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My Rant: XM Radio's greatly diminished sound quality. What to do?


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#1 of 63 OFFLINE   Ronald Epstein

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Posted May 09 2006 - 10:49 PM

Let me begin by saying that it should be no surprise
to anyone here that I am a huge supporter of XM and
have been from the beginning. I usually don't make any
complaints about this service unless I really feel one needs
to be made, and I'm not ashamed to be doing so now.

When I first got XM radio 2 years ago the sound quality
was pretty damn good. In fact, it used to be so close to
CD quality that those who really didn't know any better
would be hard to tell the difference. Let me point out
that this is based upon playback on basic equipment
(car system enhanced with subwoofers and/or boombox).

These days the audio is barely as good as FM radio.
I have never heard the service sound this bad with its
over compression elements and "tinny" sound qualities.

XM sounds as bad as Sirius.

This bothers me greatly.

I realize that XM and SIRIUS have limited bandwidth.
I also realize both services are racing against each other
to sign on the most talent and boast the most music
channels. All of this involves the usage of more bandwidth
that ultimately is taken away from the music channels.

This can only get worse.

Friends who have tried XM radio generally all have the
same complaint -- "Sure, there is a great selection of music
to be found here, but CDs sound so much better in my car."


It's bad enough that XM was forced to place a few commercial
music channels on their service. In doing so, they had to
create more commercial-free channels and thus, the sound
quality has taken a complete nosedive.

Even before the addition of the new channels, the sound
quality on XM was getting progressively worse. It seems
that extra bandwidth was being given to popular channels
like THE '90s or THE MIX in order to improve sonics. These
days, the sound on those channels have diminished. Try
listening to THE '60s or THE '70s channel and you'll probably
find yourself having to use more volume and bass to
compensate for the audio that sounds like it is coming out
of a transistor radio. While you think that description may
be way over the top -- it's not too far off from the truth when
you compare audio quality across the XM spectrum.

To be honest, I have had my moments of wanting to
dump satellite radio because of the shoddy sound quality --
especially when I could get better quality from music stored
on my iPod. The only thing that stops me is that fact that
I have supported this format from the beginning, and I feel
very loyal to XM, a service I believe in.

I do feel there could be a solution, though I doubt XM would
take the necessary risks involved.

Let Sirius have their dozens of channels of repetitious music
and sports.

XM should concentrate on lessening the amount of available
music and entertainment and concentrate on promoting itself
as the service with the best sound quality. This is especially
important when you have HD-RADIO also competing for market
share. XM could easily compete with HD-RADIO.

I know some of you think that many subscribers don't
care about audio quality. I don't think that's true. I actually
read many complaints on my Internet site (as well as here)
about audio quality.

I really feel that XM could take a bite out of Sirius by
touting itself as the service with the best audio. It certainly
would become a major factor for new subscribers deciding
which service they wish to choose.

My idea may be a good or bad, but all I know is that my
ears are growing very tired of hearing music that sounds no
better than FM radio.

Look forward to hearing your comments.

 

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#2 of 63 OFFLINE   Brent T

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Posted May 10 2006 - 12:26 AM

Ron,

I cant speak on XM's quality anymore since I no longer have the service but I can speak on Sirius's. The sound quality in my car isn't that noticeable to me. This is in part due to that I drive with my windows down, the sound quality is already diminished.

Now as far as my home unit goes I find the quality to be as you described. For the most part I only listen to talk at home with my sirius. When it comes to music I have my integra hooked up to my pc so that I can play over 500 cds that I have saved on my hard drive.


I do not agree with your solution to the problem though. The answer should never be to move back but to move forward (IMO). Both companies need to have the great talent, sports and exclusive material to draw in people. What they need to do and I believe they will, is continue to upgrade their hardware. This is a new medium and as they invest in technology many things will get better with the product.

I hope I am right because I do love the product and many people I know have forgotten about FM since they got their sat radios.

