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.

XM excised channels for cool cocktail lounge sounds, African pop and a free-form mix of exotica from across the decades. Sirius silenced channels featuring swing jazz, baroque classics, and tropical and calypso music.

Still, what remains is a selection far beyond what free radio offers. Both services have stations dedicated to the pop music of each decade from the 1950s to the '80s; XM adds the '40s and '90s. XM's decade channels sound like radio stations from those eras; it's a fun, cartoonish approach in which Top 40 hits are mixed in with old commercials, bits from TV shows, and deejays who adopt the style of the time they're re-creating. Sirius does a little of that but generally opts for a more contemporary, serious sound.

What Sirius lacks in fun, it makes up for in the quality and intelligence of its deejays.

XM subscribes to more of a jukebox model, providing long sets of uninterrupted music on many channels. The theory is that since song and artist names appear on satellite receivers' displays, most listeners just want the tunes, thanks. On Sirius's more highbrow channels, especially, announcers provide more background about the music than do the deejays on similar XM channels.

I've heard great storytelling about artists and their music on Sirius from pioneering New York rock deejay Vin Scelsa, whose "Idiot's Delight" is a rare satellite show that feels alive and intimate. Legendary jazz jock Les Davis and folk and rock host Meg Griffin also do shows that hark back to the era of deejay as tastemaker, educator and entertainer.

XM has compelling deejays, too, such as Jonathan Schwartz, the dean of American pop standards; and two voices who once defined D.C. classical radio, Martin Goldsmith and Robert Aubry Davis.

But Sirius gives its deejays more time to shine -- and more to fail, too.

For all the smart stuff you hear from jocks on Sirius's jazz and classical channels, the banter on its pop channels sounds just as inane as on too many FM hits stations.

In general, if you're looking to hear new music and understand where it fits in, Sirius is the place. If you'd rather the jocks let the music do the talking, XM's for you.

Here are more distinctions, by category of programming:


Both services devote a disproportionate number of channels to various forms of rock, and both slice the niches awfully thin (is a channel playing nothing but '80s hair bands really necessary?). Sirius (19 rock channels) dedicates some channels entirely to one artist -- there's 24/7 Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and Jimmy Buffett, though Buffett's channel stretches to include similar artists. And Sirius has more channels devoted to soft rock, love songs and what used to be called beautiful music. Sirius's cool exclusive: Super Shuffle, which appeals to the iPod generation by switching randomly among all genres of popular music. XM's background music channel, programmed by Starbucks, features music heard in the coffee shops. Some aficionados say XM's rockers (14 channels) go deeper into the archives, playing more surprises than you'll hear on Sirius. Edge: XM .


Sirius is heavy on hip-hop, with four channels, including one that serves as a clubhouse for performers who leave no word unspoken, no accusation against their rivals unhurled. XM -- which has two channels of contemporary hip-hop and one of classic hip-hop -- does a much better job with old-school sounds, offering three channels of black hits from decades past. The legendary Washington deejay Bobby "The Mighty Burner" Bennett is the voice of XM's "Soul Street," a terrific trip back to the soul stations of the '60s and '70s.

Edge: XM .


Both services have surprisingly limited choices of classical music. Though each service offers separate channels for symphonic sounds, voice and pops, chamber music gets short shrift, as do contemporary classical compositions. XM, reflecting its devotion to live broadcasts and concerts, has a more interesting selection of full-length performances, while Sirius generally offers more daring and edgy choices. Sirius carries NPR's fine classical programs, including "Performance Today" and "SymphonyCast," which are no longer heard on Washington's talk-oriented public stations. XM counters with "Exploring Music," hosted by Bill McGlaughlin (long-time host of public radio's riveting "St. Paul Sunday") and Davis's weekly focus on early music, "Millennium of Music." Edge: Sirius .


Both services have channels for classic jazz, fusion and contemporary sounds, and the background music known on FM as smooth jazz. XM's fusion channel sounds more like a jazz station circa 1978, while Sirius's plays more current electrified jazz. XM's straight-ahead channel is the better place to pick up on new artists, while Sirius shows greater range, from New Orleans through bebop all the way to today's players. In addition, both have channels of blues and American standards (Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé). Sirius oddly lumps a channel of New Age and ambient sound (Enya, Yanni, Ottmar Liebert) into its jazz category. Edge: Sirius .


A weak spot for both services. News is the most expensive programming to produce; as a result, neither XM nor Sirius has its own news operation.

Rather, both mainly use audio from TV. Both services have similar lineups of CNN, Fox, ABC, BBC World Service and C-SPAN. XM adds MSNBC, while Sirius carries Canadian and European radio services.

TV programming makes for awkward, sometimes infuriating radio, as anchors and reporters refer to visuals that listeners cannot see.

An exclusive contract with National Public Radio gives Sirius a big advantage; its three public radio channels offer fine news and talk shows not heard on Washington's FM public stations.

