Can you survive a road trip without satellite radio?

Our VW Jetta from Hertz comes with a Sirius XM satellite radio, which offers 150 stations ranging from Top 40 hits to Howard Stern.

I know a lot of frequent travelers who swear by their Sirius. On long-haul drives, they say, there’s nothing better to relieve the boredom.

We have different perspective.

First, though, a few thoughts about the future of satellite radio. I’m no futurist, but it seems to me that once the oligopolistic grip of the wireless carriers is loosened, and we innovate our way out of the bandwidth deficit we currently find ourselves in, that satellite radio is doomed.

There’s no better way of streaming live programming than through an ultra-fast wireless connection, right?

Maybe, maybe not.

Anyway, to the question: is it worth paying extra to get Sirius in your car or minivan? That all depends on you.

For us, the first few days with Sirius were like visiting the midnight buffet on a cruise. Too much! We did more scan-and-stop than actual listening. Eventually we settled on the following six presets:

The Joint — That was my pick. I had a few days of alone time on this trip, and listening to Reggae was a close second to being in the islands. It has a reasonably good playlist, too, going beyond the Marley cliches that too many Reggae stations tend to get stuck in.

Coffeehouse — Better known as the punishment station. When the kids don’t behave, we threaten them with the all-acoustic Coffeehouse and we torture them with James Taylor.

80s on 8 — Kari and I preset this one. We like to call this one the singalong station, because we know all the words to every song. (Nothing gets the kids to roll their eyes faster than punching preset number 3.) What’s your favorite 80s anthem?

90s on 9 — This one, both the kids and adults can sing along to. It’s an interesting take on 90s music, light on the grunge and heavy on the crowd-pleasers. When there’s nothing good on 80s, this is our first choice.

Pulse — The kids voted on this one. It has a lot of the Top 40 action, but the playlist is deeper than our last choice. You’ll hear some older songs and some newer ones that haven’t yet climbed the charts. When the other hit station gets too repetitive, this is where we turn.

Hits 1 — Argh, the Top 40 station. Same three songs. But the kids can’t get enough of it. We call this the Earworm channel. Yeah, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

About halfway through our road trip, we realized that while it was really nice to have a satellite radio in the car, we could own the music we heard for the same price as a Sirius XM subscription. And we could listen to it any time, on any one of our devices. Never mind the streaming services like Rhapsody or the radio stations on the iTunes store, or the NPR News app for the iPhone or iPad.

I like the audio medium, but I have some firsthand experience as a content producer, commentator and host, and I think the good folks working in radio need a swift kick in the pants to get their digital game on. (During my last industry gig, co-hosting a radio show, everyone insisted on communicating by fax. I had to teach my colleagues how to use Google. It was 2009. Pathetic!)

Meantime, I won’t turn down a car with a satellite radio. But do I need one for my next road trip?

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott, a.k.a., Dad, is a writer who spends way too much time in front of a computer.


  • KCFluff

    While you liked listening to the music stations on Sirius, I opt for the news and talk shows (yeah, the kids like them about as much as 80s music). But, for me, that makes Sirius worth it for now — and I like it that I don’t lose a station as I do when I drive out of range with regular stations.

    On the downside, while driving recently with my grandson, he opted for hip hop music for a while that almost drove me nuts.

  • Elizabeth

    I just did a cross country trip with two kids in the back, and the sheer variety of music available was fantastic. I could not have compiled this on my iPod without spending a lot more. When we arrived at our destination, Grandma’s, she loved the classical music stations. Then driving the car back, my mother has been playing 60′s and 70′s, so I have something for everyone :)

  • tech_ed

    my music tastes have gotten quite eclectic in my old age. Sure, I love me some 70s and 80s arena rock, I find myself listening more and more to music that just doesn’t exist in popular music channels. So therefore, I find little to no value in Sattelite Radio!

    • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

      I hear you. My musical tastes run pretty eclectic. What was that Springsteen tune from a few years ago? 57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_BLOLQUUS23NO5TCO2ATNVUEL6A Jim

    A fully loaded Ipod and cable to the radio i/o jack .. I my long distance car ‘radio’ station.

  • Catharine Phillis

    I load up on books on CD and enjoy this wonderful country. I rarely am without a “book”. The library has a huge collectionl. I do miss the books on tape. I could take the ones on tape out and just pop them in to the stereo in the house and continue on with the book. The ones on CD are too much trouble to do that. If I don’t have a book going then I’m listening to an oldies station.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mediadls Dave Smith

    I listen to a great variety of music and satellite radio cannot satisfy this. While people like to dis Pandora, it actually fits the bill to a great degree. But mostly, I have my 10,000 favorite songs on a big iPod and put it on shuffle. Always happy this way with music on the road.

  • Charlie

    Actually, I do own the music to which I want to listen.