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From the Field
Sometime ago I did a story on television reporting on a new technology for our cars -- satellite radio. I was intrigued then and have been ever since. In recent months with lots of breaking national news like the DC sniper story I found myself feeling frustrated by the strangest thing. I'd watch developments on CNN or FOX News Channel and then in the middle of some breaking information I'd have to drop everything, jump in the car and head 40 minutes to work. When I'd get there I'd suddenly find that was my story. I had lost continuity. Ohhhh what's a TV news reporter to do. If I could only continue keeping tabs of the continuous reporting on cable in the car!!! Then it hit me -- besides music channels, satellite radio also has the cable news channels. I did a little shopping, discovered prices are coming down on some of the units...there are promotions...and gave it a shot. Now, I leave the house and still have access to the great local radio stations, but I don't have to leave cable news behind. Here's more on satellite radio from automotive reporter Steve Parker...

By Steve Parker

I’ve been testing new cars and trucks for over 25 years, from the days before anti-lock brakes and airbags to today, when there’s a new high-tech gimmick introduced every week. So it takes something special to get me excited about any new automotive plaything.

After a week in a 2002 Cadillac Deville equipped with an XM satellite radio receiver, I can say this: I would not now consider ordering a new car or truck without a satellite radio system. I have been duly impressed.

Satellite radio has been in development for several years. Two companies, XM and Sirius, received the broadcast licenses, and the money was raised to put a total of five satellites (so far) into earth orbit. Both companies are stock-selling public corporations. More on the success (or not) of those stocks later.

Now the product is ready for the marketplace, and all of us.

XM radios can be ordered right now as optional equipment on a few GM cars and trucks, but that number will grow as the months go on. Some 30 2003 GM models can be had with XM. XM also has contracts with Honda and Toyota. The Sirius system will be available, starting later in 2003, as an option DaimlerChrysler vehicles (including Mercedes-Benz), the Ford family of cars and trucks (which these days also means Volvo, Land Rover, Jaguar, Mazda and Mitsubishi and more) and BMW and Porsche (some companies actually offer both services as dealer options). Right now about the only way to get Sirius is by buying a receiver at one of the major electronic stores like Best Buy or Good Guys.

The price for the XM radio option our test Deville was $295. It’s a nice unit, incorporating the AM and FM bands with the XM into the standard Bose radio, which is a great stereo system to begin with. It's seamless, too...there's little on the control panel to tell you the radio can get the satellite channels. Push the "band" button and you get AM, FM...and then XM! Cool!

As mentioned, electronics retailers now sell aftermarket receivers which can be fit into your car or truck. Let the pros install it for you, because the proper wiring and placement of the antennae is critical. Prices start around $300.

There’s a monthly XM subscription charge of $9.95, and Sirius says they’ll be charging $12.95 a month. Trust me, if you’re into audio at all, you won’t mind paying the monthly fee. Only a few of the news/talk channels have any commercials, and none of the music channels run ads.

In another year or so you’ll be able to order receivers which pick up both XM and Sirius. Home units are slowly hitting the marketplace, too.
In a week of cruising between Palm Springs and Los Angeles, up and down mountainous Highway 74, on the I-10 and the I-60, the only place I did not get a fantastic XM signal was, quite ironically, in the parking lot at Palm Springs' KPSI radio when I was there to do my show on a Sunday morning! The Deville was parked under a carport made of corrugated sheetmetal and that seemed to block the satellite signal.
You tune the satellite radio just like a "regular" radio, except the display panel offers more information, such as the name of the song and the artist, and maybe something extra like the year it was recorded.

Want comedy? XM has three comedy channels. Rhythm and blues? About 5 channels. Rock music? Not only are there channels for each decade, starting with the ‘50s, but more specific channels for hard rock, soft rock, country rock --- you get the idea. And there’s a passel of country stations, everything from traditional banjo/fiddle bluegrass to the latest Nashville hits. Plenty of all types of jazz. "Frank’s Place" features Sinatra and friends 24 hours a day, and there are my favorites, a World Music channel, several reggae outlets and an African music channel. Opera, classical and gospel, too. Name it and they have it.

News/talk selections include everything from the BBC ("This is London!") to ABC, CNN, USA Today, History, Discovery, Fox and all the rest. Even a NASCAR channel.

Sound quality? Fantastic. Just like your home CD player. Coverage area? About every square inch of the contiguous 48 states (except that KPSI parking lot!). Set the pre-sets (just once) and cruise from the desert to San Diego, or from LA to Miami Beach, and never hit a station re-set button.
As for local radio, you'll still need to tune-in to get local news and weather and traffic. And the flavor which only local hosts can provide. Honestly, after the first five days using the XM, I was also listening to local outlets about as much as usual. I needed that local "fix".

Sirius and XM stock have both had trouble in recent months. Only XM has come close to meeting stated subscriber goals, and Sirius appears to be getting ready to play the part of the perennial also-ran, as, for instance, Infiniti does to Lexus --- and not necessarily because of quality, but simply because XM (and Lexus) were the first on the market.

In fact, analysts say Sirius may very well eventually be bought-out by its major client, General Motors, and their Hughes Electronics division.
Several technical problems have burdened both companies, including chipsets which didn't work as advertised in the receivers and satellites which may not last as long as originally promised. Sirius especially was hard-hit by the chipset problem, and it put that company over a year behind in their introduction.

And some still believe that the entire business model is wrong. These analysts say the radios should be much less expensive and both XM and Sirius services should be free. Why? People are used to commercials, they say. They don't mind them on the radio. In fact, a lot of radio listeners say they enjoy commercial breaks and even look forward to them! However, a lot of "experts" said the same things about cable TV and its pay services.
Whichever way it shakes out, the technology, and at least one satellite radio company, is here to stay. It looks like it'll be XM, but don't count Sirius out, especially if GM steps in with some big bucks as a corporate savior.

Whether or not those satellites broadcast radio for general consumers doesn't really matter. A satellite company may be able to survive by providing highly specialized channels for, say doctors or attorneys or engineers, who all need continuing education services. Parts of channels can also be rented out to carry stock, traffic and weather reports. Even time signals. Some of you may have VCR's at home which magically set their clocks by themselves (What a godsend that feature is! It's saved many marriages, much like dual-zone air conditioning in cars!). But of course, it's not magic. In Los Angeles, for instance, a local TV channel rents out a tiny part of its cable and over-the-air broadcast signal to carry the time signal which the VCRs use for time-setting purposes.

The satellites, the receivers and the technology itself are all valuable commodities, and that value will only grow as techies figure out new things to put on all those frequencies.

About the Author
Steve Parker is a two-time Emmy Award-winning journalist living in Palm Springs, CA, where he produces and hosts automotive-related radio and TV shows) Steve Parker THE CAR NUT / THE CAR DUDE. Over 30 Years of Emmy-Award Winning Automotive Journalism on TV, radio, in newspapers and magazines.