Technology that has brought high-definition (HD) and satellite radio transmissions is making waves in the audio world.
By Terri Blazell
There are 56 different varieties of chicken soup at the grocery store; Alpo boasts 43 different flavors of dog food (none with the word “cat” in it); and my TV remote has a grand total of 70 tiny, illegible buttons on it. The last bastion of simplicity seemed to be the lowly radio “” our one solace in a world that has given us more choices but has grown infinitely more complicated because of it. And now radio, too, has succumbed to the modern world. These days you have more decisions to make than what station to listen to and how loud you want to hear it. The newest digital invasion includes high definition (HD) radio and satellite radio. So, what does all of this mean for radio listeners?
The first thing you need to know is that your regular radio works just fine. If you only listen to the radio to pick up the local traffic conditions and catch a favorite tune or two, and you don’t mind a few commercials in between, you can breathe easier. That hasn’t changed yet, but it probably will.
HD radio is a new type of radio that receives digital signals rather than analog. It works just like your current radio with three advantages: improved sound quality, greater variety of stations, and commercial-free programs. Radio stations that use the new technology transmit what is called a “bundled signal,” both analog (standard radio) and digital. An older radio picks up the analog signal, and a new HD radio picks up both the digital and analog signals.
Since radio signals bounce off objects, this can affect your reception, causing static and interference. With an HD radio receiver, the digital signal is sorted through and broadcast as it should be without static. The quality of sound is greatly improved; FM stations are CD-quality clear and AM stations sound like FM. However, you will need a new set. Standard radios can’t pick up HD signals.
The digital signal also allows extra information to be broadcast, such as streaming text that provides song titles, artists’ names, traffic reports, and stock information. In addition, a radio station may be broadcasting two or even three separate programs from the same signal. From a single station, you can tune to HD-1, HD-2, or HD-3. For example, if your favorite station happens to be 102.7, HD-1 broadcasts the original station programming complete with commercials and disc jockeys, just like you’d hear on your analog set. Switch to HD-2 and country music may come pouring out of your set. Switch again to HD-3 and it could be classical music, all from 102.7. This doubles and even triples the amount of programs compared to what you currently receive on a standard analog radio. To interest people in purchasing the new radios, many radio stations have committed to providing the HD-2 and HD-3 stations commercial-free and DJ-free “” music only “” for the next few years.
The new HD radios will also pick up standard analog broadcasts, so if your local station hasn’t gone HD yet, you can still receive it. This is called “hybrid mode,” and while there are no plans in the immediate future, eventually “” like the 8-track and the telegram “” the standard analog radio could become obsolete as more and more radio stations convert to transmitting digitally.
Currently, it costs approximately $100,000 for a radio station to convert to digital. While this is a drop in the bucket for major stations, there are thousands of small, independent stations that may never have the capital to make the switch. Analog radio receivers are safe for now, but the new HD radios definitely increase your program options.
Other than the purchase of a new radio “” be it a tabletop unit, in-dash radio, or a tuner to convert an existing in-dash stereo, options that could cost anywhere from $200 to $400 “” no additional fees are associated with HD radio. It is broadcast publicly across the same airwaves as your current radio stations. More than 900 radio stations across the U.S. are broadcasting digitally. This is expected to increase to more than 1,200 stations, covering 90 percent of the U.S. population, by the end of 2006. Since this is broadcast radio, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) still regulates its content, which is not the case with satellite radio.
It is important to note that unlike the switch to HD television, the switch to HD radio is not federally mandated. If you choose not to upgrade your radio, you’ll still be able to listen to analog AM and FM. It won’t be eradicated by the feds like analog TV.
Satellite radio is just as it sounds. Earthbound broadcasters send their feeds up to satellites, which then send the signals all over the United States, wherever there is a compatible receiver. To receive satellite radio programming, you must purchase a satellite-ready radio and then buy a subscription, similar to cable or digital television. As noted previously, the FCC does not monitor satellite radio, so it is “no holds barred” programming. However, channel blocking is available, and channels that offer explicit language programming are labeled as such.
Satellite digital audio radio service “” satellite radio “” has only been around since 1992, when the FCC established certain segments of radio frequency specifically for broadcasting from a satellite. The two major service providers, XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio, won the licenses to use these channels. XM launched two satellites in 2001, aptly named “Rock” and “Roll,” which (for the scientific-minded) remain in parallel geostationary orbit to provide radio coverage throughout the United States. Eight hundred repeaters on the ground deliver the signal to subscribers from coast to coast. Sirius Satellite Radio launched three satellites in an inclined elliptical orbit, each providing 16 hours of overlapping signal. Both companies have spare satellites in case of a main satellite failure. XM has full coverage in the United States, Canada, and parts of Mexico. Sirius is available in the United States and Canada but is not in Mexico yet.
