Satellite of Love

I never wanted satellite radio in the first place. I was happy moving between KXLU (with those ultra-bored daytime DJs), KCRW when I wanted uneclectic adult pop and Jonesy’s Jukebox on Indie 103.1 between commercials. There was always KROQ if I struck out, and KLOS if I wanted to hear “Dream On” for the billionth time.

Now, thanks to satellite, I have 30 presets and more than 100 channels to choose from. I’ve got the first 10 presets divided between rock stations (including LittleSteven’s Underground Garage and the flagship hodgepodgeSirius Disorder) and three comedy channels (dirty, not dirty and redneck). I also love the Broadway channel. Now I wish more L.A. drivers were chuckling to old Steve Martin routines instead of trying to plow into me.

But first, a little back story. My husband, Joe, is a sports nut. I often tell people that the first time I saw my husband cry was when the Mets won the 1986 World Series. There is no technological barrier that can stand between him and getting his ears and eyes on as many games as possible each season. (We won’t even get into the “secret TiVo” he’s attached to the bedroom TV, reserved only for sports.)

And so, at the dawn of satellite radio, Joe decided he had to have it. But which service would he choose — Sirius or XM? It’s true that the two companies are going to merge, but that won't affect us until next year. This year’s satellite exiles still have a big decision to make.

Joe explains his reasoning: “The big attraction to me was the sports programming. Sirius and XM were each signing up the different sports leagues. If one or the other had gotten the big three — NHL, NFL and MLB — the choice would have been a slam dunk.” (Despite his metaphor, Joe doesn’t care much for the NBA.) As it happened, NFL went Sirius. MLB went XM. And the NHL was on both. Quite a conundrum.

The thing was, Joe also wanted music. “L.A. radio being what it is, the idea of all those music stations, commercial-free no less, was hugely inviting. Also, comedy.” So after exhaustive research, Joe finally went Sirius — which, oddly, didn’t carry baseball. He explains: “This was the big decision of 2005. I went with Sirius because they seemed to do music better than XM. I figured that if I got XM I would listen to baseball all the time to the exclusion of music.”

At the time, Sirius had the “all Bruce all the time” station (since gone) — “and it wasn’t just his albums but his bootlegs too.” Joe also listened a lot to Radio Margaritaville, as well as the jam-band one (Jam_On), Underground Garage, Buzzsaw, etc. Still, Joe confesses, “In the end, one of my favorite things on Sirius was listening to hockey whenever I could. I flashed back to being a kid in New York and hearing the Rangers on my transistor radio.”

Choosing the right service was difficult enough. But as Joe found out with Sirius, after signing up, you still have to decide how you want the thing installed in your car.

Satellite Installment Options Arranged From Worst to Best

Note: When you sign up, you buy a little radio-receiver buddy that looks sort of like an iPod. This must be installed or somehow docked in your car (or wherever you plan on doing most of your listening).

1.FM modulator. This enables your satellite receiver to be heard through the car’s FM tuner. It is the least desirable option, as the signal often gets overrun by local radio signals.

2.Wired FM direct adapter. This option eliminates almost all interference from the FM tuner. This gets wired into the car’s electrical system, so just about all the wires are hidden in the dash.

3.Hard-wiring into the car’s head unit AUX button. The car’s radio has to have an AUX band for this to work. This is also the way cassette adapters work, but cars don’t seem to come with cassette slots much anymore.

4. Tuners for in-dash Sirius/XM-ready radios. You have added to your car an ugly, gray square box that’s hidden from view with wires running to the radio. This makes your car’s head unit satellite radio functional.

Note: Both XM and Sirius make receivers that can go mobile (some models have a detachable faceplate that can be slapped into a compatible boom box). This is very good for barbecues or running around the backyard with the kid while a game is on. And they both now have Walkman/portable-type things, although I haven’t tried one yet.

All of which leads us to our first “Don’t.” Driving on La Cienega only days after getting Sirius, Joe was experiencing signal drift and glanced down at the unit, which was perched on the console between the front seats. Guess what happened next? Yep, the classic L.A. rear-ender. Luckily, no one was hurt. (If you do decide to read your satellite radio while driving, try to do as Joe did and hit the president and CEO of a major car insurance company. This will expedite your insurance claim immeasurably if you also happen to carry the same insurance.)

“It sort of hit me — or more exactly, I hit it,” says Joe. “I had the car accident because of the way my Sirius was set up. I had to look down to see the display, and I had to constantly change the radio station that the FM modulator was using because the signal would be overrun by a local station. It dawned on me right there that I needed a professional installation. I wanted the display nice and high and the signal to be hard-wired into my car.”

After that moment of clarity, the dominoes quickly fell. “What I really wanted,” Joe says, “was XM. I was listening to hockey a lot, so when baseball season opened I knew I wanted that. I would still get lots of commercial-free music — although I do miss Radio Margaritaville.”

In exchange for Jimmy Buffett, though, he’s gotten a ton of stations he loves: “Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure has been really cool. Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour has also stood out. He picks a subject like baseball or summer and just has a lot of fun with the idea. I love David Gans’ Grateful Dead Radio Hour early Sunday mornings on the way to tennis. What’s so good about the music selection on XM is how deep they get into catalogs. Did you know Lynyrd Skynyrd has more than three songs? When was the last time you heard Wishbone Ash or Uriah Heep or old Deep Purple? Good stuff. But, as expected, I still listen to baseball or hockey (season permitting) every chance I get. Let’s go Mets.”

So that’s how we became a two-subscription family. I inherited his Sirius unit, somewhat reluctantly. And now that I have satellite radio, I love it.

Though it loses its connection sometimes for a couple of seconds in the canyons, all stations come in crystal clear. And I am forever spoiled by the display of what song is playing — I have been turned on to so many obscure bands. Plus, classic rock has become classic again. Instead of the same Led Zeppelin songs KLOS plays over and over, the Sirius ’70s station digs way deeper.

But, most surprisingly, after several months, I have found that that special terrestrial connection between DJ and listener has made the satellite seem more like a rusty old antenna. The playlists get insanely eclectic on Disorder, Handsome Dick Manitoba and Joan Jett and Kim Fowley on Underground Garage speak to me as kindred music fans down the block. Mr. Manitoba sounds thrilled to be sharing stories of his Dictators days on the road opening for Cheap Trick while spinning forgotten punk songs and weird old stuff I’ve missed. Ms. Jett gives off this totally bored vibe, but plays some ripping tracks. And of course, even born-again sewer mouth Howard Stern — Sirius’ most famous poster boy — acknowledges that he’s reaching an audience that’s many millions less than his old terrestrial gig.

PS: Yeah, I miss Jonesy. But I hate L.A. less thanks to satellite radio.


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >