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...
RADIO --- HOUSTON, WE MAY HAVE A WINNER!
By Steve Parker
Ive been testing new cars and trucks for over 25 years,
from the days before anti-lock brakes and airbags to today,
when theres 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
Now the product is ready for the marketplace, and all of
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.
Its 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.
Theres a monthly XM subscription charge of $9.95, and
Sirius says theyll be charging $12.95 a month. Trust
me, if youre into audio at all, you wont 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 youll 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 theres a passel of country stations, everything
from traditional banjo/fiddle bluegrass to the latest Nashville
hits. Plenty of all types of jazz. "Franks 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.