I got XM satellite radio for the car this year (Thanks, Santa!), and it's been a wonderful thing. I did this for a couple of reasons: 1) I have eclectic music tastes; 2) I enjoy listening to radio in the car, because I appreciate the possibility of hearing something surprising (rather than music recorded by me): but 3) Vegas radio blows.
You'd think a city of more than 1 million people would offer something interesting on the dial. But no. UNLV doesn't really have a college radio station. The campus possesses a frequency, and it broadcasts jazz during the week. I love mainstream, "straight-ahead" jazz, the kind they play on my favorite station, K-Jazz (Long Beach State). But the jocks at KUNV determine the playlists, and (when I'm listening, anyway) more than one actually think "smooth jazz" is something you can listen to without projectile vomiting. The other stations in town are your basic Infinity/Clear Channel losers with tiny playlists or inane, chatty jocks.
I suppose, ideally, I'd own an MP3 player and have about 10,000 files downloaded, so I could set the player on "random." But I don't. So I have XM.
I chose XM over Sirius after soliciting comment from friends. It's possible that Sirius offers better programming ... by that, I mean, deeper playlists and fewer repeats. But I'm a bit concerned that Sirius won't make it, meaning any hardware I bought would be worthless. And I was not that impressed with the hardware Sirius now offers, which is clunkier than that now available from XM.
Case in point:. I bought the XM Roady receiver. It's $120 and includes everything -- a tuner (about the size of a wallet that you can attach to the dash or center console); connection cables to a power supply (the cigarette lighter) and your existing car stereo (via the cassette deck); and a magnetic antenna (maybe 1 inch by 1 inch by 1/8 inch deep) that attaches to the exterior of the car. I'm a klutz and I installed the thing myself in maybe 20 minutes. Other XM options run upwards of $200, requiing professional installation, too.
As for the programming ... My tuner has 30 presents, but I primarily listen to the alternative country and blues channels, occasionally checking out the "XM Lab" prog-rock station or one of the classic rock or "adult album alternative" alternatives. There's repetition on each; I'm guessing 25-40 songs get pretty heavy rotation, each getting played several times a day, with literally hundreds of others mixed in. It's not freeform radio by any means, but my tastes mesh pretty well with those of the programmers', so the repetition isn't a turnoff. The XM folks like Duke Robillard, and Dave Alvin, and Hank III, and my man "Icepick" James Harman (who played our wedding reception ... I kid you not), and Ruth Brown, and Lightnin' Hopkins, and Bill Kirchen. Me too.
The "Deep Tracks" classic rock channel is now playing the "Essential 4004" album cuts of all time, in alphabetical order. On the ride home today, I heard, among others, Inside (Jethro Tull), Instant Amnesia (Ringo Starr), Instrumental Illness (Allman Bros. Band), and Interstellar Overdrive (Pink Floyd). I suppose the proof of how deep these tracks really go will come after the countdown is over. I am pleased that the classic rock channels play new releases from older artists. Just try to find that on your local Clear Channel station. And XM broadcasts plenty of live performances, some of them recorded at the XM studios.
Unfortunately, Mickey Kaus is not convinced. (Check out the entry dated Dec. 25. After asking why anyone would pay $200 for a radio and $10 a month for programming when you can hear similar stuff for free, Mickey reveals he's a coastalist:
I'll stick with college radio, where they seem too amateurish to be corrupted. ... (In Los Angeles, that means KXLU , 88.9 FM; in New York there's that weird station from New Jersey. [Update: WFMU 91.1 FM]) ...
How nice for you. But not everybody lives in New York ... or West L.A. When we resided in Culver City, I listened to KXLU's "Bomb Shelter" every Friday night. Where else could you hear in-studio performances from Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys bookended by '60s ska or '50s "race records"? But if you're stuck in Lodi, or Vegas for that matter, KXLU is not an option ... unless you're near a high-speed Internet connection. And you still can't hear it in your car.
OK, it's not genuine freeform, community radio, the type fellow Tar Heel and Reasoner Jesse Walker waxes poetic about in this article and his fine book Rebels on the Air. But I'm happy with it so far. And who knows: By the time we buy a new car, I may go for that MP3 player after all ... or switch to Sirius. Even so, I'm fairly certain that other than getting traffic reports, I'll never listen to "regular" radio again.