XM Satellite Radio – Kicking the Crud Out of Terrestrial!

Recently, I was asked to try out the upcoming XMP3 Player, one of the first to try it up here in Canada.  I was also asked to review it and tell you the reader my thoughts. This was a fantastic opportunity not only to test out a new product, but also a great way to finally get to hear Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour. It was the first thing I thought of, actually.

Strange perhaps that will all of the technological wizardry this product represents, I was excited about a radio show steeped in an old school approach to radio – lots of dusty old country records, folk songs,  pre-rock n’ roll R&B, and other assorted relics of American song as presented by gravelly voiced Bob, one of my heroes. Now thanks to XM radio, I have another reason to love the guy – he’s basically doing my 10 songs series on a grander scale!

Anyway, I digress. Although on second thought that’s kind of a lead in to talking about the service. Like I said, I get to hear Bob. But, the programs on XM kick the crud out of terrestrial radio. This is not just because there aren’t any commercials to sit through. It’s not about how much music there is – and there’s a lot. It’s not even that there’s less talk and more songs.  It’s that when there is a voiceover by a DJ, it’s the voice of someone who loves the music they’re playing.

For many, I guess this sounds like it could be very nostalgic, harking back to an age when DJs played music they really loved. But one of my pet peeves about listening to the radio these days is that the DJ are insufferable egomaniacs who could be playing sound affects records for all the good it would do the listeners. It’s great to hear the passion about the material, and its great too that the material is worthy of it.

Like I said, the programs are fantastic. You like talk radio? It’s there. Sports? Check. But of course, my thing is the music. For this, I’m spoiled for choice in classic rock, jazz channels, classic soul music channels, a new wave channel, channels that are decade-specific, and  ‘alternative’ channels that play bands who wouldn’t even dream of being heard on terrestrial radio – Soundtrack of Our Lives, We Are Scientists, Foals, Airborne Toxic Event, and so many more.  I can tune into Sara Cox at BBC 1, just like I used to when I lived in Britain.  I can listen to Little Steven’s Underground Garage too, which you get once in a while on terrestrial radio, but XM has an entire channel devoted to it.  Fantastic.

The main problem is reception.  It’s crap – really crap.  Most of my listening happens on my commute, which is why the portable nature of the device is so appealing to me.  But, I don’t know if there’s something up with the mountains or tall buildings, but as soon as I cross the Fraser River over the Pattullo Bridge on my commute into Vancouver, the radio goes ker-fluey.  The signal gets dampened intermittently, but with really long gaps.  It’s extremely frustrating, particularly on one occasion where I was stuck next to a woman yammering on her cellphone, which had (evidently) perfect reception.  They have got to sort that out.  When I can’t rely on a radio signal when I’m coming out of, or going into  downtown Vancouver BC – a world class city – there is something up.

Luckily, with the unit, I  can record any song I hear (as long as there’s a signal) and listen to it whenever.  And when it’s at home in the base unit, and when it’s on, I can set it to autorecord my favourite channels.  I can set my favourites pretty easily – it’s a pretty intuitive device that way.  When the signal goes down when I’m on the move, which seems to be often, I can listen to the autorecord materials. Having said this, they could have done something with the wording on the interface when the signal is lost.  It says something like “There is no signal.  Please listen to autorecorded material”.  There’s something in that which makes the loss of a signal my problem, instead of theirs.  I don’t know. Maybe a “sorry” in front of it might soften it.  Or maybe that’s too Canadian.

Basically, the programming and the ease of use as far as the device goes gets top marks from me.  The loss of a signal is a major problem for me, even if I have autorecord.  I hope they make some improvements to it.  As I said, it should be as good as a cellphone for that, from where I stand.  And in a major urban area, there has to be some allowances made as well for tall buildings and other obstructions to the signal, if those are indeed mitigating factors.  Still, all around, I’d say that technology like this is a serious threat to terrestrial radio.

I honestly think that demographic programming by companies who don’t care about music is not really what most people want.  I think people like niche channels as well as channels that play a range of stuff all day.   As soon as everyone latches on to the good stuff, they won’t settle for less.  I hope that XM take the reins here and get the music into people’s ears – and into their cars.  Once it gets into the car, that’s where the real victory will be won.

To find out about release dates for the XMP3 player, I’d suggest contacting your local retailer, or contact XM.ca and learn about the device and special offers attached to it.

XM have asked me to attach a short survey too about them, which you can fill out here.

Enjoy!