I'm cruising along the New Jersey Turnpike with the music cranked up loud. We're in the middle of nowhere, but you'd never guess it from the crystal-clear reception on the radio. With a friend at the wheel, I'm flipping from Latin jazz to African pop to '80s hits, intent on finding the perfect station for our New Year's road trip to Washington, D.C. I'm not wild about working vacations, but since this one involves testing out a high-tech radio system in a brand new Cadillac DeVille--complete with built-in seat warmers and back massagers--I'm not complaining.
Two months after its national debut, XM Satellite Radio looks as though it may take off. The service has already signed up 30,000 subscribers. General Motors has invested $120 million and will offer XM as an option in 20 different models, starting with the Cadillac I took for a spin. Sony and others are selling after-market receivers for $300 and up that work in any car. And the subscription price of $10 a month seems pretty affordable.
The first thing to get used to with XM is all the new channels. While you still get regular broadcast stations via antenna, there are 100 XM channels; about a third are commercial free. These stations are transmitted from satellites in geosynchronous orbit, so in theory you could listen to the same station from Seattle to Miami. While the XM offerings include radio versions of network fare like CNBC, ESPN and MTV, there are dozens of original music stations created by XM's staff.
About half an hour into our trip, I find an alternative-rock station that I can groove to. It's called Fred, and it plays songs by Erasure, The Cure, Social Distortion. But wait! Why is my friend switching to that awful techno music? Luckily, we agree on some things. We both like CNN Headline News in small doses and classical music in the evening. We sorely miss National Public Radio (which XM's competitor, Sirius, plans to offer when it launches later this year) but settle for the BBC. And we have a weakness for love songs on "The Heart."
One standout is a nifty talk channel called Buzz XM. Some of XM's homegrown channels sound as canned as the stuff my dentist plays. But the Buzz culls its content from lively AM and FM stations around the country. I especially liked "Food Talk" with host Melinda Lee in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, even with 100 channels to choose from, there were times when nothing good was on. I like acoustic rock and world music, for example, but XM's offerings in these genres often bored me to tears. Although reception was good on highways and in cities--thanks to a network of repeater antennas--a trip to the Catskills took us through several dead patches. And, not surprisingly, there's no reception in tunnels and parking garages.
Still, even with its flaws, XM is off to a great start. And the Caddy's not bad, either.
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