performed flawlessly. The Cadillac radio, however, would sporadically lose the same XM signal.

The real story of satellite radio, however, isn't sound quality, it's the wealth of programming. With deregulation of radio station ownership in the '90s, many stations were sold to big companies that turned to tried-and-true formats. The result? Same-old, same-old top hits in the cities, and country music everywhere else. The lineups at XM and Sirius are remarkably alike, with 60 to 70 music channels; the rest are news, sports, comedy, and talk. Each has a dozen different rock channels, from soft rock to unsigned bands. There are a half-dozen jazz, three classical, four dance, and uncensored rap channels. Like show tunes? You can get them 24/7.

It's not background music, either, like the music channels on your cable TV. Most stations have announcers and some, annoying DJs. While the music channels at Sirius are commercial-free, XM runs up to six minutes of ads per hour on about half its music stations. If you're not sure it's for you, you can try out any Sirius channel over a broadband Internet connection at siriusradio.com, or listen to music clips at xmradio.com.

I easily found lots of channels to like. My current favorite: U-Pop, global chart-toppers on XM channel 29. Then there's that cool antenna. It really dressed up my aging Toyota.

By Larry Armstrong

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