Story and photos by Jil McIntosh

Portable XM Satellite Radio units,  one (right) placed into a home system.
Portable XM Satellite Radio units, one (right) placed into a home system. Click image to enlarge

We’ve come a long way from that blustery December day in 1901, when Guglielmo Marconi climbed to the top of Signal Hill in Newfoundland and received the first-ever trans-Atlantic wireless message. Today, giant broadcasting centres send their music skyward, where space satellites beam it back for distribution across the continent.

Available for the last four years in the United States, satellite radio has finally overcome its licensing hurdles and has launched in Canada. In a scenario reminiscent of the VHS-vs-Beta videotape competition, there are two key players here. XM Canada, the larger of the two and first out of the gate in Canada, offers 80 channels, while Sirius serves up 100 channels.

Recently, XM Canada invited journalists to drive XM-equipped GM vehicles, or to have portable systems set up in their own cars, and listen to the service over the course of a three-hour drive.

Just like VHS or Beta, you have to commit to one company or the other; the receivers are signal-specific, and you can’t switch your radio provider without buying new equipment. They’re also country-specific:

Factory-installed XM-capable radio in a 2006 Buick Lucerne
Factory-installed XM-capable radio in a 2006 Buick Lucerne. Click image to enlarge

when satellite radio was still unavailable in Canada, many people bought receivers in the U.S. and signed up with XM or Sirius in the U.S. According to XM Canada, those radios can’t receive Canadian service, and those owners will have to continue buying their service from the U.S. parent companies.

XM claims 70 per cent of the market in the U.S., which translates to about five million subscribers (it estimates six million by the end of the year). Exclusivity is a major selling point, and to that end, XM has already partnered with General Motors to ensure that all satellite-equipped factory radios in those vehicles are tuned to XM Canada. The company is also negotiating with Honda, Toyota, Hyundai and Suzuki. As well, while both providers currently carry NHL hockey games, that’s only until 2007/2008, when the league moves exclusively to XM. Sirius, meanwhile, has popular shock jock Howard Stern and the BBC, among others, and is currently associated in the U.S. with Ford, DaimlerChrysler and BMW. (XM Canada says that Porsche, Audi and Volkswagen are currently “free agents” and will install either one.)

Portable unit, used in cars not factory-equipped with XM-capable stereo. The system plays through the factory radio
Portable unit, used in cars not factory-equipped with XM-capable stereo. The system plays through the factory radio. Click image to enlarge

Satellite radio’s main draw — or to some, its drawback — is that no matter where you are, the stations are the same. Most of XM’s programming comes from a huge centre in Washington, D.C., which sends its signals to two satellites, dubbed “Rock” and “Roll” (there’s a third one that can take over should one of those two malfunction). Rock is located over Phoenix, Arizona, while Roll is over Atlanta, Georgia.

The satellites transfer signals to a network of ground-based repeaters — 800 of them in the U.S. — where they’re picked up by the subscriber’s radio. The company claims the signal is nine times more powerful than satellite television signals and is not affected by weather, as television can be. The result is that whether you’re in St. John’s or San Diego, you’ll hear the same program, with the same reception quality. The company also says the signal will not fade or break up, making it popular with long-haul truckers, who don’t have to continually search for new stations. During my drive deep into a rural part of Ontario, I did lose the signal twice, for just a few seconds; company officials told me they hadn’t had any similar complaints and suggested that the new repeater system is still undergoing fine-tuning and I may have gone by one that was “being worked on.”

Delphi
Click image to enlarge

The drawback to that is a subjective one: many people prefer the flavour and news reporting of local stations, rather than a homogenous international program that doesn’t change no matter where you are. I must admit to being in that category, but I’m probably also in the minority. I also hunt down the little mom-and-pop burger places when I’m travelling, but there’s no denying that most people just look for the Golden Arches and its familiar menu.

