- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Q: I keep hearing people rave about satellite radio, but I get frustrated easily with high-tech gadgets. What do I need to know about satellite radio to decide whether it’s right for me?

A: The short answer is that satellite radio, which can be heard at home or in a car, is about as easy to use as a traditional radio, but many people find it to be much more enjoyable. That’s because there are no commercials and much more variety on music stations, including programs devoted to obscure musical genres that don’t get much airplay on traditional AM and FM stations.

XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio, the Coke and Pepsi of the industry, each broadcast more than 120 stations that can be heard anywhere in the country. The sound is beamed from studios on Earth to satellites, then back to Earth, where the signal is boosted by terrestrial repeaters on the ground, similar to the way cell-phone signals are boosted.

Sirius operates three satellites, one more than XM, and says this makes its service less susceptible to disruption. But analysts and users say interruptions are rare with either service, especially when compared with traditional radio. Car-radio disruptions occur most often when drivers are stuck in traffic near tall buildings or under overpasses, tunnels or trees that block the antenna from picking up the signal from the satellites or the repeaters.

Unlike traditional radio, it’s not free: XM’s basic service starts at $9.99 a month, while Sirius starts at $12.99 a month. Both offer discounts for multiple-radio subscriptions and long-term contracts.

Plus, you must buy a radio.

As an option in a new car, the radios typically cost $325. But they can be bought for as little as $49.99 in the aftermarket, and are typically in the $100-to-$200 range.

There are a growing number of radios and options to consider when deciding what to buy and what service to choose.

Michelle Abraham, an analyst with In-Stat/MDR, suggests asking yourself: “How am I going to use it? Do I want a radio that works just in my car, or do I want one that I can transport from my car to my home?”

Both companies offer units that can send the satellite signal wirelessly through FM radios, so they can be easily transported from car to home. They also offer receivers that can be used in a car and then plugged into boomboxes — some of which also play MP3s and compact discs — as well as components that plug into higher-end home stereo systems.

Besides the price, the content of the various stations is probably the most important consideration in choosing a service.

When it comes to music, both offer extensive selections that require closer scrutiny to determine how they suit your taste.

“Think about what your listening habits are,” said April Horace, an analyst with Janco Partners. “From a music standpoint, XM probably goes a little more toward deep [obscure] tracks, and Sirius plays more hits.”

Both services also offer local traffic and weather stations for major cities and audio broadcasts of CNBC, CNN Headline News, Fox News, and other news outlets.

And each is carving a niche in the sports markets. Sirius will broadcast every National Football League game and up to 40 National Hockey League games this year, while XM has rights to NASCAR races and NHL games broadcast on ESPN Radio.

It’s also important to note that some of the content can be bawdy. XM has signed up the shock jocks Opie & Anthony, who were booted from the FM airwaves after a lewd prank at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. XM also offers titillating talk on Playboy Radio. Both are on premium-service stations that cost extra. Sirius has countered with a station run by the racy mag Maxim.

If you are still unsure, look for electronics retailers in your area that sell the radios and try them out for yourself. Sirius also offers a free three-day pass to listen to its stations over the Internet.


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