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radio ga-ga
no, siriusly
by juli mccarthy
8.27.04
music

My husband is not the world’s most spontaneous person. John is thoughtful and deliberate, responsible and practical. He is completely immune to impulse buys. In other words, he’s my polar opposite.

So when he mentioned he’d like to get a new radio for his car, I was prepared for what was to come. First he would investigate every make and model of car radio known to man. He would look them up in Consumer Reports. He would compare prices at Best Buy and Circuit City. He would spend hours on Internet message boards, quizzing other radio owners. He would collect pamphlets, survey his friends and co-workers, and decide ultimately that the radio that came with his car was sufficient.

So you can imagine my surprise when he came home one Saturday morning and extracted a large box from a Best Buy bag. “Satellite radio!” he said, gleefully. “This is the coolest thing ever!”

While he wrestled with do-it-yourself installation that afternoon (smart he is, handy he isn’t) I smiled indulgently and drank iced tea on the deck. Surprisingly, for a guy of John’s limited handyman skills, he managed to get it installed fairly easily, which makes me think ANYONE could do it. That evening he invited me to sit in his car and check out his new toy.

While I fiddled with buttons and dials, John extolled the virtues of Sirius Satellite Radio. 65 music channels, 14 news channels, 22 talk/entertainment channels. Oh, and 8 sports channels, but neither of us care about that.

I didn’t get too excited, though. Radio in general has left me cold ever since my favorite station was sold to Clear Channel and stopped playing obscure 1970s pop songs in favor of soon-to-be-obscure 2000s pop songs. I will occasionally tune in to Bob Stroud’s Rock’n’Roll Roots show, for old time’s sake, but mostly I make do with my large collection of CDs and mp3s.

Then last month, we took a road trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Eleven hours in the car, and John, ever-practical, decreed we’d drive straight through rather than waste money on a motel somewhere between here and there.

Sirius Satellite Radio is the coolest thing ever.

It is nothing like commercial radio. No advertisements on the music stations. No morning “zoo crew.” No interruptions for weather and traffic – but if you need to know about weather and traffic, they’ve got a station completely dedicated to that. And best of all, no constant rotation of crappy pop songs, unless you choose to tune in to the Crappy Pop Songs channel (actually, it’s called SIRIUS Hits 1.)

The channels are sorted by genre and sub-genre. In the rock category alone there are 17 channels covering everything from classic rock to reggae and blues. There are 6 country channels, 13 pop (including an All-Elvis channel), 4 hip-hop, 6 jazz, 6 dance/electronica, 3 classical and 5 world music channels.

The variety of music and artists is amazing. On our trip to Tennessee, we heard T. Graham Brown, Howlin’ Wolf, Trout Fishing In America, Des’ree, Gene Pitney, Pink Floyd, Badly Drawn Boy, Lou Rawls… sure, you hear Pink Floyd on your local classic rock station, but I bet they don’t play many selections from Ummagumma. “Deep tracks” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The talk/entertainment channels are pretty cool, too. There are two stand-up comedy channels – one family oriented, the other completely uncensored. For the politically-minded, there is Sirius Right 142, and Sirius Left 143 (for a real eye-opening experience, I heartily recommend flipping back and forth between these two. Keep a bottle of Excedrin handy.)

News, traffic and weather are covered, no matter where you happen to be. The Weather Channel broadcasts on three channels. C-Span, BBC, NPR and CNN each have their own channels. ESPN and 7 other channels are devoted to all sports, all the time.

Reception is clear as a bell, except for the two or three seconds when you first turn the radio on and it hunts up a signal. Sirius is set up with a four-second buffer, so when the signal gets fuzzy, the music doesn’t. We traveled through four states and never lost the signal. Once in a while, we’d get some mild static, but we discovered a little switch on the side of the Sirius receiver that fixes that. If a local station is using the frequency you’ve got Sirius set on, you can change Sirius to one of three other frequencies not being used locally.

Satellite radio is much like satellite or cable TV service– you have to buy the equipment and install it, or have it installed professionally, then you subscribe to the service separately. There are several choices of equipment. We have the plug-and-play system and two docking units. One is permanently mounted in the car and the other is a portable boombox unit you can take into your home or office. The receiver pops into either unit, and the signal comes through the existing radio. They also have several permanent home units that hook up to your existing stereo system. Prices vary, but you can get a basic set-up going for under $300.

There are a number of different pricing plans, and they’re usually running a special on one or the other. You can subscribe monthly, yearly or for life. 500 bucks and you’ve got incredible radio choices FOR LIFE. How cool is that? (Author’s note: This offer ends August 31, 2004 and I don’t know if there will be a similar one after.) Additional subscriptions on the same account are also available for a monthly fee.

