Rich Cicci

WILDLY FRUSTRATED: For a premium service, Sirius XM sure feels like terrestrial radio

WILDLY FRUSTRATED: For a premium service, Sirius XM sure feels like terrestrial radio
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I purchased a new car last year – I’m talking 2015 new. It gets great mileage, it’s comfortable, and it even has some power behind it. Listen, I’m not a car guy; I could care less about what’s under a hood, and I don’t know any car guy lingo. I’m lucky I know how to check the fluids and change or rotate my tires, but it’s a new car, and I really like it. One feature the car has that is entirely new to me – and made me really excited – is Sirius XM radio.

In NEPA, if you are a fan of punk rock or any kind of non-mainstream music, you are pretty much shit out of luck. You basically have college radio stations, and while Marywood, Wilkes, and others may have some great content, you’ll be hard-pressed to hear your favorite bands on the regular from them. Even metal and hard rock is relegated to just two stations in the area – 97.9 X and Rock 107. Everything else on the radio dial is bland pop, sleep-inducing soft rock, generic adenoid-infused country, news, and sports channels. But Sirius XM was a better alternative to what’s out there. The free trial I received got me hooked, and I subscribed to it for a year after those first three free months of use.

Satellite radio felt like it was a key freeing me from my NEPA radio prison! Every kind of music genre under the sun was at my fingertips. Doo-wop, metal, jazz, hard rock, big band, punk, Motown, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, classic country, Americana – everything was there for my listening pleasure! As well it should be. I paid for it, so it better damn well have more to offer than its free counterpart. And while it does, I was slightly taken aback by what I discovered. It has been six months since I began my subscription and, for a premium service, Sirius XM and terrestrial radio feel really fucking similar!

Everyone knows the two chief complaints with terrestrial radio – its commercials and the repetitiveness of programming. The issue with commercials is understandable. Since it’s free, these stations need to make money, so they sell ad space for commercials and sponsors to keep these stations funded. The problem is that a listener would be pretty damn lucky if they get to hear 20 minutes of uninterrupted music in any given hour because of the ridiculous amount of ads that need to be played.

Sirius XM is a paid service. You cannot listen without a subscription, so it stands to reason that they are making money from those subscriptions. In theory, it should be entirely ad-free. Oh, it should be, but it really fucking isn’t! Granted, there may not be nearly as many ads to be found here when compared with normal radio, but they are still noticeable! Why are there any goddamn commercials at all, anyway?

Foreseeing this query, Sirius XM has preemptively answered it in their own FAQ, but I still call bullshit. Apparently, while their normal music stations are ad-free, some stations, or rather certain shows on those stations, are not; they have sponsors who need promoting and ads they must air to help fund them. You know, just like the regular radio stations and programs I was trying to escape have. See… bullshit. In the end, Sirius XM isn’t entirely a refuge from the annoyance of commercials that I had expected.

The other and most egregious complaint about regular radio is that no matter what station you listen to, you will almost certainly hear repeated songs multiple times a day, most days, and possibly at the same times of day. I have no idea how radio production works, nor how they decide what to play, but I feel this can be easily fixed, seeing as there are decades worth of music to pick and choose from. Even if your station is themed, as 97.9 X and Rock 107 are, there is no reason to hear Alice in Chain’s “Man in the Box” or AC/DC’s “Back in Black” two or more times a week, let alone a day. Yeah, I know, they’re great songs, but not repeatedly! Sirius XM will surely save us from this plight, right? Well, like Rorschach’s journal entry from “Watchmen,” so too is Sirius XM’s reply: “All the whores and politicians will look up and shout, ‘Save us!’ And I’ll look down and whisper, ‘No.’”

I have lost count how many goddamn times I have had to listen to the same song or two by Ghost, Wax, Yelawolf, The Interrupters, or Marilyn Manson day after day on Faction. Normally a great station for punk rock and old school rap, they will play the same songs as if to appease some sociopath who has a gun pressed to their temple. I cannot fathom why this is a friggin’ problem since the whole idea of such a service – I would’ve thought, anyway – is that you have more options available to you as a listener.

