XM Radio Feeling Shy?

XM Radio held a press conference in New York City Thursday, April 18. The event was heralded with great secrecy—attendees were enticed with promises of "major news," but no one leaked details beforehand, and the press arrived expecting something juicy indeed.

Whether or not XM delivered on its promises depends on who you talk to. XM Satellite Radio's executive vice president Steve Gavenas began the meeting with a passing reference to the company's latest round of financing—a public offering, which resulted in gross proceeds of $154 million, more than enough, he assured attendees, to last into 2003.

Gavenas went on to announce that "XM . . . succeeds because of its superior digital sound technology, unparalleled signal coverage, proven chipset technology, and outstanding programming. The technologies that define XM Satellite Radio sound quality have been auditioned and endorsed by leading audio experts from around the world."

The lynchpin of those technologies, he explained, is CT-aacPlus, a third-generation audio encoding technology developed by Coding Technologies. CT-aacPlus combines Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), a standardized compression technology (the one used by Sirius Satellite Radio), with Coding Technologies' proprietary Spectral Band Replication (SBR™) technology, which creates additional bit-rate efficiency. XM claims the improvement makes its codec "30% more efficient than AAC alone."

The XM sound, Gavenas added, is further optimized by software from Neural Audio, a Seattle-based research lab specializing in the use of advanced neural-network computing to simulate the brain's perception of sound. Neural Audio has developed proprietary pre-processing software that enhances CT-aacPlus by optimizing timing and spatial elements before the encoding stage. The result, Gavenas claimed, is improved soundstage clarity and increased intelligibility. In addition, Neural Audio's "stereo transcoder" algorithm does not alter the imaging and spatial characteristics of stereo or surround-sound content—which means that XM customers with matrix-style surround-sound equipment, such as Dolby Pro Logic, can derive surround sound from the broadcast signal.

XM's delivery package includes two Boeing 702 satellites ("Rock" and "Roll"), which produce "more than twice the total satellite power of any other satellite service," augmented by XM's nationwide network of more than 800 repeaters, located in over 70 cities. The satellites are parked in geostationary orbits aligned with the US's east and west coasts and each delivers the full 100-channel service to all of XM's receivers across the country. "Twice the power," said Gavenas, "combined with our repeater network, means consistent coverage coast to coast with only two satellites."

When Gavenas surrendered the floor to the press, the first question was, "You've been broadcasting since fall, why are you holding a press conference now?"

"We've been busy," Gavenas responded, "and we wanted to announce our technology edge."

"Will you go into details?"

"No—not at this time."

This set the tone for the rest of the formal press conference. Members of the press—specifically Sound & Vision's David Ranada—were voracious in their pursuit of specifics, and the company was just as determined not to surrender them. Ranada growled in frustration at one point, "You're just forcing us to do patent searches for information we will get."

The question that I felt defined the biggest stumbling block to satellite radio's acceptance actually seemed to come as a surprise to Gavenas and his business partners. I asked if consumers had displayed greater resistance to paying for the privilege of listening to radio than the company anticipated, or if subscriptions were selling faster than expected.

Gavenas said, "It never occurred to us that there'd be 'resistance.' Cable and satellite TV have conditioned customers to expect to pay for quality programming. Of course you can get free broadcasting, but the sound quality and programming are inferior. Over 76,000 subscribers have already decided we offer a service worth paying for, and we anticipate over 350,000 will have made that decision by the end of the first year of service."

After the conference, XM escorted several of us to the street level where it had several XM-equipped automobiles on display. I took the opportunity to listen to one of the systems briefly and was impressed.

The factory-installed Bose-badged system sounded pretty good for a stock car system—reception was clear, with no birdies or other extraneous noises, despite our proximity to the concrete canyons of midtown. CD-quality sound? Hard to say, given the unfamiliar vehicle and the brevity of the audition. But the sound was clear, certainly, and full-bodied beyond a doubt.

The big surprise was how impressive XM's breadth of programming was. The company may not have been forthcoming with technical details, but it was practically hiding its major news under a bushel. With 100 channels—31 of them commercial-free—XM offers the disenfranchised radio listener real choices. XM groups the stations into "neighborhoods," each of which is divided into categories, or individual channels. Country, for example, offers five channels: Nashville, progressive, traditional, bluegrass, and non-stop country. Jazz & blues has six channels, categorized as traditional jazz, contemporary jazz, modern jazz, great vocals/standards, blues, and Latin jazz. Classical is divided into four categories: traditional, classical/eclectic, opera/vocal music, and classical hits. Other neighborhoods include "decades" (popular songs from the 40s, 50s, 60s, etc), hits, urban, rock, world music, kids, news, sports, comedy, and variety—each neighborhood has at least three channels, some have as many as twelve.

XM runs the only 24-hour Nascar radio channel in the country as part of its sports neighborhood and includes the BBC World Service as a round-the-clock option among its news channels. The traditional classical station's programming is chosen by Martin Goldsmith, late of NPR, which seems to be relentlessly slouching into mediocrity&$#151;and that's when it hit me.

I was asking the wrong question, when I asked Steve Gavenas about listener resentment. This listener is still smarting from his local NPR station's preemptive decision to abandon classical programming during daytime hours in favor of the cheaper-to-produce talk shows favored by broadcast consultants. I had already been paying close to $10 per month to support a station that didn't care what I wanted to listen to—why would I resist paying the same amount to a company that gave me not one, but four choices (or more) in 15 different categories?

Gavenas is almost certainly correct in his assessment that listeners are tired of cookie-cutter radio formats and the less-than-optimal sound quality of most commercial radio stations. If XM Radio and their competitor are offering clear alternatives to that wasteland, we should all celebrate at having a choice at all.

I, for one, will be intensely interested in hearing more from both satellite providers on their commitments to both sound quality and to quality (and alternative) programming. XM's April 18 press conference was a start. Let's hope we hear a lot more in the near future.