#3 of 63 OFFLINE   mylan

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Posted May 10 2006 - 12:47 AM

I agree 100%. I got a Ski Fi 2 in Feb. and have noticed a drop-off in quality. Sometimes it sounds as if it is playing on half of my car speakers and I have adjusted balance and actually sat in the passenger seat to see if it sounds any better (it doesn't). I just got a Polk home XM tuner and it is still sitting in the box as I re-evaluate whether I want to continue my subscription. I figured the Polk would sound better but am reminded of the old saying, "garbage in, garbage out. Heck, it could even sound worse with better equipment.
I feel XM is losing their way by adding channels and would be better to condense some channels. To me, deep tracks, top tracks, and that other tracks station could all be combined and i'd never know the difference, I have heard the same bands on another as I scroll down.
Finally, I feel there are too many "garbage" channels that need to be eliminated, this may not be popular with ten of you out there, but how many classical, big band and showtunes channels does one really need? I listen to maybe six stations, all the rest are a waste, I.M.O.
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#4 of 63 OFFLINE   Ronald Epstein

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Posted May 10 2006 - 12:50 AM

Brent,

I agree that it is a difficult proposition to ask either company
to scale back on the amount of entertainment they offer. After
all, this is the biggest draw to any new subscriber prior to actually
buying the product and prior to listening to the sound quality.

It has been suggested elsewhere that in order to significantly
upgrade the audio, the equipment that subcsribers now own may
be incompatible as they were designed for lower bandwidth usage.
If this is the case, it would be impossible for XM or SIRIUS to convince
many to go out and purchase new equipment -- although it has
certainly worked to some extent in the Home Entertainment arena.

As you suggested above, if either service could offer Hi-RES audio
but yet let those who want the LOW-RES to keep their current hardware,
it could work.

I don't think this medium is that new anymore. Everything that is
plaguing satellite radio seems to be related to bandwidth issues.
There needs to be either more bandwidth or better compression that
does not hinder SQ as it is doing now.

And you are most correct about the most important aspect of
satellite radio....

As much complaining as there is about sound quality, owning
satellite radio is certainly better than having FM radio as your
only choice.


Thanks for your thoughts, Brent.

 

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#5 of 63 OFFLINE   Chris

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Posted May 10 2006 - 01:39 AM

Ron-

Admittedly, I had warned about this here before: Link

XM's addition of new channels on top of their existing matrix stretched their bandwidth thin. Much, much thinner then say, SIRIUS.

This isn't because of bias one way or another, it's just the sheer mathematics of how available bandwidth is divided. But there are other factors involved.

XMSR cut a very strong, solid business deal last year in which they have numerous channels allotted to the federal government for emergency management etc. which average consumers don't get. Plus they do special paid broadcasts on private channels as well. XMSR did well by their bottom line by taking on such strategies.

But the end impact is that they continue to divide their bandwidth significantly, far more so then their marketspace competitors.

XMSR's isn't totally out of the woods. With their agreement with Clear Channel, XMSR should add one more station this year which represents CC programming and advertising goals. If XMSR flips one of it's commercial free, they would be forced to drop the concept that they carry as much/more commercial free radio then SIRI. If they just add another station, more bandwidth gets lost.

XMSR, while first to the marketplace, pays a bit for that in that its channels are all floating and can be controlled but they work at a CBR (Constant Bit Rate) whereas SIRI has the option to implement VBR (Variable Bit Rate) which they do on some of the talk stations, conserving bandwidth and frequently adjusted.

XM is going to have an interesting year this year in terms of managing consumer satisfaction with quality. I have a very strong believe that in order to compensate for their CC agreement, they will simply add another station. This will be a further drag on bandwidth, and we'll see what they do about it.

One commonly floated idea is to lower the bandwidth again on talk oriented programming like "High Voltage" and put them at the same CBR as news formats, which would conserve a fair ammount of bandwidth. Another suggestion is to convert some stations into JSE (Joint Stereo Encoding) which would greatly conserve bandwidth but might be noticeable to some.

What is the real solution? That's going to be a tricky one for XMSR. Look, I have my own opinions about the satellite services, but as I've noted repeatedly, I hardly listen to music except for some rap/pop now and again, but mostly I listen to talk. XMSR has built it's bread and butter by having a certain format of musical programming, and it will be interesting if it's move toward a more "accessible" format at a lower bandwidth will help it grow with Joe Sixpack.

In the end Ron, whether or not we ever want to admit it, XMSR would trade 20 subscribers right now who like the ecclectic mix for 100 subscribers who love hearing the same songs repeated all day long because they are familiar if it means those people will say "I always hear what I want".

