Sound Advice About Satellite Radio

I was skeptical when I first heard about satellite radio. I understood that it could deliver 100 or more channels with crystal-clear reception coast to coast, but I questioned whether enough people would be willing to pay for it. Not only do you have to buy a new radio (unless you're buying a new car with one installed) but you have to pay between $9.99 and $12.95 a month to listen to it.

I never questioned the technology -- orbiting satellites combined with ground-based repeaters can indeed blanket most of the nation with a clear signal. Nor did I question the programming. Satellite radio service providers -- XM and Sirius -- offer a much wider choice of programs than what you'll find on the AM and FM dials combined.

What I questioned, however, was whether this was technology in search of a market. After all, most of us don't need to pay to listen to radio. I live in an urban area with plenty of music and news stations and, when I travel, I enjoy picking up local stations along the way. It makes sense for truck drivers and others who spend an enormous amount of time in their vehicles -- especially when they're away from their home area -- but I didn't think it would resonate with average consumers.

Besides, there are so many other ways to listen to music, including CD and MP3 players. I have my Apple iPod, which gives me access to thousands of songs, plugged into my car stereo.

Apparently I was wrong about the demand. As of the beginning of June, 600,000 people have subscribed to XM Satellite Radio, according to a document that the publicly traded company filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The company is well on its way toward reaching the 1 million mark by the end of the year. Sirius claimed to have 68,000 subscribers by the end of the first quarter of 2003.

Rather than argue with apparent success, I decided to try XM for myself. The company loaned me one of its Delphi XM SKYFi radios, which can be used in a car and at home. I also tested the XM Radio PC Receiver (XMPCR) that works with any Windows PC. In addition to these devices, Alpine, Pioneer and Sony make audio systems that are able to pick up the XM signal.

I tested the Delphi unit by plugging its power cord into my car's cigarette lighter and inserting an adapter into the cassette player of my car stereo. I taped the antenna on the dashboard and started out on a 1,000-mile round trip from my home in Silicon Valley to just north of San Diego. My journey took me on mountain roads, Interstate 5 through California's San Joaquin Valley and in and around Los Angeles and points south. During the entire trip, I never lost the signal for more than a second at a time and then only when I was going under bridges. In some cases, I was able to continue to listen even under a bridge. Unlike the satellite-based global navigation system in my car, I didn't lose the signal in Los Angeles, despite the buildings and trees blocking direct line-of-site access to the satellites. That's because XM also uses ground-based radio transmitters as a backup to its satellite systems. I have a friend who has no problem getting an XM signal from his apartment in Manhattan. The company claims to reach "over 99 percent of the country."

The programming options are terrific, though I have to admit, as the on-air technology consultant for CBS News, I'm personally disappointed that it doesn't pick up any of our news stations. However, having an XM radio doesn't mean you have to give up an AM/FM radio so, except in a few remote areas, you can still listen to local stations.

Unlike Sirius, XM also doesn't pick up NPR, but it does carry the BBC World Service, CNN, CNN Headline News, Fox News, ABC News and Talk, ESPN, CNBC and other news stations.

As a news hound, I spent a lot of time listening to BBC but I also spent several hours listening to the station that features old-time radio shows with the likes of Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, Fibber McGee and Molly, Philip Marlowe and "The Shadow." Another station broadcasts talking books, and there are plenty of other interesting talk stations, including Discovery Radio and E! Entertainment Radio.

Music stations are organized by genre, country, hits, Christian, rock, urban, jazz & blues, dance, Latin, world and classical, but there are also stations dedicated to each decade from the '40s through the '90s. At the risk of revealing my age, I spent a lot of time on channel 5 (the '50s) and channel 6 (the '60s).

The Delphi unit I tested costs $129.99 but for the car you need an adapter kit, which costs an additional $69. There is also a $69 kit that lets you connect it to a home stereo or, for $99 extra, you can buy a boombox that can be used anywhere. These devices are sold through retailers, and the company is currently offering a $30 rebate.

XM charges a subscription fee of $9.99 a month for the first radio and $6.99 for each additional radio (up to five). While some of the stations are commercial-free, most do have some advertising, but there are far less than on most commercial stations.

The XMPCR, which costs $69, plugs into the USB port of a Windows PC and comes with a cable that lets you route the sound through your PC's sound card or you can plug in headphones or a set of external amplified speakers. What's nice about the PC product is the software that lets you easily find programming that might interest you. You can select by category and create your own custom menus. Like the car and home radios, the software not only displays the station, but the name of the program or song you're listening to. On the PC system, you can visually "scan the dial" to see everything that's playing at the moment and tune into whatever tune strikes your fancy. You can also have the software alert you when your favorite artists are playing on any channels. Because the PC system picks up the signal via radio, you don't have to have Internet access to use it. Of course, if you do have broadband Internet access such as DSL or cable, you can find plenty of other music to listen to online, but I've never found a source of online streaming audio that is as complete and as well organized as XM.

I'm still not 100 percent convinced that satellite radio will ever become as popular as cable and satellite TV but -- based on XM's subscriber growth -- the company does appear to have a pretty sound future.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

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By Larry Magid

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