High Flying Radio

Satellite radio delivers crisp sound and offers a host of format options

July 11, 2002|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

It's coming from outer space, and it's going to take over your car radio.

At least, that's the plan of two companies who are vying for one of the hottest new broadcasting developments since a guy named Guglielmo Marconi figured out a way to wirelessly send telegraph signals.

It's called satellite radio, and if you think it's complicated, it isn't -- the bottom line is it's a great new option for listening to radio on the road.

The two companies offering satellite radio service, XM and Sirius, each offer more than 100 channels of music, talk, sports and news radio stations that are beamed via upper-atmosphere orbiters into your car (or even your home, for that matter).

You can drive from Baltimore to Seattle and never lose the digital-quality sound of a Frank Sinatra broadcast. You can head cross-country and always be perfectly tuned to that obscure Mandarin Chinese music channel. And if you're into classical music or opera, Mozart or Swan Lake will be only the push of a button away, even on the lonely highways of rural Montana, where a regular picks up nothing but static on the FM band.

"We're on the ground floor of an amazing enterprise," says Martin Goldsmith, a former National Public Radio classical music personality who's crossed over into the satellite realm as a classical DJ for XM. He no longer spends his time spinning vinyl or CDs, but playing music off the giant music-packed hard drives at XM's Washington, D.C., studios.

"It's all about art being helped by technology," he says.

There are pop music stations aplenty on satellite radio, of course, as well as classic rock, half a dozen country stations, a few New Wave channels, and a specialty station for just about any genre you can think of -- African, reggae, heavy metal, Hindi, gospel, bluegrass and disco. And most of them have no commercial interruptions.

So what's the catch? Well, there's always money coming out of your pocket for anything good, and satellite radio is no exception.

On top of a one-time, purchase-and-installation fee for a radio, satellite antenna, and special receiver that will run you anywhere from $300 to $400, XM charges $10 a month for a subscription fee. Sirius, which has the same start-up costs, charges $12.95 a month.

We decided to test the two satellite services out in a head-to-head extraterrestrial showdown to find out not only how they worked but to see if it's worth plopping down all that money. What we found were some basic differences between the services and some practical advice for anyone considering a satellite radio purchase.

First, the basic premise of satellite radio should be understood. Sirius and XM are largely providing their own radio stations, being piped out of their own respective studios with their own DJs. In other words, there is almost no local programming available.

Having a satellite radio will not enable you to tune in to, say, the WBAL broadcast of an Orioles game when you're in Texas. There are a few stations that are not proprietary to Sirius and XM (ESPN Radio, NPR, BBC World Service, and CNN, for instance) but basically what you're going to get is a conglomeration of XM- and Sirius-made broadcasts.

That being said, it should also be noted that just about any satellite radio system you buy for your car would come with a standard AM/FM radio. This way you get the best of both worlds: local and satellite radio, with the latter essentially being an "add-on" to your car radio experience.

Second, XM and Sirius are two pretty distinct, independent entities. While both offer a huge variety of stations that cater to just about anyone, XM is more baby boomer and Sirius more hip-hop. It's no coincidence that XM's test radio provided to us came in a staid, brown Cadillac Deville DTS, while Sirius showcased its radio in a dark-blue Mustang with "SIRIUS ROCK" painted on the side, superimposed over a wild-looking guitar player.

XM -- generally considered by analysts to be the more financially stable company -- offers a distinctive 1940s channel, movie soundtracks, love songs, opera and old-school R&B. Sirius offers three rap stations (including one called "classic rap"), several techno-dance and hip-hop channels, and a half-dozen rock stations that sound more on the heavy-metal than the classic side.

But the beauty of satellite radio is volume -- not on the sound dial, but in terms of the sheer number of stations available for either Sirius or XM. While being geared toward a younger generation, Sirius has its share of baby-boomer appeal such as a "Swing" channel, several jazz stations and the "Sirius Gold" channel that offers a healthy dose of British Invasion tunes.

Likewise, XM, on top of exotic offerings such as Mandarin Chinese and Indian rock, offers some dance tunes, an "Uncut Hip-Hop" channel and a couple of heavy rock stations that'll blast out your ear drums, if that's what you're into.

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