You must own a satellite-ready radio receiver to subscribe to the programming. Many equipment options are available to meet your needs, wherever you are. XM offers simple plug-and-play satellite radios that can be connected to your RV’s 12-volt-DC outlet and played over your stereo. Small, portable hand-held radios can be worn on your hip or plugged into your RV’s stereo. Both require no professional help and take only about 10 minutes to install. You can opt for professional installation of an XM/AM/FM car stereo head unit that fits seamlessly into your dashboard or premium navigation systems by Garmin, Pioneer, and Alpine that receive XM Satellite Radio. Prices range from as little as $60 to as much as $900. (Sirius could not be reached for input on this article.)
Now, what does it mean to you, especially as an RVer? To start with, you have many more choices. As noted, all of them will cost you something. HD involves only the cost of a new radio; there are no subscription fees. Satellite involves some initial equipment expenses and requires a monthly subscription fee. Whether it’s HD or satellite radio, you gain access to many more programs, and both of them boast that they offer commercial-free options for now. With HD, you still have to be in range of a radio tower to pick up any of the channels, and once you are out of range, you will need to find a different local station to listen to. However, HD radio will provide more localized weather and traffic reports. Satellite radio will go with you wherever you go, so if you are a fan of a particular type of music or radio personality, then you will almost always be able to tune in as you travel.
Both satellite radio companies offer a limited assortment of their programs through the Internet and satellite TV stations. Sirius is available through Dish Network Satellite TV, and XM is broadcast through DirecTV. Some regular radio stations provide their programming over the Internet as well as over the air.
Choosing between XM and Sirius can prove a little more challenging. They cost about the same, and they both have about the same number of programs. Which one you choose may come down to the motorhome or car you drive, or the type of sports fan you happen to be.
XM Radio is featured in Toyota, Infiniti/Nissan, GM, and Honda. Sirius is featured in BMW, Daimler/Chrysler, and Ford. RV manufacturers are also getting on board with satellite radio. Sirius Satellite Radio seems to dominate the RV market. Winnebago Industries makes it standard in some coaches and optional in others. Both Tiffin and Mandalay offer Sirius as an option, while Alfa and Fleetwood include it as standard on some of their coaches. Others may have already joined in; ask your dealer when shopping for a new coach. (Remember, though, that they still require a subscription.)
If you are a fan of Howard Stern, the NFL, or the NBA, Sirius Satellite is for you. If you prefer NASCAR, Major League Baseball, or soccer, then XM may be the way to go. Both also share around 30 common programs, including ESPN, Radio Disney, Fox News, and Talk Radio.
Several Web sites can be helpful in making your decision are available. For more information about HD radio, visit www.hdradio.com. A good, unbiased Web site that compares XM and Sirius is www.satelliteradiousa.com. The satellite stations can be explored individually at their respective sites: www.sirius.com and www.xmradio.com.
Craig and Lori Weeder, F268352, are full-timers who had an XM Satellite Radio subscription for a year while they traveled about in their motorhome. They found it quite entertaining on long road trips, especially in areas where local signals could not be picked up. Their RVing habits have since changed, and now they find themselves driving less and spending more time parked in established areas where local radio stations are available. The local stations are meeting their needs for now, and they have dropped their satellite subscription.
Sue and Bob Conant, F284979, are nearly full-time RVers who had Sirius Satellite Radio in a previous coach. While they enjoyed it very much, they reported minor fading when going under bridges or in heavily wooded areas. Their new motorhome does not receive it, but they pick up a limited number of the stations through their satellite TV system and are quite content with that. However, Sue did say that if they could not get the stations through their satellite TV, then they would subscribe to satellite radio again in a heartbeat.
David and Pat Vaughn, F223100, and George and Helga Dumas, F110246, have XM radio, and both couples are quite happy with it. David said that he wishes he could receive National Public Radio (NPR) with it, and he also shared that CNN, Fox, and most of the 24-hour TV news stations run voice-overs through part of the broadcasts, including their promotions (another word for advertising). He finds this annoying. George has been an XM fan since it first came out and is very happy with it. To quote him, “The biggest plus for a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan “” every single game, no matter where we are!”
All four couples report that there have only been minor reasons to contact customer service and that they were taken care of politely and quickly.
The bottom line is, if you are happy with your radio now, you don’t have to do a thing. Eventually, though, either out of necessity or interest in something new, you may find yourself shopping for a new radio system. This article is intended to provide some clarity, but keep in mind that in the ever-changing world of electronic wonders, information may be obsolete even by the time you read it.