Is radio still in the hands of fools? EW's Chris Willman tunes in to the airwaves' smartest innovation
Credit: Satellite of Love: Illustration by Jeff Soto

Is radio still in the hands of fools?

With apologies to Ross Perot, that giant sucking sound you heard in the late ’90s — and we do mean sucking — was commercial radio in America. Thanks to the FCC’s disastrous 1996 industry deregulation, most major-market stations now rest in the hands of a few corporations determined to make formats more homogeneous and playlists even tighter. Local jocks compensate for ceding all their programming to national headquarters by becoming more obnoxious. As somebody who spends two to three hours daily in L.A. gridlock, I ought to know. Mostly, I while away that commute switching back and forth between all-news stations’ traffic reports — partly out of necessity, but largely out of a deep-rooted dread of drive-time duos, Rush Limbaugh, and Rush.

I decided my salvation lay in outer space. My detour wasn’t to Roswell, but the nearest electronics store carrying the hardware for XM Satellite Radio, a new subscription service that, for $9.95 a month (plus the price of the receiver), lets you drive across town or country under two powerful orbs beaming 100 channels of often extremely idiosyncratic programming. No longer can you or I bitch about the lack of a 24-hour bluegrass, opera, or Hindi-language station in the hood; they’ve got that covered, along with channels devoted to electronica, tejano, black gospel, show tunes, Latin jazz, reggae…even the current top 20, just in case you feel like backsliding to that eighth circle of hell. It’s the sea-to-shining-sea digital saturation that makes the service a trucker’s wet dream, but it’s the almost hilariously plenitudinous multigenre programming that’s sexy to anyone who falls under the rubric of music buff. It may just be the exhaust fumes talking, but I think I’m in love.

The romance kicked in about the time I tuned in to XM’s weirdest station, Channel 30, and heard Jim Nabors’ version of Hank Williams’ ”I Saw the Light” segue into Buckshot Lafonque’s ”Some S— at 78.” (The DJ was probably hoping to mess with the heads of anyone looking for the Christian rock station next door.) My infatuation progressed as some remote-control flipping found Fats Waller on the standards channel, Shelby Lynne on the alt-country station, Yma Sumac on the lounge-pop channel, Daft Punk repping college rock, obscure rockabilly on the late-’50s station, an interview with Supergrass on the BBC, and Greta Van Susteren and Jim Lehrer on the TV simulcast channels. God help you if you?re a music and news junkie (Bloomberg or blues?). I might’ve sat in the driveway for a week but, happily for my wife and child, Sony makes a $300 portable unit that, with a $150 accessory kit, you can also plug into your home stereo.

It’s not that XM lacks for the same crap infesting AM/FM, but the exotica more than makes up for it. Open Road, a.k.a. the truckers’ channel, helps me fantasize I’m hauling a load through Texas at 90 mph instead of staring at SUV brake lights in Sherman Oaks. (Besides providing still more vintage road tunes in addition to those on XM’s six country stations, it’s the only place we city folk will ever get to hear Lee Greenwood’s diesel lubricant jingle.) I’m perversely intrigued by NASCAR Radio, which, with its rebroadcasts of classic races, may be the most absurd format of all time. On the more urbane tip, XM Comedy gets bonus points for repeat airings of the best hour of radio anywhere, Harry Shearer’s NPR staple, ”Le Show,” sans pledge breaks.

But it’s the plethora of what the band X once called ”the unheard music” — which we can now stretch to include not just punk but most oldies, several subgenres of jazz, a lot of classical, and Sammy Davis Jr. — that’s the hook. XM even has an all-demos channel hosted by Smithereens frontman Pat DiNizio, who plays just about every unsigned act in America except Mariah Carey.

With so few niches left unturned, you wonder what genres are left to be claimed by Sirius, a competing satellite service starting up this month. There are a few I?d still like to see: the Faith Healers Channel, the Indian Movie Musicals Channel, the Jazz That Gives Ken Burns Hives Channel, All Money Honey All Night, and, of course, the Music Personally Approved by EW Critics Channel. A