To XM or Not to XM – A Radio Researcher’s Perspective

by Sabrina Benton, Director of Research

Ever since I first heard about satellite radio in 1999 I thought this would be a great product for me to have. I commute over 40 miles each way to work; and I am a big music fan. Music is on in my car, office and home almost all the time. Late last year, my employer, Edison Media Research, decided that we needed to have a better understanding of this satellite radio service and how it could impact our clients. So in December XM Satellite Radio was installed in my car for a six-month trial period. With this opportunity came a few responsibilities: allow other members of the company to ride with me to listen to XM, evaluate and share my experience with clients, and finally to share my thoughts with the public.

The first question when considering satellite radio is whether it is worth the initial investment for the essential equipment. My Pioneer receiver cost $422.94 installed. Would I have purchased the equipment without Edison Media Research picking up the tab? No way! I would never pay hundreds of dollars to have what I consider to be a toy installed in my car. As a single mother I only spend money on essentials and this definitely does not qualify. From research we have conducted over the last couple of years, most consumers find a $300-$400 installation fee too expensive.

Although satellite radio offers great freedom from both commercials and geographic boundaries, something many music lovers can appreciate, it is not something I find a necessity. Working in Central New Jersey I have access to a wide variety of stations out of New York and New Jersey. At home near the Jersey shore, I can even get some of Philadelphia’s radio stations. With so much available to me, variety of programming is not that hard to find and not something I feel the need to look for. Consumers in smaller markets or areas with poor reception may find satellite radio a more useful service than I do.

It only took a couple of days with XM to know there are two distinct aspects of the XM experience; the equipment and the programming. Equipment issues are more serious than programming issues because after spending over $400 on a receiver you don’t want to find out that it does not offer useful features. And I found there are definite disadvantages with the Pioneer equipment.

The most obvious disadvantage for me is the size of the Pioneer LCD screen. XM provides the title and artist for songs played on their channels (a feature not available if you listen to the commercial channels they carry like Radio Disney or WSIX from Nashville). This is probably my favorite part of the XM subscription, instant access to information that on traditional radio you have to hope a DJ will tell you sometime during the next commercial break. But the Pioneer tuner displays only 10 characters, without the ability to scroll the information. I am often left guessing at the full names of artists and titles. You see things like “Smells Lik” or “Smashing P”. Funny at times, but not helpful when you really want to know the title of a song.

One of the most talked about features of XM is that they have over 100 channels to choose from. The channels are broken down into programming categories. Channel numbers run from 1 to 170 with gaps left presumably for tuning ease and future expansion. Both the channel number and an easy to remember name identify each channel (i.e. “Channel 41 Boneyard”, “USA Today Headlines on Channel 121”, “Soul Street Channel 61”, etc.). None of the current satellite radio receivers comes equipped with a number pad for “dialing” to the channel you want. The ability to go directly to a specific channel by dialing the number would be a truly innovative change to the tuner. Flipping through all the channels to find a specific one is quite a hassle with over 100 channels to surf through. It is also quite a distraction when driving down the highway. Like traditional car stereos, the satellite receiver does provide six memory buttons you can pre-program a total of 18 channels. However, I have been listening to such a variety of channels that it is harder to remember where I programmed the channel than it is to remember the actual channel number.

With all these channels you have a huge variety of programming not available on “terrestrial” radio. The problem is finding a station that has programming I completely enjoy. I have listened to a small rock station out of Northern New Jersey (WDHA-FM) loyally for over five years. They offer a mix of Rock music I describe as Current and “Classic Rock that Really Rocks”. The first night I had XM, I tuned to the Rock stations to see if one offered the same type of programming. I consulted the list of stations provided with my subscription and decided to try “Boneyard”, a Hard Rock station. I heard both Nickelback and Queensryche within the first few minutes and thought this is it! Then when they played Limp Bizkit and Rob Zombie, I couldn’t tune out fast enough. I like Hard Rock but not that hard! Next I tried “Channel 46 Top Tracks” described by XM as Classic Rock, with the tag “Songs the critics hate, but you love”. The playlist included an endless number of Steely Dan, Doobie Brothers and CSNY songs – a bit too soft, and to be honest, too boring for me. So I continued to flip, becoming more and more frustrated that I could not find programming I like.

Maybe it was unrealistic to expect to find a station with the exact format I wanted on XM. After eight weeks with the service I have discovered that I enjoy listening to a few different channels but do not have a favorite. I rarely flipped around the dial of my FM radio. I accept commercials as a necessary evil and simply pop in a cassette if the music being played is not what I want to hear. With XM, if I do not like what is being played, I flip until I find a style of music that fits my mood. For example, if I don’t like what they are playing on “Boneyard” I can flip to “Unsigned” or “Fred” (Classic Alternative). When my kids are with me we listen to “Top 20 on 20”, which offers a countdown of the top CHR songs. That is the XM programming advantage, you can find just about any kind of music you want with the touch of a button, without the clutter of traditional radio. I don’t have to wait for the music to start after a commercial or DJ chatter to hear what they are playing.

Currently, I listen to my FM station everyday for local news, traffic and weather. With an hour and a half commute each way to work through densely populated Central New Jersey; local traffic reports are a necessity. The regional weather provided by “The Weather Channel” (XM Channel 125) is not specific enough to be useful to me. “USA Today” (XM Channel 121) provides constant news including world and national headlines – just no local reports and it is not summarized in less than two minutes. Finally, I have to admit that I miss some of the radio features I have come to enjoy, such as the Nine O’Clock Rock Block and the Rock Drill that can be heard on WDHA…things that are missing from the XM programming.

Although XM offers digital-quality sound with coast-to-coast coverage, I have a standard issue car stereo so I cannot really tell you the sound is better. But the reception is crystal clear most of my drive and through most of the area where I live. I have found that under certain overpasses on the freeway I lose the signal for a few seconds. This has also happened while at the drive-thru at the bank and in the back roads in the woods near my house. Places where you would expect to lose a satellite signal. With traditional FM I find I can lose the signal while at a traffic light, or when an eighteen-wheeler is next to me on the highway…things that don’t happen with XM. The only other issue I have with the quality of the sound is that the volume is very low and I have to jack-up my radio to hear the music. On some channels the programming is definitely not as loud as the commercials and station identifiers.

Finally, people want to know if I plan to keep the subscription service to XM after the six-month trial is up. I am starting to enjoy the variety of channels provided by XM especially the commercial free channels. Originally, I did not think I would keep XM, but I am getting more comfortable with what it offers and enjoy it more each day. And since the initial investment is taken care of, $9.95 per month to continue the service is not out of my reach. So yes, I think I will keep the subscription, at least until the end of the year. From my perspective as a researcher the people who are most likely to want XM are those in smaller markets, truckers, and consumers who want the latest and greatest new toy for their car. Unless the installation price drops dramatically, the rest of us will probably continue to listen to our “terrestrial” radio stations.