If that isn’t bad enough, channel variety isn’t truly represented either, as too many stations overlap in terms of programing and style. The classic rock stations love playing the Grateful Dead, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen, but there are stations that are solely dedicated to those artists too. Pearl Jam, Elvis, Jimmy Buffet, and Frank Sinatra all have dedicated stations as well, yet you’ll also hear them quite often on decade or genre appropriate channels. There are multiple pop, Top 40, and new alternative, coffee/art house stations that feature the same type of artists who whine, shriek, and moan their lyrics into microphones, only to be auto-tuned later. You get all of that, yet new wave, punk rock, metal, and hard rock, among others, only have one station apiece? Where is the true variety that was supposed to be here?!

However, even with those complaints about variety, Sirius XM is consistently inconsistent. It can play those same songs or artists at times, but then it will surprise the shit out of me by turning around and playing some insanely deep cuts from Bad Religion, The Adolescents, NOFX, Agent Orange, Refused, The Ramones, and more. So, after I feel neglected and turn away from it, Sirius XM knocks on my door with a bouquet of flowers and an apology. I’m hesitant, but of course I’m going to accept it and go back to it! There is nowhere else for me to go to find this kind of song variety in the genres I love.

Oh, Jesus Horatio Christ, am I actually in an abusive relationship with my car radio?!

When it comes to Sirius XM radio, buyers, please beware. The grass is definitely not any greener on the other side of the fence when it comes to satellite versus terrestrial radio. The positives of coast-to-coast reception and their “vast” selection of stations is often countered by similar annoyances that can be found on its free counterpart. Once you commit and make the change, you will essentially continue to listen regardless of gripes because terrestrial radio is so much worse. You can always pop in a CD or connect an iPod on those long drives or tiring commutes. They both serve their purposes and hold great value, but sometimes, they both get boring, so radio is a necessity at times.

Now, your relationship with Sirius XM may be different from mine. It may work out better for you than it has for me, depending on your taste in music, but if I am being honest here, it most assuredly is a one-way relationship, let alone a commitment. I have six months left on my subscription, and I honestly don’t know if I’m going to keep the relationship alive. When it’s up, it’ll be much more expensive to resubscribe than what it cost me for this one year. Knowing what I know now, it may be best to simply cut ties and walk away. I don’t feel the few ups outweigh the more numerous downs… at least until another discounted rate crosses my path, that is.

Why can’t I quit you, Sirius XM?!

Wildly Frustrated is a recurring column that takes a lighthearted look at rage-inducing and blood-boiling topics focusing on, or surrounding, various forms of entertainment, media, and possibly the world around us. It’s unleashed on Thursdays on NEPA Scene.

  • Scott Magill

    Good article. Couldn’t agree more dude. What a disappointment SiriusXM is. And the channels that ARE supposed to be rock all play the same shit, minus ‘Hair Nation’. What a joke and I’m pissed. If I wanted nu-metal and 21st century butt rock non-stop, I’d listen to the terrestrial station I’m trying to avoid.

  • Ronald Epstein

    Listening to SiriusXM radio has been like living in a music prison where one is being punished for subscribing to their service rather than being rewarded. The company has become a monopoly in satellite radio delivery and as such, has no reason to attempt to even compete with anyone else, including FM radio.

    I have been a satellite radio subscriber for 14 years now. I was one of the initial subscribers of XM RADIO when it first launched. It was a remarkable satellite radio company who truly wanted to make music fresh again for those willing to subscribe. XM RADIO executives encouraged online music DJs and programmers to be original, break out of the mold, and avoid the daily repetition of playing just the “hits.” In addition, the sound that emanated from car stereo speakers was nearly CD-QUALITY.

    However, in 2007 all that was about to dramatically change when XM merged with a company called SIRIUS. SIRIUS had been in existence for almost as long as XM, but most people who knew music didn’t look at them as a big competitor. SIRIUS had a dramatically different attitude towards the music it played. SIRIUS thrived on limited playlists, playing the same familiar songs over and over again. Their philosophy was that satellite radio was only heard during short commutes and as such, only the most recognizable hits would be played. Additionally, with limited bandwidth at its fingertips, upon its merger with XM RADIO, the newly formed SIRIUSXM decided to add more than 200 channels in their core service that would reduce overall sound quality to its end listener. If you have listened to SIRIUSXM on a very good car or home stereo system, you probably have noticed how hollow and tinny it sounds. It is estimated that music is broadcast at a mere 31-33kbps. To give you something to compare that to, most reputable online music download services offer 256-360kbps. For SIRIUSXM to offer an eighth of that quality in its music delivery should indicate just how awful it sounds compared to CD music.

