XM Satellite Radio 
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Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Thursday, 01 August 2002

XM Satellite radio is one of the most exciting new technologies in the world of audio/video, with billions of Wall Street and privately raised dollars powering the first significant challenge to traditional terrestrial radio since FM took over from AM in the 1960s. With the unprecedented success of DirecTV satellite television as a model for success, XM radio has been rolled out this year, primarily in car audio environments, to impress music and entertainment enthusiasts.

Being addicted to new AV toys and new cars, as well as being raised in a radio industry family, the lure of XM Satellite Radio was too much for me to resist, so when I sold off my 1997 BMW M3 for a 2002 Mercedes Benz ML500 SUV, I had an XM system installed within days. Since Mercedes seems to pride themselves on not adopting new luxury-based technologies first (as Lexus does), I decided to use an Alpine an CRA-1667RF FM Modulator/AiNet Changer Controller in conjunction with my Mercrdez Benz CD changer to add the XM signal to the premium Bose system provided as an option in my Benz. The installation done by Rodeo Mobile Sound in Woodland Hills, California, was creative and flawless. They custom-fit the Alpine controller in my cigarette tray with a slick foam insert that presents the Alpine controller beautifully. The advantage of the ashtray installation is that, with one-touch control, I can alternately access my XM or hide it from the slimy hands of valets or the lustful sight of car thieves. Aftermarket installations of XM radio require an additional antenna. For this purpose, Rodeo Mobile Sound installed a small Terk XM antenna just above the windshield. The look of the antenna matched nicely with the radio and telephone antenna factory-installed on the back roof of the ML500. Overall, the Rodeo installation was excellent, which often makes all the difference with car audio.

XM has focused much of its political might to land deals with big car makers and aftermarket car audio companies to add functionality to their in-dash systems. GM, Toyota, VW and Audi are only a few of the car manufacturers that have signed on to ultimately make XM a feature that will be built into your next car and possibly your next car payment. It won't be long before you can have your car XM-ready from the factory and turn it on with a simple “yes” when you are doing a car deal, neatly adding $10 to your car payment for the XM service.

Ultimately, having control over all of the stations on XM with easily accessible presets and steering wheel control will take the XM experience to an entirely new level, differing from the present system. The installation of my current system is virtually identical to the installation of an aftermarket CD changer in a car. The XM signal is fed to my Mercedes head unit on the standard radio antenna from the back of the car. When I want to listen to XM, I click over to a FM preset (88.9 in my case) and turn on the XM power from the XM controller. If you leave the power on for the XM, your terrestrial radio sounds noticeably distorted, so you need to decide whether you want to listen to local radio or XM. You wouldn’t want to just leave XM on, in my case, even if you were listening to a station other than the XM preset.

XM currently has over 100 stations located over a range of 160 total channels. The stations are supposedly organized by genre and require far more work than traditional radio requires in order to navigate from station to station. In my case, I was never able to figure out how to successfully program presets in my Alpine XM controller. I therefore needed to scroll through many spins of the little jog wheel to get from, say, the 1980s station on Channel 8 to The Boneyard on channel 41. Needless to say, it isn’t the most sexy user interface. Having the ability to program presets on your factory head unit and control your music system via your steering wheel is not only simpler – it is safer.

Audio Quality and Reception
Missing from XM is the compressed, noisy, limited bandwidth that we have become so accustomed to with traditional FM radio. Realistically, you have never said to yourself “Wow, that song sounds great on the radio,” meaning that the recording and broadcast seemed crystal clear and dynamic to you. With XM, you might feel differently. The audio is much more dynamic, with much less signal vs. static. Traditionalists (who probably still own turntables because CDs don’t sound “authentic”) say they miss the compressed sound. I don’t. XM sounds about as good as any CD you might have loaded into the changer and way better than any 100,000-watt station, even if you were parked right under the transponder.

The reception of XM is a 9 out of 10 for me. For long trips, you have a continuous feed of music without interruption. In Malibu, where LA radio stations normally fail to make it over the hills, you can pull in XM signal like a champ. In the infamous canyons that connect West Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley, my XM connection is rock-solid, unlike even the strongest of digital cell phones. Unfortunately, I do encounter trouble when I pull into the above-ground parking structure of our office building, where the XM actually drops out. FM, an analog signal, doesn’t drop out the way a cell phone or XM will; it just fades out and or gets static-y. If you are in the middle of a jam when the XM craps out, it can be a buzz kill, but for damn near all driving situations from Point A to Point B, you are going to be in business with a solid connection.

