Tornadoes were touching down all over Iowa, but I wouldn't have guessed it from listening to satellite radio. Outside, boiling up on both sides of Interstate 80, black prairie thunderheads sizzled with greenish lightning. Inside my car the only sound was that of an E! Entertainment biography of celebrity rock-widow Courtney Love. I reached for the dial and turned to CNN, then Fox, then NPR. But because all the news was national rather than local, not a single voice I came across could tell me that the town near the next exit--where I'd reserved a motel room for the night--was being shredded at that very moment by winds of over 180 m.p.h. I switched to a channel devoted to Old Skool Rap, which normally can't be enjoyed in western Iowa, and tapped my left foot as the roofs were blown off houses only a couple of miles away.
When I bought a new car equipped with Sirius satellite radio, I had no idea how the technology would alter my sense of the passing American landscape. With its clear, unvarying signal, which seems to arrive from a spot beyond the moon, and its vast profusion of music, news and talk shows, the medium places you at the center of everything, even when you're in the middle of nowhere. The problem is that the center of everything is not an actual, inhabitable place but a floating media mirage, an invisible digital bubble of information located somewhere in the fifth dimension. Having passed through the canyonlands of Utah while listening to Caribbean pop and having crossed the Black Hills of South Dakota immersed in a disco channel called the Strobe, I feel after a year of nonstop driving (50,000 miles in all) that I haven't, in fact, gone anywhere except deeper and deeper inside my radio.
It used to feel different out there on the road. Until just recently I measured my progress on cross-country driving trips by the rise and fall of radio signals that strengthened as I approached a town and fuzzed away as I entered the countryside. The airwaves were jumpy, uncertain and alive, a patchwork of distinctive accents and peculiar regional interests. I knew I was getting close to Texas from the twang of steel guitars. I realized I might reach Omaha by suppertime when I started hearing crop reports. Often, when I was traveling through North Dakota, the only voices I could hear spoke in Native American languages, whose singsong tones, though I found them unintelligible, eased the loneliness of the long, straight highways.
The character of those conventional radio signals responded to the weather and time of day in a way that satellite transmissions don't. Late at night, if the skies were clear enough to make out every star in the Big Dipper, the empty spaces on my AM dial would suddenly and mysteriously fill up with broadcasts from a thousand miles away. Minneapolis' WCCO, the powerful station that I grew up listening to and whose chuckling, easygoing announcers shaped my identity as a Minnesotan, reached out to me late one evening in eastern Washington as I sat parked on the shoulder of a state highway waiting for a tow from AAA. I felt grateful for that little miracle, then desolate when those hometown announcers faded back to static.