    If you really want to know how disgustingly awful SIRIUSXM is, you should be forced to listen to it 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. This is the predicament I find myself in. I work in a warehouse setting. Its concrete walls inhibit any kind of FM reception. In order to provide constant music to our workplace, we stuck a satellite antenna outside one of our windows. For the past two years, SIRIUSXM has been our only source of daily music while we work.

    Sometimes I wonder what is more of a chore — the actual work that all of us do in our warehouse, or having to listen to SIRIUSXM radio. Every single day, the same selection of music is repeated over and over again across every single channel. We have exhausted listening to most all of their music channels, only for the fact that within a week, we are extremely bored by the repetition. We attempt to find a new music channel, and once again quickly find ourselves fatigued. We find ourselves listening to a single channel for a day, only to return it to it months later, to hear the same short list of songs being played.

    I did some quick research to find out what a SIRIUSXM radio programmer makes in salary. It’s about $25k per year. That’s little enough to make one hate their job and it absolutely shows. These music programmers, either by lack of self-interest or directives from their bosses, have an absence of drive or imagination. It seems they load about 100 songs into a computer playlist and let it execute in an endless loop.

    As an example, let me start with one of my most listened to channels, TOTALLY 70s. It basically sticks to the same top-charting hits, only diverting away once in awhile to anomalies from that era in a feature called “Jukebox of Dy-no-mite.” Rarely will you a hear a song that will make you think, “gee, I haven’t heard that one in awhile.” There are some songs that never get played on that channel. While I realize “Stoney End” by Barbara Streisand or “All I know” by Art Garfunkel may not be chart-toppers — they still represent the music of that era and should get equal play. There’s no reason I have to hear “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees every single day just because it charted higher. The only time, in fact, that one gets to hear lesser-known hits is during the weekly broadcast of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. It’s the only airplay on that channel that seems “fresh.”

    This past year, SIRIUSXM introduced two new noteworthy channels, The Beatles, and Pop Rocks. On paper, these both seemed like outstanding additions to the line-up.

    Listening to The Beatles channel this very week, my co-workers commented on just how many Beatles songs are NOT played each hour. While I don’t mind the channel playing solo hits by the Fab Four, they muddle the selection of music by playing songs that inspired the group. In addition, they add cover songs by other artists. One might think this is all well and good, offering a wider variety of music to the channel. Truth be, it just means fewer songs by THE BEATLES are actually being played, and when they are, it’s the same limited selection over and over again. To their credit, there is some original programming offered on that channel that plays deeper cuts, but as with the overall music being played itself, it is also limited.

    Things get even worse when listening to POP ROCKS, a channel that celebrates rock music of the 90s and 2000 era. If ever a channel stuck to limited playlists, this is the one. It literally plays the same hundred songs over and over again each day. Sometimes, it will play the same song (such as Thunder and Lightning by Imagine Dragons) twice in an 8-hour span. In our workplace, this has become one of the channels we have voted to ban due to the fact that our ears have become completely fatigued from its daily repetition.

    This is what happens when you are the only satellite music delivery service in town. When you become a monopoly, you don’t have to worry about competing. You can be that lazy, unimaginative program director who loads a hundred songs into each of its channels and keeps it on auto-play all year long.

    Here’s the biggest kicker of all….

    Every year or two, SIRIUSXM raises their subscription rates under the guise of “higher music royalty costs.” What that means is that the service is hiking up the price of their music when they are only offering you a limited selection of it. I absolutely refuse to play full price for a limited selection of music and I often have to resort to deals to keep my subscription active.

  • Been a subscriber for many years but not this year. Bastards want $300! And every gripe you have about the service is absolutely valid. The programming is lazy and the entertainment talk is dull anymore these days. I will miss Hair Nation but even that channel was getting repetitive. Waaaay too much Tesla. And the goddamned ads!! Why??? There should be NO FUCKING ADS for $300 a year. SiriusXM, like every media conglomerate, turned to shit once XM was merged with Sirius. Guess they figure since there is no competition, who cares if the customers complain?! They have no choice but to subscribe!

  • SidneyR

    I have a trial for my new car and I don’t use it. I don’t see why we can’t choose “channels” like in Pandora. A “Santana channel,” for instance, would make it worthwhile but instead I have to listen to “rock” or “classic rock.” I’d rather download some MP3 to a USB drive and be done with it.