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Weekly AUDIO NEWS for Jan. 30, 2002

CES Report 3 - Satellite Radio Launches at CES

One of the major press conferences at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was for something which some observers have called the first major advance in radio since FM and the best thing to happen to music in vehicles since the dashboard CD player. XM Satellite Radio has been already named by both Popular Science and Time Magazine as among the top inventions of the year. The company's satellites completely cover the U.S. and local repeaters fill in for difficult terrain areas. Sony, Pioneer and Alpine already have auto receivers and some can be also used with home stereo. Hardward runs from $300 to $800 not including installation; the antenna is a small teardrop shape mounted on the roof of vehicles. The signal is digital and really close to CD quality (definitely better than MP3), there is absolutely no dreaded multipath distortion, and 100 channels of music, news, sports and entertainment are offered for about $10 a month. Many of the channels are commercial free and those with commercials are said to be at about half the number heard on typical commercial FM stations.

A major complex of 80 separate studios has been built by XM in Washington D.C. Everything is interconnected in the digital domain and facilities allow for live broadcasts as well as remotes. More than 150 programmers are responsible for the XM 100 channel feeds. While most of the programming will originate there contracts have been made with many other producers, including leading NPR programs such as Garrison Keillor and Morning Edition, BBC News, CNN, C-Span, Fox News and others. News junkies will be able to surf thru 13 channels. The 71 music channels are each hosted by an expert in the particular genre. In the first eight weeks of operation the service signed up over 30,000 paying subscribers, moving toward becoming the fastest-selling audio program of the last two decades. Early customer feedback shows a high degree of satisfaction with the service. Many say that having such a wide choice of high fidelity, distortion-free reception on tap, and either without any commercials or only a minimum of them is so addictive that they just want to keep driving and turn it up. Satellite radio is also seen as an antidote to the overly-commercial-laden, heavily formatted programming of pop and rock commercial FM today, and the many specialized genres of music that have a sizeable following but are never heard on commercial radio in the U.S. Public radio fans may also appreciate the service's selection of the very best of NPR and the freedom from annoying on-air fund-raising.

By the way, there is also a second new satellite radio service - Sirius - whch has their birds in orbit but is presently Johnny-Come-Lately with programming. With two hi-res audio disc formats, two satellite video services and several recordable-DVD formats, wouldn't you know there would be a satellite radio battle. Experts in the area predict there will probably be a merger or failure of one of the two eventually. The digital systems are not compatible but some manufacturers may bring out receivers that can handle both services, similar to the universal hi-res players now appearing.

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