XM vs. Sirius: Endless Options Narrow to One

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006

You've had it with the disappearance of musical variety on the radio. You spend all too many hours in the car and you'd like one source for sophisticated music choices, a range of news and talk, comedy, audiobooks, kids' programming, and as full a menu of sports as cable TV offers. You're finally ready to shell out $13 a month for what used to be free.

But you can't tell the difference between the Coke and Pepsi of the satellite radio business, Washington-based XM and New York-based Sirius.

I've spent the past four months with both services in my car and house, listening to just about all of the two companies' combined 300 channels. Conclusion: Like colas, satellite services do differ, if subtly. Depending on your interests and how you use radio, one satellite service will be right for you. Both services offer an enormous amount of great stuff and also lots of mediocre programming.

Despite the considerable overlap in programming, a handful of distinctions are so clear that you can base your decision entirely on them. Baseball fan: XM. Football nut: Sirius. Movie maven: XM. Howard Stern addict: Sirius. Bob Dylan freak: XM. NPR lover: Sirius.

If movie soundtracks are your kind of music, XM is the only service with a channel dedicated to those sounds, including long-form profiles and interviews with composers such as Danny Elfman and Randy Newman. On the other hand, if you want Playboy Radio or Korean-language programming, Sirius is your only choice.

Sirius has the only all-gay channel; XM, the only black talk channel.

As both services reach beyond the early adopters to capture a mainstream audience, they are looking to big-name celebrities to win new subscribers.

Sirius has staked its future on the uncensored Stern, while XM counters with bad boys Opie and Anthony. XM has built its version of public radio around former NPR "Morning Edition" host Bob Edwards; Sirius doesn't offer original programming of that kind, but does have the real thing, two channels of shows produced by NPR.

XM has signed Bob Dylan, Oprah Winfrey and Snoop Dogg as celebrity hosts. Sirius's stars include Martha Stewart, Deepak Chopra, Judith Regan and Mark Cuban.

But while both services vie for big names, the main attraction on XM (6.9 million subscribers) and Sirius (4.7 million) is the music. The tunes are often similar; how they're presented is the difference.

In their original visions, the competitors touted a world of musical choice unfathomable on FM radio; they promised all the formats that listeners enjoyed before corporate consolidation so greatly narrowed the kinds of tunes available on free radio, plus lots of niche formats never before heard on the air.

Sadly, however, that vision yielded to a more mainstream approach. And some of satellite's early experiments have already been pulled down from the bird. Both XM and Sirius killed their world music channels, eclectic mixes of tunes from every continent.

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