In the past decade, a dizzying number of technological wonders have dropped into the laps of appreciative electronics consumers. The market is growing exponentially, what with DVD, MP3, DIRECTV, TiVO -- an infinite supply of alphanumeric combos for seemingly endless product possibilities.
For the most part, though, digital diversions are limited to home and office use. It has been ages since anything revolutionary has been introduced to that home-away-from home, the automobile -- perhaps even since the dawn of the FM-band made traffic jams almost bearable nearly 40 years ago.
Say hello to satellite radio, which will transform the broadcast market this year via two competing subscription services: XM Satellite Radio Inc. and Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. The first to hit the airwaves was XM, which launched nationwide last month. (You may have seen the pricey TV spots featuring the likes of Snoop Dogg and David Bowie.) It's like cable for your car, minus the TV screen. The service boasts an incredible 100 channels of music, news, sports and talk programming from major players like CNN, C-SPAN, ABC News, E! Entertainment, ESPN, NASCAR, USA Today, MTV and FOX. All for $9.99 a month plus the cost of the required hardware -- a satellite-ready receiver/remote ($249 and up) and satellite antennae ($80) -- and installation fees.
The Sirius network has been plagued by delays but is poised to strike in March. Sirius offers a similar menu of 100 channels of music, news and sports for a slightly higher monthly rate -- $12.95. Its star-studded lineup offers name-brand entertainment from A&E, The History Channel, Bloomberg, House of Blues, ESPN, CNBC and the ever-popular NPR.
By design, XM and Sirius are not compatible; they are the only players in the field, a powerful duopoly that hamstrings subscribers at the get-go: Once you buy the hardware, you're locked into one provider. (Remember Beta-format videos?)
Why is satellite radio, a pay-as-you-listen service, such a big deal? The numbers tell the story: 75 percent of consumers choose radio over CD and cassette as the format of choice in their vehicles, and with over 200 million cars on the road, no wonder so many wheels are turning.
The advantages over standard FM and AM broadcasts are numerous, the biggest being that many of the music channels are commercial free. (XM claims more than 30 ad-less wonders, Sirius claims 60.) On the channels with commercials, the nuisance-per-hour ratio appears to be quite a bit lower with satellite radio. According to the company, XM averages only six minutes of pesky spots per hour, as opposed to the 16 to 20 minutes found on AM and FM.
Satellite radio also excels in sound quality; the crystal-clear reception has a wider dynamic range, nearing that of a CD. This is a huge improvement over heavily compressed FM and AM signals.
Accustomed to an always-expanding variety of channels on TV, subscribers will no doubt revel in the freedom of choice, especially in consolidated, homogenized radio markets like Orlando. For example, XM has a number of channels dedicated to specific music genres. Tune into new age, Tejano, Mandarin/Chinese, opera, gospel, bluegrass or Hindi/Indian, for starters. For music junkies who like their stuff uncut, six XM channels -- two each of hip-hop, comedy and hard rock/metal -- come with the can't-miss seal of approval: the parental advisory warning. And if you are tired of hearing a great song in the car but don't know the artist, satellite radio's in-dash units put the name of the band and other song info right at your fingertips.
Then there's talk-show programming that's picked up from stations around the country. Truckers and cross-country trekkers will rejoice in the fact that satellite radio channels never fade; the signals are beamed nationwide by satellites launched specifically for this purpose, meaning no more drop-outs in unpopulated areas. Fans of Real Radio 104.1, for instance, can hear the audio intercourse of The Sexy Savannah and Bubba Ã?Whoop-AssÃ? Wilson even in the cornfields of Kansas.
Will satellite radio go the distance, to become an enduring sensation? With FM getting worse by the minute, its future is bright. Plus, both XM and Sirius have scored business-smart alliances, which reflect the industry's long-term strategy and untapped market potential.
XM's list of big-time investors includes Clear Channel Communications, General Motors, American Honda and DIRECTV. They've signed on with manufacturers Sony, Pioneer and Alpine, and made deals with automobile manufacturers such as Cadillac. The very serious Sirius has e-giants Kenwood, Panasonic, Clarion and Jensen in its corner, not to mention exclusive alliances with Ford, Chrysler, BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, Volvo, Mazda, Dodge and Jeep to ship vehicles with satellite- radio receivers built in.
Nationally, less than a half-dozen hardware models are available at Circuit City, Best Buy, Sound Advice, Sears and some Radio Shack outlets. Locally, Circuit City recently had several XM-ready models and all the hardware necessary to get up and running. After a test run, here's my verdict: XM's signal sounded clear and crisp, much like that of a new CD, and the selection was virtually endless. Enjoy the ride.