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XM – The End of an Era

Submitted by on January 27, 2009 – 10:01 pm | 2,590 views

Several years ago, I found myself in the position of owning an automobile that hailed from an era where tape decks were luxury items and most drivers were lucky if their in-car entertainment consisted of both AM and FM bands instead of just the hum of the tires against the asphalt.

Naturally, given the low-rent characteristics of the vehicle – it had been purchased as cheap winter transportation, although it was later converted into a fire-breathing sleeper-mobile – I was reluctant to invest too much money into a stereo system.

At first I made do with a portable MP3 player and a terribly inaccurate FM transmitter, but this was stolen during a smash and grab whilst the car was parked outside of my loft. Forced into reviewing my musical options, I made the plunge into the shiny new world of satellite radio.

In Canada, where I was living at the time, satellite radio had not yet been approved by our regulatory agency, the CRTC, which controls all television and radio broadcasts within the country. This meant that I had to make use of my American address to avail myself of a gray market XM account. The slick little device clipped onto my heater vent and used a powerful built-in transmitter to link up with my early 80’s FM head unit.

It didn’t take long for me to fall in love. XM had dedicated DJ’s who labored tirelessly, putting together excellent sets filled with tracks that were rarely if ever played on the tired terrestrial radio formats that had caused me to give up on that form of broadcasting. As someone who had been very active in college radio, I could appreciate the deep playlists, as well as the specialty channels devoted to old school hip hop and trance. That the entire thing was also commercial-free was a definite plus, and the monthly fee was low enough to be almost negligible.

There was simply no way to duplicate the breadth of musical offerings provided by my XM account, and I became an overnight evangelist for satellite radio. Soon enough, my friends and family were the recipients of accounts for birthdays and Christmas, and I spent many a happy road trip flipping back and forth between excellent tunes and NHL play-by-play.

It was with great sadness this past Fall that I received notification via email that what I had long feared as a result of the XM / Sirius merger had finally come to pass. Sirius took the lead role in the combined company’s programming and overnight 80% of my favorite musical channels had been wiped off the digital dial. Most of these had no replacement, with electronic music and hip hop suffering the most.

A few new rock stations appeared, but after a week of listening it became clear that the new entity that had absorbed both satellite competitors could not match the depth of XM’s previous playlists. Repeats abounded, as did single-artist channels that played nothing but AC/DC, Metallica, or Led Zeppelin 24 hours a day – kind of like a CD changer stuck on repeat.

There was of course an uproar amongst subscribers, but with little other option than to cancel our accounts, our hands were tied. XM and Sirius had made their decision to homogenize a large portion of their content in an effort to entice a demographic that was far more similar to listeners standard terrestrial services than the eclectic mix that had attracted me in the first place. That their executives talked openly of this decision and derided special interest ‘music snobs’ in the media only served to rub salt in the wound.

After careful consideration I decided that I wasn’t interested in paying for what essentially amounted to format-driven radio that I could get for free over the airwaves. I canceled my account and decided to move to an all-MP3 car stereo setup. After about a month of research, I ended up moving to the dark side and purchase a Microsoft Zune. I’ve detailed my experiences with the Zune in another post.

I regret no longer having access to the vast musical world that XM once offered me, and I pine for the chance to hear my favorite hockey announcers call a game while I am driving somewhere late at night. However, I know that what I really miss is something that I can never have again, as the XM that I knew and loved has been put out to pasture.

Has anyone else experienced the same sad satellite radio withdrawal that I have?

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