Maybe you first tune in the station driving past some lobster-roll shack just outside Bangor, Maine. You know the music isn't coming from the local FM radio tower a few miles away. Instead, it's being digitally compressed and uplinked from a massive command center in Washington, D.C., bouncing off a pair of Boeing satellites in geostationary orbit high above the equator, and finding its way to a sleek little shark-fin antenna mounted on the trunk. The technology is at best a compelling afterthought, because after the fourth or fifth song, you realize the music speaks to you. It's the kind of expressive jazz or reggae or alternative country you thought nobody played on the radio, except for some underpowered college station whose signal turns into a death rattle before Coltrane takes his first solo. But this signal does not fade. It stays with you driving through lower New England and the muscular outer arteries of New York City, down past the Delaware Water Gap and across the Mason-Dixon line. One station, playing deep cuts from your favorite artists, introducing you to new, like-minded performers, and treating you not like a marketing demographic but like a music lover.
Is your mood changing with the landscape? You've got 70 more music channels to choose from, and
29 others featuring news, talk, sports, and children's programming. Even better, there are no commercials on a sizable chunk of the music stations. Want to know the artist or song titlÕe? Just punch a button and the information pops up on an easy-to-read text display. Man, this doesn't even sound like FM. It's got full frequency response and scads of music detail. Only the glow of the LCD display and the occasional interruptions from the DJ remind you that you're listening to the radio. All you want to do is keep driving-and turn it up.
That is the promise of satellite radio, and it is finally about to be fulfilled. Four years ago, XM Radio became one of two companies to win the rights to evenly split a 25MHz chunk of previously unused broadcast spectrum licensed for satellite radio. Both XM and the second provider, Sirius Radio, plan to debut nationwide this month. Satellite radio services are aimed at drivers, although Sony will offer a model that can be used at home as well. While the systems are similar in many ways, there are some interesting differences. But the real comparison is against existing radio: Satellite radio offers clear, digital, CD-quality sound for a nominal monthly subscription fee -- $9.95 for XM; $12.95 for Sirius.
Is satellite radio worth the money? Just prior to XM's local launch, I head out to San Diego for a preview of the system. I ride shotgun in a new Saab 9-3 convertible festooned with so many XM Radio logos it could easily pass for a pace car at Daytona. Although I assure XM's vice president of marketing, Robert Acker, that the DMV reinstated my license weeks ago, he insists on doing the driving.