Once you subscribe, you can also listen online. Sirius offers “streaming” service for subscribers. Unfortunately, unless you have a really reliable high-speed Internet connection, service here can be choppy, re-buffering endlessly. Also on the website are emerging artist profiles and listings of upcoming guests, events and special programs.

One other really neato thing: Sirius has something called the Working Artists Group. To quote the website: “We recognize that the biggest hurdles for an artist today are getting studio time and airplay. SIRIUS Working Artist Group can provide an artist with both. The concept is simple: we record artists in one of our state-of-the-art digital recording studios in the heart of NYC, play their music on the appropriate SIRIUS channel and then make the CD and downloads available on our website.”

Commercial radio has become a vast wasteland of advertisements, DJs with “personality” and bland corporate playlists. Satellite radio is the future, and it’s looking pretty bright from here.

For more information: www.siriusradio.com.




ABOUT JULI MCCARTHY

A whole gallon of attitude, poured into a pint container.

more about juli mccarthy

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COMMENTS

tracey kelley
8.27.04 @ 9:51a

Yeah, I want this bad. Our dear Roger has this or the other, and just loves it.

Me? I'm going to have to wait a while, although the $500 for life is tempting. Unbelievable, but tempting.

mike julianelle
8.27.04 @ 9:57a

Yeah, sounds awesome. I've been curious about this stuff. Isn't there an XP Satellite radio or something too? Any intel on that? Comparison anyone?

juli mccarthy
8.27.04 @ 10:07a

I think it's called "XM". John did MUCH comparison, but I wasn't interested enough then to follow any of it. I'll ask him tonigt.

sarah ficke
8.27.04 @ 11:15a

Have you heard The Kennedys on Sirius? They're one of my favorite folk groups, and I think they get played on one of the eclectic channels. It's a great way for non-pop groups to get national radio play, along with the internet.

juli mccarthy
8.27.04 @ 11:22a

I haven't personally heard them, Sarah, but there is an all-folk channel that plays some really good stuff - I even hear some of my faire friends there! Oh, and a couple other little interesting features: the receiver displays the song title and artist, AND, if you're hearing something you like, you can set the radio to switch channels automatically anytime that artist is played on any channel.

trey askew
8.27.04 @ 5:47p

Amazingly enough I'm in the midst of checking this out right now. I've been looking at XM Radio. Looks awesome. And you can go and listen to samples (hours of samples) of their stations on the website.

All these stupid talk shows around here are driving me to it!

juli mccarthy
8.28.04 @ 12:17a

I asked John why Sirius over XM. He said Sirius has more satellites, therefore less chance of signal obstruction. Also more commercial-free channels, better news channels, original programming. He said if you go ahead and do the research, Sirius is so obviously the better choice. Incidentally, for those who are interested, Sirius also has the only full time GLBT channel available right now.

juli mccarthy
8.28.04 @ 12:27p

if you're hearing something you like, you can set the radio to switch channels automatically anytime that artist is played on any channel

Correction: to NOTIFY you when that artist is played on any other channel.

rachel levine
8.28.04 @ 3:26p

Wow. I hate zoo crews in the morning, hate repetitive play lists, and hate most radio advertising. Although, I'm quite fond of public radio in my lefty way -- CBC is good stuff.

steve luxton
8.28.04 @ 3:35p

I got this little used Toy truck last December from a dealer friend in Charlotte. He sent me a picture of the truck and it had something unidentifiable stuck to the cab just above the windshield. I asked my buddy wtf that was stuck to the roof? He told me XM satellite radio was installed. Cool, I thought. Until I found out it was subscription. Since I don't drive the truck that often (no more than once or twice a week) the wife has told me I ain't gittin it no matter how much I tell her I need it. I think I'll show her your story....maybe she'll believe it coming from another woman. Thanks for the nice story.

[edited]

robert melos
8.29.04 @ 12:32a

I didn't get the radio, I bought their stock. It's a sad tale from there.

I've thought about getting a system, but I'm not all that much of a radio person.

Great review. I might check them if their stock goes up again.

juli mccarthy
8.30.04 @ 8:54a

I haven't been a radio person in years, Robert. And remember, they ain't paying me a penny to say this: once I got a good listen to Sirius on our road trip, I didn't want to get out of the car ever again.

karl kiessling
7.24.05 @ 12:56a

Juli,

I think it would be interesting if you started your own talk/entertainment show or podcast.

Karl



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