— July 2002
By Ben Ellison
More Marine Media
|Satellite radio wasn't built for cruising, but it may be a perfect fit.|
If you haven't heard of satellite radio yet, you certainly will soon. Over the last several years, two companies have spent billions of dollars building infrastructures for this radically new media. Now the huge "birds" are up, the digital studios are cranking, and the two rivals, XM and Sirius, are fixing to duke it out over what some analysts claim will be 25 million subscribers by 2010. For obvious reasons, the marketing blitz will focus on the 175 million Americans who listen to their car radios, leaving boaters to wonder just what the technology can do for them.
Certainly the satellite radio concept seems ideal for boating, particularly passagemaking. I've always packed a little AM/FM set in my delivery kit, and it's kept me good company on many a long watch. I'm not sure I've ever appreciated a well-programmed jazz show, or even a weird talkfest, as much as I have at sea. And, as most boats still lack decent TV reception, let alone Web connections, radio is a principal source of news from ashore. However, finding satisfactory stations, especially as you travel, can be very frustrating. Now XM and Sirius are each offering continent-wide 100-channel blankets of supposedly high quality and highly varied programming, completely free of interference and partially free of advertising.
I can testify that there is a lot of truth to the hype about programming. A test XM radio is playing beside my desk right now, and it's amazing. The music sounds almost as good as a CD, and the channel lineup is neatly organized. XM has its own set of frequencies and controls all the programming on them. Thus the 100 channels are not competing with each other, but are instead designed as a whole to appeal to every ear. Beyond the mainstream genres you might expect is one channel devoted to unsigned bands, another to Latin Tejano, another to music and talk for truckers, and so forth. "Dead air," avoided like the plague by conventional disc jockeys so that no one will inadvertently dial past their station, is tolerated on some of the quieter channels like the all love songs "Heart." Yes, the channels have names, and those names appear helpfully on the receiver's LCD. This is a new media, and 100 is a lot of choices.
XM's music shows originate from studios in Washington, D.C., and are programmed by top-flight DJs who no doubt jumped at this opportunity to mix creatively for a national audience. Some of the talk shows are assembled from regular radio sources (you can listen to those goofy morning talk shows all day if you want); others like ESPN, CNBC, and BBC are piped in directly. Interruptions vary from quite obnoxious TV ads without pictures on some of the latter type channels to the mildly annoying in-house promotions on the "advertising-free" music channels. The normal FCC rules about language over the airwaves apparently don't apply to subscription services, as you can hear vividly on a couple of the comedy and rap channels.
Sirius will be offering a similar programming mix when it goes live nationally in July (with the significant, at least for me, addition of two National Public Radio channels). Will I chuck my transistor radio? Heck no; there's still a local flavor, sometimes even a magic, to be found in the chaos of terrestrial radio. But I am keen for more choices. If you share that desire, you can explore the possibilities, even listen to samples, at www.xmradio.com and www.siriusradio.com.
This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.