Satellite Radio: Two For The Road

Do you pick XM or Sirius service? It may all boil down to your politics

Every morning it's the same thing. On my 40-minute drive to work in Detroit, I find myself flipping between my CD collection -- which admittedly gets old -- National Public Radio, and a few bad FM rock stations that feature chatty disk jockies who play the same tunes over and over.

My commute got a lot more interesting once I started testing two satellite radio systems, XM and Sirius. The two providers offer about 100 channels with news, sports, and many genres of music and entertainment. Since the program lists are remarkably similar, it's tough to go wrong with either one. But I preferred the programming on Sirius Satellite Radio (SIRI ) because it has more variety when it comes to news, talk, and nonmusic entertainment. Plus, Sirius has no advertising.

Here's how it works. XM Satellite Radio Holdings (XMSR ) charges $9.99 a month and has two to three minutes of commercials per hour on most of its 70 music channels. Sirius Satellite Radio charges $12.95 a month, but it has no commercials on any of its 60 music stations. Both have ads on the news and sports stations, such as CNN (TWX ) and ESPN, because those networks carry their own advertising.

To get hooked up, you must generally spend at least $120 for a portable receiver you can plug into your car's power jack or a home unit you wire into your stereo system. For up to $550 at retailers such as Best Buy (BBY ) or Circuit City Stores (CC ), you can get a docking station for an XM or Sirius receiver installed into your car stereo. The receiver slides out of the car and fits into a specially designed home boom box that comes with the package. XM has one advantage here. Its new Roady, which sells for $120, is the size of an inch-thick credit card and is completely portable. Sirius' alternative to the Roady is the Plug & Play, made by either Audiovox (VOXX ) or Kenwood. To get all the parts needed to dock the receiver in the home and car costs about $180.

Car dealers also offer satellite radio receivers as a factory-installed option. XM radios are available in most General Motors (GM ) models and in many from Honda Motor (HMC ) and Acura. XM has been subsidizing its auto receivers, so the feature is in some luxury cars. Sirius has a similar distribution deal with Ford Motor (F ) and DaimlerChrysler (DCX ), generally without the subsidies. Since factory-installed receivers can cost $300 or more, it's cheaper to buy a retail unit if you go with a low-price option such as the Roady or the Plug & Play.

The big difference between the two services is in the programming. Since 40 Sirius channels offer something other than music, it has more news and talk than XM. That line-up has a lot to offer liberal-minded listeners, while XM seems to aim at the middle and the right. That's not to say Sirius is for lefties and XM for right-wingers. But consider that Sirius has three public radio channels, which tend to draw a more liberal crowd, and XM doesn't have any. Sirius also has Sirius Left, a liberal talk channel, as well as Sirius Right.


Some of XM's staple talk-show hosts on channels XM Buzz and Ask! include conservatives Bill Cunningham, Michael Reagan, and libertarian Glenn Beck. One exception: Comic personality Phil Hendrie on Buzz, who's in the 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. weeknight slot, takes shots at both sides of the political debate. In one session, he went on a rant suggesting, sarcastically, that the U.S. Army turn southern Iraq into one big military base, like Guantanamo Bay, and let the rest of the country rot.

Another difference between the services: Sirius features a channel for the gay community; XM has an exclusive channel for NASCAR racing buffs and a Playboy (PLA ) station that costs an extra $2.99 a month. Musically speaking, the differences are subtle. Both offer channels with popular music from the 1940s to the present, as well as formats such as classical, reggae, jazz, and rock. One difference: Many XM channels feature live disk jockeys who take call-in requests. And they're experts. XM's all-reggae channel, named The Joint, features former Bob Marley guitarist Junior Marvin as a DJ. Sirius recently started airing live DJs, but they don't have the musical pedigrees of XM's hosts.

Be prepared to stick with the service you pick. You can't switch without buying new hardware. That'll change in two years, when open-standard radios are slated to hit the market. For now, regardless of which you choose, you can be confident of one thing: The programming you'll find will be a lot better than you'll get on AM or FM radio.

By David Welch

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.