I bought into the idea of satellite radio quite early, right around the time I moved to Atlanta in 1999. Often what brings us to try new technologies is the recommendation of others, but I didn’t need one for this, because satellite radio seemed like a no-brainer — commercial radio at the time was awful (maybe it still is, but who listens anymore?), I was living in a place where I couldn’t get consistent NPR, I missed the bluegrass and community programming on WAMU — and then this New Thing came along.
From the start, I was an XM loyalist, and not just because I knew several people who worked at their headquarters in DC (although that was part of it — and I loved the company’s roots in the District itself, where they outfitted studios in a then-ratty neighborhood off New York Avenue NE before it was obvious to everyone else that the gentrification of that part of DC would actually work). XM was the purist’s choice; in their founding narrative, which I’m sure was more than a little true, they amassed a stupefying collection of recordings, hired the world’s best music curators and on-air talent, and set out to make something worth our loyalty, in response to the appalling field of steaming manure that commercial radio had become in the ClearChannel era. Sirius, by way of contrast, always felt like a naked money play.
So XM raised a stunning amount of money (there were satellites involved, after all — and if I recall correctly, one of the early ones went off course toward Mars or fell into the sea or something, and they had to build a new one — I’m sure it’s on the Internet, you can look it up), and over the next several years, they stumbled in the direction of profitability without ever quite losing their soul. I remained a subscriber for 8 years (!), upgrading my radio once or twice. I’m no music snob — I’m not even that much of a connoisseur — but there’s music I just plain like that you can’t hear on commercial radio and that’s too much work to steal off the Internet or rip from CDs. And besides, part of the point of radio has always been that an intelligent editor programs it for you, at least in theory, so that you can learn about things you’ll like but wouldn’t have found otherwise. Services like Pandora achieve a similar aim in a different way, but I find they require too much thinking to make me happy.
With XM, I was able to indulge my love of legitimate bluegrass, and dance and electronica, and even (to my secret shame) kickass Nashville country music. (Anyone who doesn’t like Kenny Chesney after listening to this or this, or Tim McGraw after this, or Trisha Yearwood after this, needs their head examined.) I bought multiple boomboxes and accessories so I could listen in the car and at home and especially in my bookstore (Peachtree Highway Books, in Atlanta’s Candler Park, 2002-2004, R.I.P.), where I spent most of my waking hours for two years. (Yes, XM, I was an occasional terms-of-service violator, as were many, many other intown Atlanta small businesses in those exciting entrepreneurial years.)
When I moved briefly to Little Rock in 2003-4, I discovered other XM loyalists among my friends. So apparently it wasn’t just me! We traded tips and occasionally even shared equipment. XM kept me company on those long, long drives from Atlanta to Little Rock (usually with an overnight in Tupelo). And in 2005-6, as friends and I founded BusyTonight in New York and tried hard to make a go of our technology business, XM was one of the things that kept me sane during that turbulent period.
I ended up canceling my XM for a combination of cost reasons and lack of use — for a period of several months, I just wasn’t home much, in that way you can get in a city like New York before you get your grownup footing. But now I’m feeling the hankering. Among other things, I feel the lack of editorially programmed bluegrass in my life, and the podcasts I listen to aren’t doing it for me. So I think I’m going to resubscribe. I just passed four hours on JetBlue in the past 24 hours with satellite radio playing in my ears continuously — and I like it. I was worried that the Sirius/XM merger would wreck everything, but most of my old favorite channels are still there, so it’s time to give it another try.