XM Satellite Radio

Do you know about XM satellite radio? I basically stopped listening to radio about 10 years ago, because I was so dissatisfied with the range of music. Now I listen to the radio more than I listen to CDs, because of the advent of XM. It costs $9.95 per month for the service, and of course you have to buy a dedicated receiver ($150 to $300 depending on features). Because the satellites are so powerful, you don’t need a dish antenna; my Sony system uses an antenna the size of a travel iron. Supposedly you place it on the roof of your car (it has a magnetic base) but I find I get flawless reception if I place it inside the car, under the windshield. The Sony receiver can be moved in and out of various vehicles, or your home. The antenna *just* manages to pick up the satellite signal from inside a wooden-framed house.

You get 101 channels, many commercial-free. Highlights for me have included a 10-hour special on John Lennon (created by the BBC), the blues channel (amazingly wide ranging eclectic selection), and “Music Lab” which ranges from Phish to Frank Zappa. You also get news stations (audio versions of CNN and Bloomberg), CSPAN, BBC World Service, oldtime radio dramas, readings of classic novels (more BBC material, excellently produced), and E! stuff which can be entertaining (they specialize in chronicling troubled lives of celebs). Of course there is a full range of new rock/pop/country/hiphop/oldies. You can send email to the DJs and get intelligent replies. If it is successful it may go the way of MTV, but right now it is still new and adventurous. Full programming details and signup info on their web site.

I play my XM radio in my car through a beautiful little headphone amplifier which I found after a great deal of digging online. It’s the PHA-1 by Raven Labs, delivering great sound from a couple of 9v batteries (which give you about 50 hours). (I have no idea whether listening on headphones violates some state law, but since motorcycle riders have headphones inside their helmets these days, why not car drivers?)

My current job entails driving from my home in Northern Arizona to Phoenix and back, each week (150 miles each way). Headphones coupled with XM radio have erased the boredom and irritation of the journey, and I don’t find the headphone experience any more distracting than a regular car radio. It’s just more restful.

-- Charles Platt  

$50+ receivers (monthly/annual service fee separate)
XM Radio (now called Sirius XM)