But the NPR deal prohibits use of the network's flagship shows, "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." XM's single-channel attempt to compete consists of Bob Edwards's excellent hour of interviews and some fine programs from non-NPR producers such as Public Radio International ("This American Life," "Sounds Eclectic.")

Edge: Sirius .


Both have disco, chill, trance and dance hits channels. XM also has a channel for ravers, while Sirius adds nonstop breakbeats and mash-ups on its Boombox channel. XM's disco channel sticks closely to '70s tunes, both the hits and club favorites, while Sirius combines those oldies with '80s dance hits. Most of Sirius's dance channels are hosted by knowledgeable deejays; XM's are almost entirely nonstop music. Edge: XM .


Today's hits, classic cuts and the real gritty stuff -- both services offer the basic flavors. Sirius's music choices are often more creative and surprising. Sirius adds Outlaw Country, where Fred Imus (Don's brother) does a weekend show for honky-tonk lovers, while XM's Willie's Place offers a Willie Nelson-branded selection of classics from the '50s and '60s. Edge: Sirius .


XM broadcasts every single Major League Baseball game all season long, bliss for fans who don't live in their team's home city. There's also an excellent 24/7 baseball talk station. Football isn't much of a radio sport, but Sirius broadcasts every NFL game, as well as the NBA. Both companies have a selection of college hoops and gridiron coverage, but XM has the corner on ACC, Big Ten and Pac-10 games. Both XM and Sirius carry ESPN's talk shows, and both air NHL games. XM adds talk channels from Fox Sports and the Sporting News; Sirius counters with a talk channel that's heavy on golf, wrestling, gambling and poker. Poker: not a radio sport. Edge: XM .


Both services have Radio Disney and each has its own kids' channel. Sirius's is heavy on pop music and TV fare, such as audio from "Sesame Street" and "The Care Bears." Oriented toward the youngest set, the channel has lots of the Raffi and Barney fare that drives parents to reconsider the miracle of childbirth. XM Kids, by contrast, features Kenny Curtis, a veteran of Washington's 1990s experiment in kids' radio, the Radio Zone, on a morning show with running characters, sketches and contests; as well as radio theater, kids' concerts, science shows and a nightly lullaby hour. Edge: XM .


Sirius is trying to carve out an advantage in lifestyle talk with a Martha Stewart home channel, a health channel and stations programmed by Cosmopolitan and Maxim magazines. But the content is largely unlistenable, a nonstop parade of perkiness.

OutQ, Sirius's all-gay channel, is a great idea, but too often I heard club music rather than the talk shows promised in promotions. XM focuses more on advice, with financial experts Bruce Williams and Dave Ramsey, and all-night conspiracy mavens such as Art Bell and George Noory.

Both services feature political talkers from right and left, many of them syndicated hosts available on free radio -- Bill Bennett, the "NRA News" team, Bill Press and Stephanie Miller on Sirius; Dr. Laura, Laura Ingraham, Jerry Springer and Al Franken on XM. And both have channels of Christian talk and shows for truckers.

Since FCC regulations on obscenity don't apply, satellite has become the refuge for the raunch radio of the '90s.

Beyond round-the-clock Stern, Sirius has former Tampa bad boy Bubba the Love Sponge, and XM has added Ron and Fez, late of Washington's WJFK, to its anything-goes talk channel.

Edge: XM .


Of all the programming satellite offers, the comedy channels are the biggest step away from traditional broadcast formats.

Both XM and Sirius have three channels of comedy routines; both have a choice of clean or uncensored stand-up.

Sirius has the channel Blue Collar Comedy (Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy, Kathleen Madigan) while XM devotes a channel to Canadian comedy. (A very high-concept joke? No, the channel exists because XM sells its wares in Canada, where the government insists on a certain amount of Canadian content.)

On its clean, family-oriented channel, XM relies heavily on classic bits (Bill Cosby, Rodney Dangerfield, Jonathan Winters and comics familiar to viewers of "The Ed Sullivan Show" in the 1960s), while Sirius seeks a more contemporary sound by using audio from more recent TV shows ("The Simpsons," "Monty Python's Flying Circus"). On the explicit-language channel, Sirius picks up audio from HBO's "Def Comedy Jam" shows, while XM plays more live appearances recorded at nightclubs in Washington and elsewhere. Sirius's admirable attempt to expand the form fails for the same reason all that TV news audio flops: Too often, you can't see what the joke is about. Sirius's edgier approach means that rather than sticking to stand-up, the channel also plays songs that weren't meant to be funny but are, such as Pat Boone's rendition of "Stairway to Heaven." You need to hear that once in your life. Edge: XM .

My bottom line: My inquiry need go no further than XM = baseball. Otherwise, baseball notwithstanding, I'd miss channels from both services. Your choice -- unless you're that rare person who chooses both -- will depend on your particular passions. Free three-day test drives are available at xmradio.com and sirius.com.

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