Etc. I think though, if you're expecting this to greatly improve the audio quality, you're going to be waiting a long time. XMSR has already locked off all remaining bandwidth for their new in-car-video streaming options which they hope to have out in Q4 07 or Q1 08. So, you've got as much bandwidth as they can supply. And their divisor scheme will put further pressure on by the end of the summer.

I'm not trying to bash XM, I'm just pointing out the reality of what is and will happen.
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#6 of 63 OFFLINE   WillG

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Posted May 10 2006 - 01:48 AM

Personally, superior sound quality was never the selling point for me when it came to selecting a service. I never considered myself to have well "trained" ears for subtleties in sound quality anyway. I got into it for a greater depth of music than the 50 songs any given FM station have on their playlists. If I heard a song I liked, I would obtain a higher quality copy of it. I personally, I don't think that most of "Mainstream" America really loses sleep over the sound quality either. But I know many of you guys really do care about that.

I think the problems with XM could get worse before they get better. It's starting to occur to me that now that Sirius has been "beating" XM in new subscriptions lately, XM is making a push to seem more "mainstream" And now they seem to have too many stations that are too similar. How can you justify cutting XM Music Lab, a station whether you liked it or not, was the only one of it's kind on the platform for "Big Tracks" which is virtually identical to "Top Tracks" How many country stations do we need? How about one for classic country and one for modern country? I see seven on the platform today. I also think XM should lose the traffic and weather channels. People can just briefly switch to FM for that. It also seems that since they cannot claim to be 100% commercial free with their music anymore, they may be flooding the platform with more music channels so that they can at least say they have "The most commerical free music"

I hope I am wrong about all this.
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#7 of 63 OFFLINE   Jed M

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Posted May 10 2006 - 03:56 AM

Sadly, the only thing I can really listen to on both services are the talk channels. The music channels are just not very good quality wise. What is worse is if I know the song and can hear and instrument like the cymbals or bass guitar almost completely removed from the song. They all sound like some sort of bad, tinny remix. Not a fan at all of the music on satellite radio. I may cancel and just use my mp3 player with podcasts for my talk radio jones. Both companies are moving so fast towards the lame fm genre that I don't feel like they should be able to charge me for it.
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#8 of 63 OFFLINE   Ronald Epstein

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Posted May 10 2006 - 06:29 AM

Quote:
I think the problems with XM could get worse before they get better. It's starting to occur to me that now that Sirius has been "beating" XM in new subscriptions lately, XM is making a push to seem more "mainstream" And now they seem to have too many stations that are too similar. How can you justify cutting XM Music Lab, a station whether you liked it or not, was the only one of it's kind on the platform for "Big Tracks" which is virtually identical to "Top Tracks" How many country stations do we need? How about one for classic country and one for modern country? I see seven on the platform today. I also think XM should lose the traffic and weather channels. People can just briefly switch to FM for that. It also seems that since they cannot claim to be 100% commercial free with their music anymore, they may be flooding the platform with more music channels so that they can at least say they have "The most commerical free music"

I hope I am wrong about all this.

As an avid supporter of XM, I am happy to agree with you here.

You are not wrong.

We don't need so many channels devoted to one genre of music
just because there are slight variations.

However, to play devil's advocate for a second, it is that variety
and ability to listen to exactly the type of music you like
that sets satellite radio apart from FM radio.

 

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#9 of 63 OFFLINE   mylan

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Posted May 10 2006 - 07:01 AM

Thats just it, i'm not getting EXACTLY what I want. Bandwidth issues aside, this has been my gripe since I signed up. I'm not asking for the same songs over and over, just play an hour on one station I can tolerate. I think that by trying to please everyone, they are beginning to please no one. I'm beginning to hear Ratt on top tracks, not BoneYard, and softer stuff on BY, WTF?
I think I may be one of those who should have gotten Sirius, I don't know. I wish there was more specific channels, like a Southern Rock only station as an example, like a bad DJ at a dance, someone needs to be controlling playlists a little better, thats my rant!
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#10 of 63 OFFLINE   WillG

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Posted May 10 2006 - 07:55 AM

Quote:
However, to play devil's advocate for a second, it is that variety
and ability to listen to exactly the type of music you like
that sets satellite radio apart from FM radio.

