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Why I love satellite radio

MSNBC's Gael Cooper on how satellite radio has turned her commute from a bore to a blast.
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Last week I found myself sitting alone in my parked car in front of my house for about 15 minutes straight. I wasn't talking on the phone, or working on a project. I was listening, rapt, to an episode of science-fiction show "Dimension X," a radio series that aired a dozen years before I was born.     

My husband and I added satellite radios to our cars just a few months ago, and like people who finally discover cable TV after years of only having network channels, we're never going back. (What's that the Buggles said, in an oddly prescient song? "We can't rewind, we've gone too far.") Satellite radio may not kill the radio star, and it may not reach cable TV's popularity for years to come, but I believe it's the future.

I support my local independent radio station and am a big fan of public broadcasting, but there are times when there's just nothing on the free dial that I feel like listening to. Not to mention those times when you're in the fifth hour of that long, slow, dull drive up the dusty backbone of California, the basketball game has gone to static, you've memorized all your CDs and the local station plays only scratchy country music from 1974.

Not that satellite radio is cheap. But $12 a month equals one movie ticket, or two magazines, or one month of a pay movie channel like Showtime, or three or four fancy coffees. Considering the amount of time I spend in my car, for me the per-hour enjoyment cost works out. 150 channels is one thing, most of them having absolutely no commercials is an added bonus.

Sinatra to ska, jazz to jam bandsWhether you end up with XM or Sirius, you can delight in the world of narrowcasting. It's like the Internet: There are Web sites for everyone from "Star Wars" fans to Hummel collectors, because somewhere there's an audience out there for them.

With satellite radio, you can indulge your guilty-pleasure fascination with Broadway songs, or uncensored rap, or gospel music, ska, Euro hits, right-wing or left-wing politics, bluegrass, electronica, Sinatra, opera, classical, jazz, jam bands ... you name it.  On XM alone, there are at least four stations that specialize in one form or another of alternative music. (Soft alternative? Check. Hard alternative? Got it. 90s and Today Alternative? Sure. Deep Classic Alternative? Not sure what that is, but they've got that too.)

Both major satellite services also allow listeners to take a tour through the ages via decade-specific music stations. Flip from the wartime hits of the 1940s to 1950s rockabilly to 1960s Brit rock to 1970s soft tunes to 1980s pop to 1990s ... whatever 1990s music means to you. I most often switch between the ballady 1940s channel (the music my GI parents imbued me with) to the 1980s hits of my high-school days ("I was on the Paris train, I emerged in London rain"). Unsure exactly what song that is? Satellite radio flashes the name of the song and artist across the screen, so I no longer have to try and remember a scrap of lyric until I can hunt down the singer's name online.

Keeping in touch with homeThe satellite service I subscribe to also provides 20+ stations of 24-7 traffic and weather news for major U.S. cities. While I live and drive in Seattle, I have one of my preset radio buttons set to the station for my hometowns of Minneapolis-St. Paul. When I'm homesick, I still get a kick out of hearing the old freeway names and interchanges I once knew so well. And on a gray Seattle winter day, temperatures in the 40s seem a lot warmer when I push the button for MSP and see "TEMPERATURE: SEVENTEEN BELOW" flashing across the screen.

Satellite radio also offers endless talk stations. Personally, I'll never listen to Howard Stern or any of the other extreme jocks. But I still find it entertaining that, in addition to right-wing and left-wing political chatter, there's a Christian talk station, an African-American talk station, and a trucker's channel.

There are numerous comedy stations, including one that keeps it G-rated for when the family's in the car, and my favorite, the old-time radio show station. It can be tough to get out of the car at the grocery store when an episode of "Dragnet" is on, but fortunately, my radio unit allows me to pause and replay up to 30 minutes of programming. (Think TiVo for radio!)

Sports fans who subscribe to a satellite TV service such as Direct TV already know they can get football or baseball games from around the league. Satellite radio offers the same thing, depending on the service you choose, with different sports available on different services. I'm not the biggest sports fan, but if my hometown Twins ever get those Homer Hankies waving again, I can cruise around and tune in to their every game as if they weren't 1500 miles away.

I've heard people complain about the quality of satellite radio, but that's usually about the point in the discussion where I completely tune out. It sounds fine to me, but then I'm not the kind of person who spends hours geeking out in expensive audio-video stores drooling over the expensive equipment. (I've been known to listen to — gasp — AM radio with nary or little problem.) Can I hear it? Yes. Can I understand it? Yes. Does it drop out? Not even in tunnels and underground parking garages. So I'll leave the technical debates to the geeks.

In the 10 years I've been married, my husband and I have driven cross-country twice, around the Deep South once, and had numerous long car trips between Seattle and Los Angeles. I love those drives and I love the company, but really, an hour outside of Bakersfield the boredom rolls in like an endlessly turning tumbleweed.

Closer to home, when an accident or random traffic jam stops up my commute, the car seems less like a Honda Civic and more like a prison. But now I can tune into "Dragnet," or an old Steve Martin comedy routine, or the BBC, or the unsigned bands station. The miles still have to be crossed, but they go by a little easier.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is's Television and Books Editor.