XM Canada’s eighty stations arrive as a single package, for $12.99 a month; unlike satellite television, you don’t choose individual stations or smaller packages of channels. (There’s also a one-time activation fee of $19.99 or $14.99, depending on whether you phone or sign up on-line.) Pre-sets on the stereo put favourites at your fingertips, and a phone-in blocking ability keeps the raunchier comedy and urban music stations away from sensitive ears. Part of the licensing agreement with the CRTC was ten per cent Canadian content, and so there are eight Canadian channels, three of them in French. XM Canada president Stephen Tapp sees this as important for Canadian talent, since American listeners also hear the stations. One channel, “Unsigned”, is for new and emerging musicians, which Tapp feels could give them unprecedented exposure. “We believe in creating our own programs, and promoting our own culture,” he says. “It’s made in Canada, and we think we’ll be able to have a better relationship with our customers because of that.”

Hummer H3, XM's vehicle at the event
Hummer H3, XM’s vehicle at the event. Click image to enlarge

XM doesn’t actually make the radios, which are farmed out to a number of manufacturers, including Delphi, Pioneer, Alpine, Yamaha, Polk and Sony. Depending on the model, new General Motors vehicles may either be equipped with them, or available as a factory-installed option for $325; more than fifty models will have them available in model year 2006. Each equipped vehicle comes with the satellite signal activated on delivery, and with a three-month free trial period. The satellite appears as a separate radio band, and the stereo will still receive AM and FM programming, and be able to play a CD if equipped. The radio display shows the channel, and the name of the artist and song as it plays. Depending on the receiver, some systems can store from thirty minutes to five hours of programming, to be played back later.

If your car’s radio isn’t satellite-specific, it won’t be able to pick up the signal; you’ll have to replace it with a dash-mounted satellite radio or, as most people are expected to do, run a portable unit through it. (A hardware retrofit is currently available for some mid- and full-size GM SUVs.) These portable units range from $100 to $400 (after rebates) and, with accessories, can also be used as hand-held portable radios or as home systems.

Installing the portable system is relatively simple. A magnetic antenna is attached to the roof, and a thin cable runs along the windshield weatherstripping and into the car. The small radio plugs into the cigarette lighter and can be clipped onto an air vent with a slide-in holder.

Although I didn’t have a chance to listen to a portable unit, the factory installation in the Buick Lucerne I drove provided crystal-clear sound — something 89 per cent of customers surveyed in the U.S. by General Motors cited as being a very important feature. The stations are divided by genre, including “Decades” (back to the 1940s), country, pop, Christian music, rock, hip-hop and urban, jazz and blues, “Lifestyle” (unbelievably, there’s a “Voice of Music at Starbucks” station), dance, Latin, World and classical. They’re grouped together on the dial. As well, there are sports, children and family programming, comedy, and talk and entertainment channels.

The music channels are commercial-free; some have disc jockeys, but there’s a strict sixty-second talk limit between songs, so there’s no rambling as someone tries to fill air time. Some stations originate outside XM’s studios, such as Fox News and CNN, and some of these play commercials. There are also uncensored channels: XM Comedy, which proved to be the most popular among journalists on the drive, features continuous monologues by comedians who hold nothing back.

There’s also a wide playlist; travelling up and down the dial, I caught country legend George Jones and 1920s bluesman Bo Carter, discovered (to my embarrassment) that I still know all the words to “Wolverton Mountain”, and on the Seventies Hits channel, even heard a song by Kermit the Frog.

But will Canadians pay nearly $160 a year to buy something that they’ve always had for free? That’s the big question, and it’s one that the satellite companies are counting on to happen. Currently, XM Canada estimates that 66 per cent of its market is male, with the highest percentage over 35 years of age. In its favour are its clarity, its commercial-free music, specialty channels such as the comedy networks, and its continuous service even on long-distance drives. On the other hand, some factory-installed radios now have jacks for iPods or other personal music devices, which provide playback of favourite tunes — despite the genre-specific channels, you still might not like all the songs they play — and many people are still dipping into their existing CD collections when driving. Is XM satellite radio the architecture of the future, or this century’s eight-track player? Even Marconi would be hard-pressed to say.

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