Split decision

Which is superior: XM or Sirus? It depends on your musical tastes

The one thing that has been consistently correct in the excessive media speculation about Howard Stern's move to Sirius' satellite radio service is this: Radio will never be the same, simply because Stern will bring legitimacy - and thousands of subscribers - to satellite radio. We all know that terrestrial radio is a cesspool of corrupt, corporate playlists geared solely toward appealing to demographic subsets rather than music lovers. Ready and waiting, Sirius and XM offer excellent alternatives. At last, the idea of satellite radio has shifted from gadget-geek fetish to must-have audio equipment. And though Sirius has been the biggest beneficiary of Stern's proclamations, both companies stand to benefit. To date, XM has cleaned Sirius' clock in terms of subscriber numbers, so a little healthy competition should be great for consumers.

(Photo illustration by Julie Barnett)

According to Forbes.com, XM reported that it had 3.2 million subscribers by the end of December 2004, compared to Sirius' 1.1 million during the same period.

Beyond that analysis, recent reportage on and reviews of the two satellite radio services have been somewhat lacking. Focusing mainly (and correctly) on how either one of the services is so much better than the FM dial, the pieces I've read have presented Sirius' $12.95/month subscription and XM's $9.99/month subscription as much the same in regard to the content available. Both have 60-plus commercial-free music channels. Both offer about 50 additional talk, sports, and entertainment channels. Both are awesome. But there are some real differences - beyond the three bucks a month - that could help listeners decide which service fits their tastes.

After listening to and comparing Sirius and XM over several months, it became clear that there are two different music-programming philosophies at work. Sirius is more reminiscent of traditional radio with playlists that are smaller than XM's but still way bigger than anything on FM, and Sirius is more consistent in tone. XM's channels are more free-form, and you're more likely to be surprised by what song pops up next: Sometimes this is good, often it's jarring. For instance, both services have a nominal new wave station. XM's is (stupidly) called Fred. Tagged as "an audio history of alternative music," it sounds like a circa-1980s college radio station, on which you can easily hear The Alarm, Stiff Little Fingers, Pixies, and Bronski Beat consecutively, with Morrissey, Kraftwerk, and Animotion filling up the half-hour. (Speaking of Bronski Beat, that group and Erasure are played so often on Fred that I thought it was the gay station. It's not, but it is way gayer than any college radio DJ I ever knew.) Diverse? Yes. Whiplash-inducing inconsistent? Oh, yeah. Sirius, on the other hand, has First Wave, a channel with about 80 percent Top 40 new wave songs (Thomas Dolby, Flock of Seagulls, Duran Duran) and about 20 percent well-regarded obscurities (Total Coelo, Talk Talk).

Similarly, Sirius features Jam On, a jam-band station that plays lots of Phish, Grateful Dead, etc. This is fine if you like that sort of thing, but XM's Musiclab, theoretically their jam-band station, is much more of a prog-rock cornucopia than a pure Deadhead extravaganza. I've heard PFM, Area, and tons of other obscure space-cadets; unfortunately and in keeping with XM's no-consistency rule, they're often followed by Widespread Panic. So First Wave and Jam On are much more consistent than Fred and Music Lab, but they're a lot less adventurous.

The same could be said of the rest of Sirius' programming, especially their rock channels. But in this case, less adventurous isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sirius created a solid, listenable batch of stations that go exponentially deeper into catalog material than any FM station would dare, so you hear plenty of songs that you wouldn't otherwise. But Sirius designed their stations so that they're listenable for more than a few songs at a time. In contrast, XM generally takes a scattershot approach, allowing songs into the playlists that often barely fit the channel's criteria. This makes for more unpredictable radio as programmed by obsessive music lovers, but it means that you're going to hear a lot of Faster Pussycat B-sides on XM's hair-metal station. Which is cool for total hair-metal fiends, but they're not going to get much out of the other 50 music stations on offer.

This philosophical divide is what really separates the two services when it comes to the musical formats they share and excel at - classic rock, alternative rock, hip-hop, country and pop. Yet, although they both meticulously subdivide their rock and pop stations into appropriate micro-genres and sound eras, when it comes to R&B, Sirius and XM are sloppy with their programming, with five stations (as opposed to rock's dozen-plus on either service) representing the last 50 years of soul music. Similarly, all classical music is represented by three stations (pops, symphony, opera) on each service, while jazz gets roughly divided into "real" jazz and fusion. Same story with non-Western music; both carry reggae, Latin, and world stations (and XM has a specifically African one), but none of them is as deep or as diverse as it could be.

Both have pros and cons when it comes to their talk line-ups: XM has more news, including the BBC World Service and its own public radio line-up featuring Bob Edwards; Sirius boasts three NPR stations and two each of liberal and conservative talk stations, but their only BBC service is BBC's news channel.

More importantly, the two services offer unique stations that present music that wouldn't be heard on any FM format. On Sirius, for instance, there's an all-Elvis channel and one just for down-tempo electronica. With XM, the always-awake U-Pop supplies the saccharin that clogs up other nations' charts, while Unsigned is the ultimate in obscurata. On Sirius, the premier exclusive channel is Underground Garage, curated by Little Steven, with a cast of DJs that includes Kim Fowley and Andrew Loog Oldham. Those familiar with these names know what the station plays - everything from Johnny Horton and early Rolling Stones to The 13th Floor Elevators and The Mooney Suzuki. It's an incredible station for true rock 'n' roll and its basic, brash offshoots of garage rock, punk, and psychedelia. I've heard songs I didn't know, but never a song I hated.

To a large degree, Sirius and XM are quite similar in the way that they make available (for a monthly fee) a formerly inconceivable amount of excellent music and choice, the likes of which will never surface on Clear Channel or Infinity stations. But when faced with the prospect of choosing one over the other, here's the rub: Sirius is more mainstream and easier to enjoy, XM can be frustrating but far more exciting. Which describes what you want radio to be?

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