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XM: Music from Above


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
July 9, 2007

Last summer, I wrote about radio "personalities;" this summer I thought that I would write about radio itself with a focus on music rather than talk. It is somewhat miraculous that radio is still with us in any form. Although I was not around to witness it, television initially had a devastating effect on radio as many of its biggest shows moved to television and took their audiences with them. Radio, however, evolved and became fitter than ever, at least until Clear Channel and Viacom (with the aid of Congress and the FTC) homogenized what is now known as terrestrial radio, as distinct from the satellite and internet versions that I will discuss.

My first exposure to XM radio was late last fall when I purchased a car that included it bundled with other amenities. I have always found car audio to be an iffy proposition because ambient noise combined with the inherent physical limitations of an automobile interior make for an inferior listening environment. For terrestrial radio signals there is the added complication that a moving vehicle presents a challenge for adequate reception of all but the strongest signals. Car radios willingly sacrifice sound quality (and stereo separation, in particular), in order to maintain the perception of a continuous signal from stations with weak signals.

Across the board, XM radio sounds better in a car than terrestrial radio, but not as good as most onboard digital audio sources, such as CDs and properly connected MP3 players. Where I travel a few places pose a reception problem and only because hills interrupt the line of sight to the satellites. Where XM excels is not in the quality of its sound but in the variety of its offerings and the general absence of commercial interruptions. (The paucity of commercials, however, comes at the price of a monthly subscription fee.)

While it is easy to argue about the way that XM has divided music up into individual channels, there is still a lot more on the XM dial than one could find at the best reception points in America's top radio markets. The "Decades" channels are the easiest to locate at the low end of the XM dial and cover each decade from the 40s to the 90s. I tend to skip the 50s and 90s, but the others are good for a cheap thrill.

I listen to the 60s channel the most. It is notable for fairly uniform coverage of the decade even though most people think of the decade as beginning musically with the Beatles in 1964. This is a mixed blessing because singing nuns and second-rate teen idols should just as well be forgotten. Worse still, the decades approach to music tends to ignore music that was ahead of its time. You won't hear Nico and the Velvet Underground on 60s channel or most early new wave on the 70s channel.

The interesting things about the 60s channel is that it does not faithfully reproduce the 60s experience because the sound quality is (in some sense) too good despite the relative small amount of bandwidth that is dedicated to this channel. Like most of my contemporaries, I originally heard most of the tunes on AM stations on either cheap transistor radios or primitive car radios. Until FM stereo radio began to lure music away from AM in the early 1970s, recording engineers mixed records so that they would sound best on noisy, low bandwidth AM. The same music remixed for CD and broadcast either over XM or over what few good FM stations are left not only sounds differ, but also a bit weird, possibly because it is subject to a different form of compression than the "original."

Decades is merely the first of over a dozen XM categories. The most curious category is "Lifestyle," a term that I associate with self-indulgent assholes. This category contains Hear Music, which is supposedly the live feed that goes to Starbucks stores, as well as Fine Tuning, which is an eclectic mix of the "world's most interesting music." I have Fine Tuning on in the background as I write this and currently they are playing William Orbit's rendition of the "Triple Concerto," which sounds more like new-age lounge music than Beethoven. Overall, Fine Tunings is a musical soporific, what you might expect from Starbucks if they served 'ludes instead of coffee.

The largest category (and my favorite for just driving around) is "Rock." The core "alternative" stations are named after "I Love Lucy" characters—Fred, Ethel, and Lucy. (What happened to Ricky?) They play a good mix of standards and more obscure tracks. Last night, I heard the Camper Van Beethoven rendition of "Pictures of Matchstick Men," something I hadn't heard in years.

Sometimes it is fun to pick a random station and just listen to it for a while. I spent a good part of a Sunday afternoon listening to Sur la Route, the Quebec French-language pop station. Apparently, contemporary French pop music is late 60s/early 70s American singer/songwriter music with French lyrics.

XM has more than music. It is has plenty of talk, but I rarely listen to that. As one might expect, I do listen to CNBC and Bloomberg for financial "news," but only when there is a good reason to do so. XM Golf, one of many sports channels, is clearly the soundtrack for one of the deeper circles of hell. The comedy channels are not bad. When sufficiently bored, I listen to Laugh USA, a G-rated station that has lots of old Cosby, Nichols and May, Newhart, Steve Martin as well as the handful of newer comics who don't use words like "asshole." XM has several explicit language (XL) channels, but I rarely listen to them. I'm not a prude, it's just that musicians and comics often turn to obscenity to compensate for an underlying lack of talent.

The weakest XM offerings are in the "Pop" category. Their main pop offering is U-Pop, which is rebroadcast from somewhere in Europe and is more trash than pop. If there is a channel that does only "catchy" music, I have yet to locate it. Maybe if Phil Spector gets off, XM can hire him to do a real Pop channel.

XM's classical offerings are sparse, but they do have my absolute favorite channel of all of radio, including terrestrial and Internet, which is XM Classics. XM Classics is basically an NPR classical radio done right. The only "sponsor" is XM, which means no pledge breaks. The program director and main announcer, Martin Goldsmith, is a guy who was too good for public radio. XM Classics is a little heavy on warhorses, which should really reside over on XM Pops, but otherwise provides an excellent mix of classical music with only a dash of modern offerings and few of the syndicated programs that litter the typical public radio classical station. (And, of course, none of the Dux bed commercials on WQXR.) XM Classics greatest virtue is its seamlessness. Public radio classical stations are usually programmed in one-hour chunks that often begin with a short five-minute piece that can be easily replaced with news. Except for the occasional syndicated programming in the evenings, XM Classics just flows.

I rarely listen to XM Classics in my car, however. One of the benefits of being an XM subscriber is a free subscription to XM Radio Online, which has a line-up that overlaps XM's satellite offerings and is available as a reasonable quality feed over the Internet. With the aid of Wi-Fi, I have XM Classics piped to my study and bedroom.

There is a lot more to Internet radio, especially of the classical variety, than XM and I will cover that next time.

Copyright 2007 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to