Hudson's Guide to Satellite Radio

I’ve been giving some serious thought to moving into my vehicle. No, I’m not going crazy. Looking through the mess in the front and back seats earlier today, I discovered a full set of clothes, a couple of winter jackets, a number of books and magazines, and a couple dozen CD’s.
Plus my vehicle already has both a tape deck and CD player…along with two Ipods (including a video Ipod) and both Sirius and XM satellite radios. With drive-throughs all over the city, all I would possibly need is an occasional shower.
I know what you’re thinking – why, Mr. Hudson, do you have a half dozen different audio formats? Well, I filled one Ipod so I certainly needed another…and the second satellite receiver was a wonderful Christmas gift so I could check out Howard Stern’s new show.
I know, I’m a crazy “mo-fo”. Yet this craziness could actually be beneficial to Prime readers. With all of the hype surrounding satellite radio, usually written in favor of whatever format the author has installed, who better to compare and contrast the two formats?
Truthfully, however, I can’t really come out and say that either one is superior. I love them both, and for different reasons. Right now I’m probably listening to Sirius more than XM, but that’s only because that’s the most recently acquired toy. Inevitably, that will change in recent months, just like I’ll probably eventually share time equally between the two Ipods.

Hardware. There’s not a lot of difference between XM and Sirius players. Each of them has relatively small receivers that can be used through either the cassette deck or by utilizing an empty space in the FM dial (I use 107.5). Both systems also come with a magnetic antenna that you must attach to the roof of your vehicle and then hide the attached wire through the nooks and crannies of your vehicle. While that may seem a bit intimidating, it’s actually surprisingly easy.
The Sirius player came with a suction-cup attachment that you stick to your front window, while my XM player came only with a piece of Velcro that lasted a week at best. A simple bracket connected the player next to the radio.
With additional accessories, both players can be used in the home, although reception can be a bit tricky if you live in a wooded area. The best method is to just stick the player in the southernmost window and use the FM modulator to pick up the signal on a boombox or stereo.
Both companies also offer portable players. Sirius’ portable unit can hold a full gig of  both downloaded Sirius programming and your own MP3’s. Unfortunately, you can’t listen to live Sirius programming when it’s “on the fly” (in portable mode). XM’s portable can only save five hours of material (and no MP3’s), but one can listen to live programming at any time.
One more important note – subscribers to either service can also listen to content online. Unfortunately, this is primarily limited to the music channels. Most syndicated and/or talk show channels are not available (although XM’s Opie and Anthony show is online).

Music. There is little difference between the two systems. Both feature almost every genre available, from traditional gospel hymns to hardcore death metal. Yet there are subtle differences in the programming of each channel. For example, Sirius’ college rock channel focuses primarily on indie guitar rock while XM’s feature more beat-heavy material. Likewise, XM’s 80’s alt-rock station seems to be more well-rounded than the corresponding station on Sirius.
One other major difference between the two is Sirius appears to rely more on actual DJ’s. In fact, Sirius as a whole is much more personality-driven then XM. Tony Hawk, Eminem, Little Steven, 50 Cent, and Lance Armstrong all have stations (supposedly) devoted to their tastes and hosted by their friends. (Little Steven’s Underground Garage, featuring everything from Eddie Cochran to the White Stripes) is quite possibly the best station on either system. Sirius also has stations devoted to Elvis and the Rolling Stones (a Bruce Springsteen-only station, highlighted by bootleg outtakes and live concerts, recently concluded a three-month run).

Sports. This is the one area that may help many decide which company is the best suited for their tastes. Besides ESPN and other sports talk channels that appear on both networks, each company has their own exclusive deals with college and professional sports. Sirius has the NFL and NBA, along with some college programming. XM’s big coup is a deal that airs every Major League Baseball game, including spring training, along with the PGA and basketball and football games involving the Big Ten, Pac-10, and ACC college divisions. Both companies air the NHL, and while Nascar is currently on XM they will move to Sirius in 2007.

Talk. Just like the music categories, there are few differences between XM and Sirius when it comes to talk radio. Both systems have channels devoted to comedy, religion, kids, truckers, CNN, public radio, and a handful of simulcast television channels (E!, VH1, CNBC, etc.) Each also have channels dedicated to conservative and liberal talk radio. XM covers both sides with Air America and Fox News, while Sirius combines a number of syndicated shows (including Fargo native Ed Schultz on Liberal Talk).
Yet there is some exclusive programming on each system. Sirius has deals with Martha Stewart, Maxim, and Cosmo (along with a gay lifestyle channel), while XM is the home of PTI’s Tony Kornhsier (although his show will end later this year when he joins Monday Night Football) and Bob Edwards. XM also has recently made headlines with an extremely lucrative deal with Oprah Winfrey.
Of course, there’s also “shock jocks”. Sirius has made plenty of headlines in recent months with the debut of two channels (soon to be three) of uncensored Howard Stern programming, but XM actually was the first to air this sort of material when Opie and Anthony came on board 18 months ago. Both channels battle for my attention every day. Stern is nowhere near as nasty as the media would love for us to believe, but he does give couch space to infamous people such as Jenna Jameson and Star Trek’s recently-outed George Takei. Opie and Anthony’s strength is their friendships with seemingly every comic in America, including Jimmy Norton, Patrice O’Neal, and Dane Cook. While both programs air live simultaneously, replays throughout the day and night provide plenty of opportunity to check out each show.

The Future. As much as I personally love satellite radio, it may come to most as a shock that I really don’t feel that they’ll be a serious threat to terrestrial radio. In fact, I believe that the ability of Ipods to store and randomly play up to 15,000 songs is a bigger threat (but that’s a future column).
That’s not to say that the future for satellite radio isn’t bright. They will continue to grow by the millions every year, and as more car companies sign deals with both companies they will become more and more a desirable option for car owners.
In the meantime, the most intriguing changes in the near future will be in the hardware. Players will inevitably become smaller and easier to install. Special features such as storing favorite songs and shows will be fine-tuned, and the bugs that currently plague the portable units (reception quality, “on the fly” restrictions) will be eliminated sooner rather than later. Eventually, deals will probably be struck with cell phone companies and/or Apple’s Ipod.
As for the programming, there will always be minor (and sometimes major) changes. Channels, formats, and personalities will come and go, particularly on the talk, lifestyle, and sports channels. More and more special events and concerts will be simulcast, as will specialty channels such as those dedicated to the Stones and Elvis (I’d die for an all-Replacements channel).
One refreshing aspect that will never change is the quality of the music, as that is their bread and butter. There will always be at least a couple of channels that mirror your particular tastes, no matter how esoteric you are. Hell, if Scott Hudson can find channels that please his challenging standards then anybody can!


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