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Satellite radio fans love commercial-free music, more choices


San Antonio Express-News (11/04/2004)
by René A. Guzman

How much does Wayne Robinson like satellite radio? So much that he has not one but two satellite providers piping through his Chevy Silverado.

Never mind that he spends more than $20 a month to listen to radio. It's still cheaper than two CDs, he says. Besides, you can't beat hip-hop when there isn't a screaming car salesman to break up the beat.

"That was the hook for me," says Robinson, a 26-year-old inventory control manager at Custom Sounds. "Especially any given time. I don't want to have to flip through stations to try and find stations that don't have a commercial."

Haven't heard satellite radio? Then you haven't tuned in to one of the fastest-growing entertainment formats on the planet. Make that around the planet.

Satellite radio gets its name from how it works. Satellites orbiting the Earth beam signals to a special receiver hooked to your car or home stereo. That handheld tuner also displays the song and artist, along with channel info.

Unlike earthbound AM and FM that crackles with so much static and advertising, satellite radio is commercial-free music and other content that comes to you in CD-quality digital sound. And since it's a satellite feed, it sticks with you wherever you go, coast to coast.

Once a budding technology, satellite radio has blossomed into big business. And its two providers — XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio — want to make sure consumers get that message loud and clear.

Sirius certainly has ears perked since it landed shock jock Howard Stern for a reported five-year, $500 million deal, giving the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" a new throne come January 2006. The network also struck a deal with cycling champ Lance Armstrong to host his own show.

Not to be outdone, XM scored a home run of its own with a $650 million deal to broadcast Major League Baseball for 11 years. It also just unveiled the Delphi XM MyFi, the first personal XM satellite radio, which hits stores in December.

No doubt satellite radio is making itself heard. XM boasts more than 2.5 million subscribers. Sirius has north of 700,000 subscribers and expects to reach 1 million by the end of the year.

But besides audiophiles like Robinson, who really listens to satellite radio?

"Right now I would say truckers that have the long haul or commuters that have 30 or 45 minutes to fill," says Jenny Miller, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, Va. "But I think we're going to see that satellite radio consumer model change because there are more options being made available."

According to the CEA, 5 percent of households plan to buy a satellite radio product in 2004 — up 3 percent from last year. More than 90 percent of those consumers will be first-time buyers.

"Entry (costs) for being a satellite radio (consumer) is pretty low," Miller says.

Which may explain why when you ask Laurie Hicks who listens to satellite radio, she responds with an emphatic, "Everybody."

"From high school up to very, very mature people," she says.

Hicks has been with XM for three years. She also sings the praises of satellite radio as a Best Buy sales rep.

Besides the XM-ready stereo in her Honda Civic, Hicks also uses a portable SKYFi receiver with her home stereo and a special boom box to catch her favorite hip-hop, jazz, '70s and '80s music and comedy channels.

"I have over 500 CDs I don't like to keep in the car," Hicks, 35, says.

Commercial-free music is at the heart of satellite radio. Sirius offers 65 stations and XM offers 68 stations devoted to pop, jazz, and every other music genre you can think of — all without ads.

Satellite radio has plenty of other programming. Sirius and XM both offer lots of news, talk and entertainment stations for all ages and political spectrums, not to mention tons of sports channels as well.

With all that content, it's no wonder so many satellite radio subscribers are road warriors.

Robinson lives in Seguin, so he spends three to four hours a day in his vehicle. Hicks often drives back and forth to El Paso to visit her parents and friends. "So satellite radio was a godsend," she says.

Then there's Larry Carlson. The 51-year-old San Antonian teaches mass communications at Texas State University-San Marcos. He's been with XM for about a year and a half, toting a portable SKYFi in his car and boom box.

On the road or at the barbecue, he relishes old R&B from the '60s and '70s, not to mention the occasional techno and alternative music.

As someone who once worked in sports and news radio in Austin, Carlson sees satellite radio as just the tonic for the status quo on the free airwaves.

"(Satellite radio is) not afraid of so-called dreaded 'tune-out factor' that causes paranoia in AM-FM radio stations," he says. "I definitely see it pushing AM and FM in making some adjustments."

Not that satellite radio will ever replace what's on the AM-FM dial. "A lot of people still listen to regular stations when they're in their home city," Hicks says. Still, "as soon as you ride in someone's car that has (satellite radio), you got to get it."

Robinson agrees that satellite radio is becoming a lot like the cell phone and cable television — a technological advancement you can't imagine being without once you get it. As far as he's concerned, there is no war between satellite radio and CDs or AM/FM.

"It's really not that concept," he says. "Satellite radio is in a concept by itself."