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My weekend with Sirius

More than two years after canceling my subscription, I had a chance to spend a weekend in a rental car with Sirius (which has since merged with XM). It wasn't bad, but it could be so much better.

I canceled my subscription to Sirius more than two years ago, and haven't had much chance to listen to satellite radio since Sirius and XM merged. So this weekend I was happy to I discover that my rental had a Sirius receiver and a package with about 80 stations. I know the company has been struggling lately, so I was curious to hear if the service had improved.

I was pleasantly surprised. The annoying DJs who talked between every song have been scaled way back, although they still talk more often than I'd like. The programming is more eclectic than I remember--Boneyard (classic hard rock and metal) and Little Steven's Underground Garage (well-curated rock and punk) turned me on to some killer music I'd never heard before, like BeBop Deluxe and the Purple Hearts, and the Grateful Dead are always welcome when cruising through redwood groves to the beach. I also forgot how much I missed those moments of serendipity that radio sometimes provides--listening to my own music collection on an MP3 player guarantees I'll always hear music I like, but it leaves very little room for hearing the first notes of Eric Burdon's "San Franciscan Nights" just as the city's skyline appears in the distance.

But I still didn't like it well enough to consider re-subscribing, even for only $7 a month. Here's why:

Quality of service. The service dropped out pretty frequently, and it wasn't like I was deep in the wilderness--just driving through the mountains south and west of Silicon Valley. There's also something strange about the sound quality itself, perhaps too much compression? No matter how loud I turned it up, it didn't sound full enough. Playing with the EQ didn't help either. The FM radio sounded better.

Repetition. I spent about three hours in the car each day on Friday and Saturday, and by Sunday I was already hearing repeats! It was fun hearing the Who's "The Good's Gone" and Art Brut's "Alcoholics Unanimous" on the radio, but do I really need to hear them twice in two days?

Safety. I know my musical tastes are a bit off-center, but with the exception of the Underground Garage and XMU, the selection of tunes was pretty safe major label stuff. Not much independent music, no local acts, and nothing too far out. One of the best radio experiences I've ever had was driving through a blighted part of San Jose last year and stumbling across a half hour of soft noise (if you can imagine that) and feedback on KFJC. Surely with so many stations, Sirius could devote one to way-out music like Sun Ra and early Zappa+Mothers and Fantomas.

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