Beating Over-the-Air, But Not Quite Perfect

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Satellite radio in a nutshell: I spent one night earlier this summer
driving around and listening to the Washington Nationals close out an
exciting win. Where I was driving around, however, was Charleston,
W.Va., well outside the broadcast range of the Nationals' Z104/WFED
radio network. It was not, however, out of range of XM Satellite
Radio, which this season began carrying every game of all 30 Major
League Baseball teams and beaming them across North America.
It was terrific to be able to keep up with the team from afar; every
win sounded like the World Series on the radio, thanks to the vocal
So, as the final out of this particular game was recorded, the Nats'
announcer enthused, "Just listen to that crowd!" It was a cruel
taunt. At that precise moment, I drove into one of a handful of dead
spots around Charleston where XM service drops out for several
Hence, the often-simultaneous joy and frustration of satellite radio.
Now, with nearly 6 million subscribers between them, XM Satellite
Radio Holdings Inc. and Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. have established a
foothold as a competitively priced entertainment option for auto, home
and mobile use. Like the cell phone, however, satellite radio is an
infant technology compared with its predecessor, which has had more
than a century to perfect its delivery system. And, like an infant, it
still spits up from time to time.
On the face, Sirius and XM are comparable services: Both have more
than 60 channels of commercial-free music covering a broad spectrum of
niches, from old-school country to today's hits, from the most
experimental jazz to the spaciest New Age, from the raunchiest hip-hop
to the kid-friendliest Radio Disney.
Each has channels devoted to music from the decades of the '40s to the
'90s; each has bluegrass and standards channels, each has several
hip-hop and classical channels and so on. XM has a fun unsigned bands
channel that Sirius does not have; Sirius has a groovy, trip-hoppy
electronica channel that has no XM equivalent.
Both also have more than 50 channels of news, talk and entertainment
and share many of the same third-party providers: Fox News Channel,
the BBC, Bloomberg, CNBC and CNN.
And both cost a fair amount of money over time: The receivers for each
start at $50 (in some cases, after a mail-in rebate), and each service
runs $12.95 a month before any family-plan or pay-in-advance
But over the course of their short life spans, each service has begun
to develop a personality and a direction.
Music fans will find a deeper and better-defined selection of stations
on XM.
Sports and talk fans, however, will gravitate toward Sirius, which
broadcasts NFL and NBA games. Sirius also has swiped NASCAR from XM,
starting in 2007, and will resume NHL games, assuming anyone cares.
XM cannot rival this lineup. For live action, it offers only baseball,
the PGA Tour, three college conferences and IndyCar racing. Through
its carriage of ESPN, it also broadcasts the NBA playoffs but not the
regular season.
Of course, Sirius also can claim the sui generis Howard Stern, who
probably will be good for 1 million new subscribers on his own after
he joins Sirius in January.
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Monty Solomon
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