Satellite Radio Rocks

When it comes to satellite radio, I was wrong. Back in 2000, when XM and Sirius were announced at CES, I was convinced that both would die a rapid death, with nary a tear shed by anyone but their investors. Why pay ten bucks a month, I reasoned, for something you can get for free?

It was the height of Napster, when free (albeit illegal) music sharing was at its zenith. Royalty-free Internet radio abounded. Decent broadcast radio was not yet an oxymoron. And it seemed that there were much better things to spend money on than music.

So what changed my tune? It had nothing to do with all the marketing money each company spends trying to influence journalists. It wasn't a timely product placement by some enterprising PR rep. Nope, oddly enough, it was a Ford Taurus that first turned my head.

A year and a half ago, I was part of PC Magazine's Editors' Days in Southern California. The meetings were held at the tony Westin Hotel in Newport Beach, but dinner the night before was hosted by Gateway Computers (when there still was such a thing), almost two hours away in San Diego.

Following my longstanding policy of not driving long distances after dinner, I eschewed joining the flotilla of PC Magazine editors hot-footing it back up the coast, and opted to bunk down instead at a local hotel. That meant renting my own car, which suited me just fine anyway.

I've traveled many a long mile in rental cars. I used to carry around CDs and a cassette adapter so I could listen to my own music while driving. But over the past few years, the cassette deck has been phased out of rental cars, and a tiny MP3 player has replaced my kit-bag of CDs and a portable player. That, unfortunately, meant I either had to settle for one of those poor-performing FM broadcasting add-ons, listen to regular radio, or drive with headphones on. Terrible options, all.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find that my Hertz Rent A Car Ford Taurus featured a built-in Sirius radio. Soon I found myself heading down Interstate 5, mashing buttons on the satellite radio and swerving madly as I searched for something to listen to. With more than a hundred channels, that wasn't a problem, but finding something appealing was. Eventually, I stumbled on a gold mine—a station that played my favorite genre of music 24 hours a day, seven days a week. — Continue reading

My Tastes

Let me stop here, and describe my musical tastes. I like jazz, enjoy reggae, and have a nostalgic fondness for eighties-style new wave. But my one true favorite doesn't even have an officially sanctioned ID3-tag genre to call its own. I call it hippie music, others call it jam band. It's the free-form improvisational rock loosely defined by the Grateful Dead and gleefully reinterpreted by Phish, String Cheese Incident, Assembly of Dust, and a vast, perpetually touring subculture of bands nationwide.

Now I'd found an amazing channel: Sirius 17, aka "Jam On." The name precisely defines my musical tastes. I'd spent years building up live concert recordings of many of the bands on the playlist, most of which filled my 60MB Zen Xtra MP3 player near to bursting. But without an outlet to expose me to new music, my tastes had atrophied. Man cannot live on Jerry, Reid, and Trey alone! (For the uninitiated, that's Garcia of the Dead, Genauer of Assembly of Dust, and Anastasio of Phish, respectively.)

After an hour of listening to Jam On, I'd discovered a brand-new library of artists to adore, from Keller Williams to the North Mississippi Allstars, and had rekindled my love of the Radiators, Medeski Martin & Wood, and many others. My 4-hour round-trip drive was a mind-blowing exploration of expanding musical horizons. The jams even softened the notorious SoCal traffic.

It took months after that fortuitous discovery, though, before I finally hopped on the Sirius bus (as it were). I wasn't willing to have satellite radio only in my car. That seemed like a waste, as my daily drive to the train is just 10 minutes. But then Sirius came out with the Sportster, an iPod-size unit that could be swapped from a car cradle to a home stereo, and even to a boombox. I was hooked.— Continue reading

Living with Sirius, Looking at XM

So now I've had Sirius for almost six months, and I'm a full-blown addict. I listen to Jam On all the time, but I've discovered some other wonderful channels, including First Wave (eighties new wave, from the Human League to Blondie), and Vacation: reggae, Jimmy Buffett, and more.

But with the onset of baseball season, the grass is now looking greener on the XM side of the fence. I'm a frustrated Mets fan living in San Francisco, and really miss hearing my team's games on the radio. XM is offering the entire season, built into the monthly cost. XM also features my favorite talk radio personality, Phil Hendrie (for the record, Sirius's big acquisition, Howard Stern, doesn't do much for me). Even though I've added a Sirius cradle to my car, I just might have to switch, or add an XM unit to my magic bag of gadgets.

That's easier than you might think, because the variety of hardware options has also grown tremendously. In addition to the units that swap between car and house, Sirius hardware includes the nifty Tivoli retro radio for the kitchen, and units from Pioneer and others that look great in the home-theater rack.

XM has taken portability to new heights with the battery-powered Walkman-style Delphi MyFi, which lets you take your satellite radio with you anywhere. It even includes enough memory to record 5 hours of content, TiVo-style, for later listening.

The MyFi has changed at least one frequent flyer's routine. My XM-fanatic buddy (who will remain nameless for reasons that are about to become obvious) now sits only in south-facing window seats when he flies, so he can surreptitiously listen to his XM radio by secretly poking the antenna up against the airplane window.