by Paul Edwards
I was one of the early adopters of satellite radio. I have been a subscriber for a decade now. When I subscribed I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. As I will explain later, technology has somewhat overtaken satellite radio and there are lots of ways to do many of the things that could only be done with Sirius or XM or both!
Without becoming too technical, which I don’t have the expertise to do anyway, satellite radio is what it suggests it is. Information is uploaded from the networks to satellites from whence our receivers pick up the signals. Those of you who have satellite TV or who use GPS devices know that reception isn’t as simple as AM or FM radio is! If you live in an apartment that doesn’t have lots of windows that face in different directions, you should try to get a friend who has a portable receiver to bring it over to see if it will work. Truthfully, according to the folks at Sirius and XM, there are powerful antennas that can make the system work, but these usually have to be mounted outside, and that may not be possible for you. I would strongly advise anyone thinking about satellite radio to talk to a local dealer and make sure that you can return the receiver if it doesn't work. Even if it doesn’t, you can still use “satellite” radio through the Internet. You can go to siriusxm.com and explore what’s there. There are subscription rates for just using your computer. Remember, this will mean only your computer. Notetakers don’t work!
I have two receivers. One is a large one that is connected to my main sound system. It was the first one I bought and, though it has some quirks, it is still functioning after a decade. In addition, I bought a portable unit which I used to carry around with me. I don’t do that as much because there are other ways of getting to what I want that I already carry with me. More on that later.
A radio is pretty easy to set up, but there are some issues. When you are choosing a receiver, and there are several, there are some things you should expect. None will be fully accessible. That is, I have never found a receiver that lets me do all the things that users who can see can do! Here’s an example! One of the coolest things about these radios is that they put information onto a screen that tells you what the score is in the game you are tuned to or the name of the song and the artist when it comes to music. Don’t expect to be able to access either thing.
Some receivers are flat out not accessible. You will need to check around with friends who have current models. Mine are too old to provide much help. Sometimes people at the satellite radio headquarters will know something. There are also specialty stores online that you can look up. They may also be able to help you. It is best, however, in my opinion, to go to a local dealer and ask to see a couple of models. My portable looks like it would be entirely inaccessible but isn’t. Spend some time asking how channels are changed.
Many receivers also allow you to store your own music or make recordings from the radio. I have not found either activity possible to use on any of the 10 or 12 receivers with which I have played. So you are settling for a device that will probably only work as a radio. Because this is all that is likely to be available for you, the range of receivers that will work is pretty large. Virtually all receivers come with a remote control. If you point the control at the radio, it can change channels. Ideally, you want to be able to change channels from the receiver as well, and I would make that a requirement. Remotes are small and delicate. It would be sad to spend money for a receiver and be locked out because the remote is lost or broken.
Don’t just look at the pure portables! Some car receivers come with home packs and are more accessible than the pure portables. One of the reasons this is true is that they expect to have an antenna attached. Portables have theirs built in, and they are not usually as effective as a separate satellite antenna. Virtually all receivers, even portables, come with a “home” pack which includes an antenna, a power supply and, usually, a cable to connect to an amplification system.
In the old days, getting up and running was a little harder than it is now. If you got your receiver from a dealer, have them register it with the satellite provider. If they won’t do this, be sure to get the full serial number of your unit. It is usually eight digits, with some letters and some numbers. If your radio is registered, Sirius XM will already have your serial number on file. Usually, though, it is wise to know your serial number and to keep it written down where you can access it.
When you get your receiver, you can’t just go home and install it and turn it on. Assuming you have done everything right, you may get a channel or two, but that’s all you will get until you take the next step, which is to subscribe to the service. There is a cost per month to use satellite radio, which will generally be at least $12. There are sometimes promotions; you should try to get whatever deals are going when you call. The number I use which will work for both is 1-800-967-2346 or 200-xm-radio. Once you have agreed to a subscription plan, it’s time to activate your radio. Now that simply means turning it on and leaving it alone for 20 minutes. Assuming you had a signal before, all the channels to which you subscribed should work after the waiting period. Sirius XM makes changes in its local repeater network, so it’s a good idea to call every couple of months and “refresh” your radio.