Programming and Content
When DirecTV was launched, it was an immediate success because of its unique and bountiful programming. Cable television in Los Angeles simply couldn’t provide content specialized enough for my tastes, for example, every Philadelphia Flyers hockey game for an entire season. The decision to buy DirecTV was easy and I have never looked back. The decision to buy XM is not nearly as easy. XM has about 100 channels (with eight new ones coming in August 2002) but the problem is that they are not nearly as valuable as what I got when upgrading to DSS TV from cable. Worse yet, the overall quality of the programming, on-air talent and production on the stations is shamefully bad. I think it was Bruce Springsteen who sang “57 channels (and nothin’ on).” That is frequently the inexcusable problem with XM radio.

The biggest programming problem with XM is the fact that no matter what channel I listened to over a four-month period, I have never once heard three consecutive songs in a row that I liked. I have about the widest range of musical tastes of anyone you will ever meet, so I am not that hard to please. The worst offenders for this phenomenon are the first few channels on the XM dial, which are dedicated to decades ranging from the 1940s through the 1990s. Having grown up in the 1980s, I often can find a jam such as a good Guns 'N Roses track from 1987 on the 80s station, logically located on Channel 8. The problem is that the next song is likely to be an urban-dance tune from Bobby Brown. Then, they’ll play Haircut 100 for a New Wave record. No G&R fan is going to hang for Bobby Brown, let alone Haircut 100. They just aren’t, so you end up spinning the wheel to look for something in the genre most closely associated with the mood you are feeling.

The rock genre is hyped as one loaded with tasty programming on at least six channels. The lead-off rock channel (channel 40) is called Deep Tracks. If you were ever interested in a radio station dedicated to nothing but stiff (aka non-hit songs) records – you got it. Hosted by burnout baby boomer, monotone DJs who seemingly keep the bong fired up during segues, Deep Tracks features the lamest songs you have ever heard from artists you may actually like. For example, if Deep Tracks is going to play an Areosmith song, they will go six cuts deep into a hit record like Gems, forgoing the actual hit songs from the album. You could then expect them follow it up with something like a 24-minute Grateful Dead jam of “Johnny B. Goode.” If the Osbournes haven’t been enough to get Gen X and Gen Y to stay off of drugs, Deep Tracks will accomplish feats that Nancy Regan couldn’t achieve in her fondest dreams.

For my tastes, the best and most coherent overall programming is called Boneyard, located on Channel 41. Boneyard features hard rock from new and classic artists like Van Halen, Metallica, Soundgarden, Motley Crue, Papa Roach, Alice In Chains, etc. While it is the station best targeted on the music I most often want to listen to, Boneyard suffers from the same affliction that every XM stations has – they can’t help but play the wrong record by a good artist. I love Rush and Boneyard will play Rush frequently, but you are not going to hear “Tom Sawyer,” “Spirit of Radio” or even “Limelight” as often as you’ll hear more obscure and less popular songs from newer albums. Strangely, Rush has a new, well-done record called Vapor Trails, but I have heard only one song from that record once, despite how well it fits into the format of Boneyard. XM unsuccessfully flies in the face of decades of radio research when they provide variety instead of repetition. Despite what listeners say about looking for variety of music, years of radio ratings prove the exact opposite. Listeners want to hear hit tunes in a relatively tight rotation when in an oldies format and Boneyard, as hard as it may be for me to accept at my age, is ultimately an oldies format with some new songs mixed in. If the program director for this format would cut back on the “deep tracks” which are supposed to be played on Channel 40, Boneyard would have more staying power as a channel for people who love hard rock. Variety could be accomplished better by rotating in and out songs on a weekly or even bi-weekly basis, but no matter what, any song that is to be played should be one that is a killer new track or a solid hit record in the genre. Currently, this is not the case. If XM had more listeners, it could tell just how few people were listening.

Programming irregularities go to new highs on the '60s and '70s stations. While an oldies format on traditional radio might play songs from the late '50s through the '70s or even a few from the early '80s, Channel 6, the '60s station, stays true to the decade. However, they have no specific musical genre or dedication to playing hit records. A Beach Boys song, paired with a Dave Clark 5 hit, rolled together with “Light My Fire,” makes for a musical nightmare. The '70s station is no better, with musical blocks that tie together Barry White, Donovan and KC and the Sunshine Band. The result is that, even if you like one or more of the songs, you are unlikely to hang out through songs that are so far from the core genre. XM, across the board, struggles with keeping the listener hooked on one station.