Yes in a perfect world that would be so. But as we know they only have a certain amount of bandwith to acheive that. The question becomes how to optimally balance the platform to try to please as much as possible. However I do not think it takes a Harvard Business School grad to guess the side of the fence XM will try to attract if Sirius keeps their momentum up.
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#11 of 63 OFFLINE   Ronald Epstein

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Posted May 10 2006 - 09:11 AM

So here's an interesting question....

What should XM Radio do at this point to better itself?

I'll add my answer after I read some of yours.

 

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#12 of 63 OFFLINE   mylan

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Posted May 10 2006 - 09:34 AM

Address the bandwidth issues by combining some duplicate channels, like the different "tracks" channels. They all seem a song or two from being the same thing.
Devote more channels to a specific genre: old country and new, southern rock, hard rock, heavy metal, thrash or death metal, that way I won't be happily listening to one type of music and then be jolted by a Megadeath song unless I was on "heavy"only, or Led Zepplin and then (gasp) FireBall Ministry (yikes!).
Finally, and I know this is blasphemy: a channel that sounds like an FM top 40 station that plays new music that I actually want to hear.
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#13 of 63 OFFLINE   WillG

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Posted May 10 2006 - 11:23 AM

Well, I have already given my suggestions. Namely to lose the traffic and weather channels. They probably don't use up too much bandwidth, but every bit help. Maybe lose a country channel or two. Also, I really don't think it is necessary to have both Top Tracks and Big Tracks. Then they could bring back some more niche channels or increase sound quality
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#14 of 63 OFFLINE   Blu

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Posted May 10 2006 - 11:50 AM

Would the drop in quality coincide with MLB's opening day?

Before the season started that all of the dedicated baseball channels all had the same programming, now they all hold a different game.

If this is the case then perhaps the quality will go up after the World Series?

#15 of 63 OFFLINE   Bob_L

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Posted May 10 2006 - 06:05 PM

XM's sound quality has been a sore point from the beginning and it just seems to get sorer and sorer as time passes.

I'd consolidate some of the pop stations that seem to break down styles to an unnecessary degree. I'd dump the sports programming -- but that's just me. Clearly that would be highly undesirable for a lot of the audience.

I continue to enjoy the variety that XM offers, even if the sound is increasingly substandard; but every week I ask myself if I shouldn't dump the service. And, as Ron knows, I'm quite an XM loyalist.

#16 of 63 OFFLINE   ClintS

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Posted May 11 2006 - 12:48 AM

I have been noticing a drop in sound quality also. I would happily give up Fred, Ethel, and Lucy for a single channel of higher quality. I will be cancelling after my 6 month commitment and buying an IPOD. I have over 3,000 high quality mp3's that will keep me better satisfied and for 14.95 a month I can add a CD of my choice every month. I like the XM service but sound quality is IMPORTANT to me, doesnt have to be CD quality but Fred, Ethel, and Lucy dont even sound as good as FM.

#17 of 63 OFFLINE   TheLongshot

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Posted May 11 2006 - 04:51 AM

First off, I have to say that I really don't seem to be sensitive to changes in SQ. Maybe it is because I only listen in the car and I don't get the best quality that I could get. So, really, SQ isn't an issue for me.

What is an issue for me is the mainstreaming of XM. Since I subscribed, it seems more and more "greatest hits" type of channels seem to be popping up. It all started when Lucy was added. Since then, it seems like a niche gets lost while a more generic channel takes its place. As others have said, Big Tracks is the latest addition, and now XM is doubling the CC stations. To me, it is all a waste. The whole point of me getting satellite radio in the first place was to listen to the genres I enjoy, and to discover new music.

Unfortunatly, XM seems to be getting away from that. Some of it, I suspect, is from Joe 6 pack, who only wants what they know and not some strange music that they never heard before, because if they hadn't heard it before, it must suck. Believe me, I've had to deal with it on Da Boneyard, where the station doesn't have to be programmed like a retro station. The genre they cover is still very much alive, but from talking to the average fan, they get irritated if they don't hear the greatest hits of Iron Maiden or Judas Priest on a regular basis. So, since Charlie Logan left, the playlist has been watered down and put on random shuffle. Great for those guys, but not for me.