By the way, only the Internet version of satellite radio can be accessed in Alaska, Hawaii or any other location outside the continental North American area. I have used mine in many parts of the United States and Canada, but there are places where it does not seem to work as well as it does elsewhere. So we have finally reached the point where we can talk about what you get once you’re subscribed. That depends on whether you subscribe to Sirius or XM. Even though the companies have now merged, they have not amalgamated their services. There are two levels of service, though it is a little more complicated than that when you are going through the process. There is regular service and premium service. I subscribe to premium service with XM because, without it, I could not access NFL games. Sirius customers may subscribe to premium service because they want to get access to Major League Baseball that was a part of the XM basic package but was not for Sirius. There are fewer differences now than there used to be and I, as one customer, think that they only retain separation so they can continue to charge for premium service. That is only my opinion.
With regular service, you get a large variety of categories of channel. These include pop, rock, jazz, country, news, sports, kids and others. There are probably 70 stereo music channels and another 15 or 20 that are in mono. Many of the channels have no commercials and some have no talking at all except for channel identification. In order to make it possible to get all these channels down to your receiver from the satellite, signals are compressed. This means that, while the fidelity is pretty good, it is certainly not up to digital radio standards and is probably pretty comparable to regular FM quality. (Some would argue that is not even quite that good.) It is very listenable and, should you be interested in a relatively simple approach to a wide variety of content, satellite radio may be for you!
All political spectra are covered in the news and talk area and there are three public radio stations. In addition, there is the BBC World Service from Great Britain, the talk channel of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a number of financial channels, Doctor Radio and a wide range of other talk elements.
Sports is one of the major strengths of satellite radio. Though you should check what you win or lose with premium, you can expect to have lots of choices for a variety of sports. There is golf radio, soccer radio and channels devoted to talk shows on baseball and football. There are large numbers of live sports events. With NASCAR, for instance, you can listen to radios as well as follow the race. There are usually a number of channels that pick out drivers whose radios will be monitored.
Satellite radio is easy to use. If you have a remote and memorize the channel numbers you like, you are good to go. I have talked about the inaccessibility of some of the features of the radios. The web pages are no picnic either. I think that it is past time for us to have lost patience with Sirius and XM. Not only do their web pages leave a lot to be desired, their apps for phones do not work effectively either. There used to be a third-party app which was quite accessible, but it does not seem to work as well as it did, and Sirius XM’s app has lots of inaccessible features. The Internet version of Sirius XM has lots more channels so, should you choose to use it, you can get more variety. There are lots more Latin music channels. My dearly beloved “folk” channel is still there, though it was removed from the radio channel list. Things have stayed pretty static. There are special concerts and town hall meetings with celebrities which are fun to access.
Many blind subscribers have left because there are other ways to get to most of the information they want. Some are also disappointed that no accessible receiver or app or web site has materialized despite the fact that many people have communicated the problems to management. Some of us actually suggested to XM that they consider carrying ACB Radio as a public service, but they did not respond. I think a lot of their business comes from cars now, and I am not sure they see people who are blind as customers worth paying much attention to at this point. Are they living on borrowed time? It’s hard to say! As mobile Internet access becomes cheaper and more wi-fi and Bluetooth become standard in cars, their viability may be threatened.
I have gotten a lot of pleasure out of my XM radio, and many others have too. Even though At Bat allows me to access baseball on my iPhone, I use the XM for a lot of play-by-play which I could probably get some other way but find easier to use XM to get. With really bad weather, there will very occasionally be a degradation of signal but, unlike satellite TV, radio survives well. Figures suggest that there are more than 20 million subscribers in North America, but it is hard to know just how much penetration that represents. At the very least, I would suggest that, if satellite radio looks like a good option to you, it will be around for at least a decade.
Fasten your seat belts! Next article we will look at Internet radio!