There are many more channels dedicated to all sorts of interests that fill out the XM roster. Some of the pleasant surprises I found were the Joint (yet another unnecessary drug reference) on Channel 101, which plays reggae that goes beyond the scope of just Bob Marley. Other neighboring stations take the world music theme to extremes. C-Wave on Channel 105 is good for some laughs with crazy world music from Cambodia, Vietnam and God knows where else. I defy you to stand more than one song on that station, however. The African station on Channel 102 is more tolerable, with artists who sound like they are all dreaming of the day Peter Gabriel will come to their town and sign them to a Real World Records deal.

There is quite a bit of news on XM for information junkies. Much of it is repackaged TV audio, which doesn’t translate well for me. Traditional radio news is better, because it is produced exclusively for radio. TV has a different cadence and feel, because it has a video element to it. It just doesn’t work that well on XM, but that hasn’t stopped XM from doing deals to get feeds from MTV, VH1, The Discovery Channel and other TV stations.

XM covers sports with feeds from The Sporting News, ESPN, ESPN News and others. It doesn’t have the scope of sports that satellite TV has with the availability of regional sports broadcasts. Much like my DirecTV subscription, I would pay to be able to hear the WIP broadcast of Philadelphia Flyers games. The best examples I have heard on XM are the national feeds on the network TV stations rebroadcast on XM. This issue highlights another key difference between XM and terrestrial radio. XM is a national media and terrestrial radio is a more regional media. This obviously affects the programming and it will be an issue for advertising. This is an area in which the traditional radio groups are crying foul, as XM is currently setting up powerful analog repeater towers that would “fill in” where the satellite left off. XM swears they have no plans to take XM local, which is the same line of garbage the cable TV industry gave out when they were setting up in the early 1980s. For now, XM needs to figure out how to make their product compelling enough to make traditional radio really worried.

Pay Radio With Commercials?
-The idea of pay radio is a new one and XM is clearly the leader. Sirius, another satellite radio hopeful, is a distant second in the race for a questionable market of consumers willing to pay for new car audio components, antennas, installation and a monthly service fee of at least $10. With recent XM press releases boasting of 137,000 total subscribers, there is not much to be proud of at this point from a ratings prospective. A good station in a major traditional radio market has more listeners actually listening in one day than XM has total nationwide. This begs the question: why the hell would XM run commercials at all? Sirius doesn’t, but their US subscribers make XM look powerful. People hate commercials on the Internet, they skip them with their TiVo on TV and they simply ignore them in print magazines. Traditional radio is riding for a fall with the rampant increase in commercial stop sets. The King of All Media, Howard Stern’s nationally syndicated morning radio talk show, can have commercial breaks that push 14 minutes long in some markets. Music-based stations were breaking for five to seven minutes two or more times per hour back in the dotcom boom of the late '90s to run even more ads to their audience. Listeners hated it and XM, so far, has blown their chance to exploit one of terrestrial radio’s biggest weaknesses. I will say there are barely any commercials on XM, but the fact that there are any with a $10 monthly charge is insulting and a foolish competitive decision.

In August 2002, XM is going to role out its first pay station with a special Playboy channel, which will cost an additional $2.95. The programming value on XM isn’t strong enough to be rolling out pay channels at this point, but sex does sell. Who knows, they may get some of their subscribers to sign up. But if XM wants to build momentum, they’d be well served to provide the large majority of their content as value included in the $10 per month. Historically, pay radio, in the form of cable radio, has had 99 percent of its subscribers fail to renew their subscriptions after the first year. I am not sure I am going to make it that far with my XM subscription and you’ll never meet a music lover who hates terrestrial radio more than I do.

The Downside
Poor programming is the biggest weakness of XM. The technology is a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. They have successfully raised all sorts of money, but failed to use it to hire talented programmers to develop exciting and well-programmed stations that would blow away traditional radio. While you have to commend XM for taking some chances with programming when terrestrial radio rarely does, the unfortunate fact is that they have, In my opinion, failed with nearly all of the stations in their present lineup.

