By Frank Lanier
Imagine arriving at your favorite anchorage, dropping the hook, firing up the margarita machine and kicking back to your favorite music anywhere in the U.S.A. Regardless of whether you’re anchored in the Chesapeake Bay, Lake Michigan or off Santa Catalina Island, satellite radio promises clear listening wherever you may roam for a monthly fee and provided you stay stateside.
I’ll admit my first reaction to the whole pay-for-radio thing was a little mixed. I had trouble with the idea of ponying up for something I can get for nothing (as undoubtedly many TV viewers once felt), but then I realized the amount of time I wasted listening to commercials or searching for “my kind” of music when I was traveling out of my listening area. Given the growth in satellite and cable TV over the last 20 years, fee-based radio is clearly an option whose time has come, especially for those who choose to cruise beyond their home waters.
Satellite radio is just that: orbiting satellites continuously broadcast digital programming to all points of the continental U.S. and at least 200 miles out to sea. Listeners can tune in to their favorite channels and get clear reception from just about anywhere (although boats kept in covered slips have reported having to move their antennae out in the open to receive the signals).
Two different companies offer commercial-free satellite service in the U.S.: XM and Sirius. XM operates two satellites, positioned over the east and west coasts. Subscribers can choose from 70 music channels (from rock to Rachmaninoff) and 30 channels of news, talk, sports and entertainment (among them Fox, ABC, CNN, CNBC, BBC and the Weather Channel), for $9.99 per month.
Sirius uses three satellites to broadcast 60 originally programmed commercial-free music channels (from modern hits to oldies and a wide range in between), plus 40 channels of sports, news and entertainment (from ESPN and Radio Disney to CNN and the BBC World Service). A basic subscription runs $12.95 per month. XM and Sirius broadcasts are currently limited to the continental U.S. (predominantly the lower 48, with limited coverage in Alaska), however this limitation is mainly set by licensing agreements. Their signals do extend into Canada and Mexico – they just can’t advertise the fact.
The signals for both services extend offshore (with some boaters claiming reception up to 500 miles out), meaning coastal cruisers or bluewater anglers are only a button away from their favorite music, sports and news. Both Sirius and XM programming stay with you nationwide with no signal fades, and regardless of which you choose, you’ll still be able to tune in to local AM/FM stations as you move in and out of their broadcasting areas.
As for the equipment you’ll need, not all radios are “satellite ready” but upgrades are fairly straightforward and relatively inexpensive. First check to see if your radio carries either the XM or Sirius logos. If your radio has neither, you’ll need to either replace the head unit with one that¹s XM or Sirius ready, or upgrade your system by adding a compatible Display Control Unit (DCU) and FM modulator, a tuner and an antenna.
Depending on the type and model radio you buy, the DCU used for upgrades is a hand-held remote that looks like a radio face plate on the end of a cable; sometimes it’s a smaller display that attaches somewhere near your existing radio. (The DCU controls channel selection and program information, like song title and artist.)
The FM modulator allows you to interface your existing radio to the tuner. The tuner converts the satellite signals from the antenna into usable, digital audio. Bear in mind that an adapter kit may also be required to integrate your existing radio, so be sure to look for one when you are purchasing your equipment.
For new installation of a satellite-ready radio, you’ll need the radio, the tuner and the antenna. Neither XM or Sirius sells the actual equipment (only the subscription itself), however, you can find dealers in the “Retailer Locator” section of their websites. Sony, Alpine and Pioneer make XM ready units and upgrades; Kenwood, Panasonic, Clarion, Audiovox and Jensen handle Sirius. All these products are available at places like Circuit City, Sears and Best Buy.
Satellite-ready radios start at around $180, with FM modulators and tuners costing around $200 each. Standard antennas (used in most automobile installations) cost around $80, while marine-grade units cost between $140 to $200. Both XM and Sirius recommend that their systems be installed professionally, but if you can install a car stereo, you can probably tackle this as well. As for signing up, you can subscribe to either service by telephone or online. Both XM and Sirius charge a one-time activation fee of around $15 (reduced to $9.99 and $5, respectively, for online subscriptions). Because of satellite radio’s broadcasting limitations, neither company can sign up or support subscribers with a service address outside the country (such as Canada or Mexico).
Paying for your listening pleasure gives you consistent access to the programming you prefer, and keeps you connected to reliable weather and news broadcasting during extended cruises in or out of the Bay. All that and no commercials! But since any new technology carries the risk of quick obsolescence, it¹s fair to warn you that both XM and Sirius were hit hard by the recent stock slump, and both companies are now scrambling for market share. Do some homework before you make an investment in the equipment to be satisfied that the company you choose will be around to serve you in the years ahead.