first blush reflections on satellite radio

An otherwise typical work day last week took an interesting turn. Several of we construction trades types were hired to rehab a house. The dude who does slate floors came walking in with a boom box, plugged it into an electrical outlet, opened a window and passed out another wire and what appeared to be a little box attached to the end. I asked him what was up with the antenna wire and he replied that this was a Sirius satellite boom box. Having only a mere 5-minute demo of another satellite radio last summer, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to give it a more in-depth audition.

After going outside and putzing about with the antenna, Slateman came back in and fired up the radio, though no sound came out of the speakers. Instead, we were greeted with an "aquiring signal" memo on the small display screen. For the uninitiated, when these satellite radios are turned on, they go through a bootstrap procedure similar to turning on a cell phone. Though there is no waiting for tubes to warm up, there is a wait for the receiver to initialize itself, aquire the satellite signal and then electronically shake hands with the satellite before any programming is fed to the audio stages. So much for solid-state instant-on, eh? It took perhaps 10 or 15 more seconds before the radio could be tuned to a station, though "tuned" is a bit of a misnomer. Stations are "selected" from a display screen menu and not tuned.

An oldies station, Sirius Gold, was selected and we were awash in late 50s - early 60s pop music. Slateman went on to give either what sounded like either a professional sales pitch for Sirius or profuse justification for the monetary expenditure for the receiver and subscription "service." I even asked him if he had a sales commission agreement with Sirius. One of the more peculiar features included in his spirited pitch was a 24-hour a day Elvis channel. Maybe I'm just effin' thick, but WTF is up with that shit? Are there actually people out there who have some crying need to be able to turn on the "radio" at any hour of the day or night and be guaranteed to be hear an Elvis tune? If so, mankind is doomed.

Later in the day Slateman said "Lets kick it up a notch to the 70s" and he switched to Totally '70s. And the playlist was just that: totally '70s. Yawn.

After listening to Sirius over the course of two work days, I noticed the playlists being repeated. This disturbing revelation was not what I expected. If I paid for a new radio receiver and subscribed to "the service," I would never want to hear a playlist being repeated. Ever. But both Sirius Gold and Totally '70s appeared to be automated playlist stations! WTF, over?

Something else that struck me as disturbing was that the announcers sounded so homogenized and, well ... generic. No Boston or New York accents. No southern drawls. No Texas twang. Just same, same, same. To try to further categorize the DJs' personalities would be futile, because there was so little personality to be heard. It was as if they all had undergone the same neuro-surgery to have their on-air personas aligned to conform to standards set by Sirius.

I didn't hear any local news or anything that would indicate "live." That bothers me as it reeks of canned, pre-programmed slop: radio-based musical swill shovelled into the Sirius trough for gluttonous subscribers.

Howard Stern's much heralded move to Sirius didn't exactly flood the "service provider" with new users. There was a little kick to an already rising stock market curve when in fall 2004 Stern made the announcement he would be leaving terrestrial radio and moving to satellite. There was no huge spike, though. It's particularly interesting to note that Sirius and XM stock market curves track so closely.

To give credit where credit is due, the absence of commercial assault was a nice change, however that is not to say that Sirius is commercial-free. It isn't. Inasmuch as Sirius owns the medium and the subscribers are a captive audience, commercials and spots for Sirius abound. Some are poorly disguised by the DJ saying something like, "Hello out there to Ron in Lincoln, Nebraska, who just got hooked up to Sirius! Welcome aboard, Ron!"

You know what? I don't give a shit if Ron in Lincoln just bought into Sirius.

During the course of the day the radio would seemingly die, though in reality the radio itself was fine other than having lost the satellite signal. Time for more putzing about with the antenna orientation. Supposedly this is more of a problem with the boom box version, according to Slateman. He said loss of signal is rare in his car, "except when going under bridges, overpasses or 'heavy' foliage, especially in the summer."


Standard AM radio stations can fade out when going under bridges or overpasses, but never in my life have I ever had reception problems due to foliage. And as for FM, bridges and overpasses are non-issues, as is foliage. But satellite radio is a different animal. Being either UHF (ultra-high frequency) or SHF (super-high frequency), satellite radio is a virtual line of sight communications mode, so anything that obstructs the signal path will adversely affect reception. So from where I'm sitting, Sirius satellite radio has some definite downsides in the reception department.

Living in Connecticut probably has me somewhat spoiled with a reasonably decent choice of AM and FM stations from which to choose. There are parts of the country where one can quite literally be out in the middle of nowhere and the radio menu is considerably more limited. For those areas, perhaps Sirius and XM are more well suited. However, such areas are usually sparsely populated, so these "services" aren't going to benefit from hordes of new subscribers signing on the dotted line.

Speaking of lines: what's the bottom line? I'm very impressed with Sirius satellite radio, though not favorably so. The loss-of-signal vagaries alone are enough to turn me off. Add on the homogenous sounding DJs, repetitive playlists and lack of any local or regional "anchoring," it'll be a cold day in Hell before I ever give XM or Sirius my bank account and transit numbers.

The tagline to the spot that good, old-fashioned, terrestrial stations are playing rings true: Radio. You shouldn't have to pay for it."

Radio Matters menu

Main Menu

valid-html401.gif URL:
Text - Copyright © 2006, 2014 by Jeff Bauer
Web Layout - Copyright © 2003-2014, 2020 by Off Frequency Productions
Revised - Tuesday, May 26, 2020