The production and channel branding on the stations is pitifully bad, with disturbingly annoying “totally awesome” '80s jingles that last not just five seconds like on a terrestrial radio station, but 15 seconds or longer. They are so embarrassing that you are forced to change the station even if you suspect a good song might be next on the playlist. Even worse, every few hours this same '80s station remixes a bunch of unrelated '80s pop songs into a “Toe Jam” that is predicated by a hopeless promo that sounds like the scruffy-voiced guy who sang the song “Double Dutch Bus.” The songs are poorly mixed just like one of those Saturday Night Disco shows I used to hear on the radio when I was growing up in Philadelphia. XM could learn quite a lesson from the DJs at KCRW in Los Angeles as how to mix up a musically compelling set of related tunes.

On a number of XM stations, the DJs use what some would consider, foul language. Now, anyone who has ever watched me play golf knows I am no saint when it comes to my language but it is definitely a shock when you hear the DJ on Boneyard saying “fuck” in the middle of a set. Moreover, the DJs don’t come on and say, “That was Van Halen’s 'Little Guitars'. I saw David Lee Roth a few nights ago play that tune and it fucking ROCKED!” They are just using the term as verbal punctuation, which is less effective. On the comedy channels, the more colorful language is more effective and can add to the quality of the programming. There is nothing worse that having a bunch of bleeps on the “five o’clock funnies” on KLOS in Los Angeles. XM certainly beats the pants off of traditional radio in the comedy category.

After four months with XM, I have had nearly all of my friends and scores of entertainment and audio/video execs in my car to hear this new technology known as XM radio. None of them have bought it and I don’t think there is any chance they ever will. It is crystal-clear radio programmed for burnout hippies, but hippies with taste will feel distaste for the poor programming, no matter how far their synapses have deteriorated.

By updating the channel roster coming later this month to include better electronic and hip-hop channels, XM executives obviously know that they need to make changes to the lineup. I am just not sure they understand how bad their problems are. My recommendation is to focus on genres and figure out how to make them so compelling that if you love classical music or death metal, the XM offering will be so good and so unique and so well-produced that you can’t resist the $10 per month temptation. It isn’t that $10 per month is so much for us. Millions are willing to pay for Internet dating, cell phones and satellite TV, but the value of the XM service needs to be higher.

Next, XM needs to spend heavily, to steal the some of best talent from the entertainment industry. With one radio group owning over 1225 radio stations at this date and a decreasing demand for good consultants, it isn’t hard to find great programmers who can produce stations that are exciting, cutting-edge enough for XM without skipping the simple basics of radio, such as the fact we want to hear hit songs, no matter what anyone thinks at XM. There are other ways to improve content, including syndication of good programming. I bet Westwood One has thousands of great converts from topnotch bands just waiting to be syndicated. How about a rock concert channel that stays true to a genre but mixes in rare and unheard live versions of hit songs? How about doing a deal with Westwood One to get live, exclusive concert feeds for a show like a Bruce Springsteen date and broadcast it on a classic rock channel – blacked out in the city unless the show sells out – while selling an exclusive batch of tickets to XM subscribers on the XM website or on an 800 number promoted on air? In this case, you’d get programming on XM that you don’t get on regular radio.

The hunt for new talent must be key with XM. Creating DJs and developing artists who you can hear frequently on XM but not on radio would differentiate satellite radio from terrestrial radio. Hip Los Angelenos know that KCRW has some of the coolest new music on the planet spinning during any number of shows, ranging from Morning Becomes Eclectic to Chocolate City to DJ Jason Bentley’s Saturday night electronic show. If XM had these talents, you could count on radio groups to swoop in and steal the up and comers without a question. XM could easily do the same with hopes of radically increasing the quality of their bountiful offering of stations.

XM is a very new technology and, as a technology, it is extremely cool and worthy of its technological hype. As a form of entertainment, XM simply falls flat on its face. It is poorly programmed and marketed to entirely the wrong audience. There are some signs of change at XM, but I urge you to spend a good amount of time with XM at a dealer before you switch out your head unit in your car. I was wowed by XM for the 20 minutes I played with it at the CES convention in 2001. Upon further review, despite my absolute hatred for the radio industry and its own host of problems, I am not impressed with XM. There is so much potential in the technology and the changes that need to be made are creative, not technological. Let’s hope that XM gets the message. Until then, I’ll try not to cringe when I see the charge on my AMEX each month.

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