I'm really struggling with XM right now. Of the 5 presets that I had on my Sony when I started, two channels are gone, and one is watered down. I really just have Fine Tuning and Deep Tracks, and a smattering of channels that once in a blue moon will play something I like. The promise with satellite radio is that there would be enough channels for everyone, and not many would be left wanting. Unfortunatly, it is slowly turning to 200 channels and nothing is on.

That's why I find Lee Abrams' blog about the XM Sound ironic, where he talks about reinventing radio and all that, when XM is basically falling into the same trap FM fell into years ago that made FM irrelevent.

http://leeabrams.blo...4/xm-sound.html

What I'd like XM to do is give up the battle with Sirius and let them "win". Let them have the popular crap. I want XM to focus more on the niches. It may not be nearly as profitable, but it is certainly would attract more die hards. Course, XM being a public company, that will never happen. It is never about us, but about profits and the shareholders. Sad, since satellite radio held such promise.

Jason

#18 of 63 OFFLINE   WillG

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Posted May 11 2006 - 07:16 AM

Yep, that's the unfortunate fact of life when it comes to capitalism. Majority rules and most of that time, the majority is comprised of J6P and that just does not bode well for people like us. Remember when DVD was usually OAR only and a lot of the time had better special features such a full length documentaries, Commentaries that were not recorded before the film was even to released to theaters non-fluff featurettes, isolated scores, etc. One J6P embraced the format a lot of that stuff went away.
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#19 of 63 OFFLINE   Doug Miller

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Posted May 11 2006 - 09:13 AM

Ron --

Here I thought it was just me. I noticed the quality took a serious dip about 6 months ago -- I thought my radio was just getting worse, I'm happy (?) to hear it's not just me.

In terms of what XM could do:
- If subscribers can choose to lock out certain channels like High Voltage, and add channels like Playboy, why can't XM offer an ala cart choice. I don't listen to country, so I would leave all those channels off. I don't listen to Christian rock, so I would leave those channels off.

If 5+ million subscribers are choosing to leave 20 + channels off their listening list, wouldn't that improve the quality of transmission? (I'm a moron when it comes to things like this, so if I'm not understanding how this technology works, disregard. Posted Image ) Hell, I could trim about 50 channels I never listen to if it would mean the quality of Cinemagic and Da' Boneyard are better.

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#20 of 63 OFFLINE   Chris

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Posted May 11 2006 - 10:44 AM

Quote:
- If subscribers can choose to lock out certain channels like High Voltage, and add channels like Playboy, why can't XM offer an ala cart choice. I don't listen to country, so I would leave all those channels off. I don't listen to Christian rock, so I would leave those channels off.

To my knowledge, playboy is now a SIRIUS exclusive.

Quote:
If 5+ million subscribers are choosing to leave 20 + channels off their listening list, wouldn't that improve the quality of transmission? (I'm a moron when it comes to things like this, so if I'm not understanding how this technology works, disregard. ) Hell, I could trim about 50 channels I never listen to if it would mean the quality of Cinemagic and Da' Boneyard are better.

Nope. The compression occurs before the feed gets to the satellite, not on the way down, so the bandwidth is already occuppied whether people listen or not. What you might be signalling to them, however, is your displeasure with certain channels which might alter the way they do programming, etc. which may be waht you want as well.

Word is floating pretty strong that when they add the next station to fulfill their CC obligation, Cinemagic is one of the stations which may get whacked.

Here's my opinion:

What XM needs to do is find something really unique and play it up to the hilt. Whether you dislike SIRI or not, the one thing they have made an effort to do is campaign on "exclusive" and "unique". XM has tons of exclusives, but I don't see them bilking them as much. Every NFL game on TV gets a mention of SIRIUS. They run a NASCAR car. They sponsor gay pride events, etc. to try and get out "exclusive home of NFL" "future home of NASCAR" "exclusive home of G&L radio" and so forth.

I watch baseball occassionally and XM is just absent. And they don't play up exclusives that would draw their crowd well either. Example: SIRI spends time saying "exclusive concert with Tori Amos/Pink/Jimmy Buffett/Jazz Fest/ etc." as a live event that they claim an exclusive on and they market the hell out of it, not because they expect tons of Jimmy Buffett and Jazz Fest fans to fill up their subscription base, but because it allows them to get press and say "exclusive" as often as they possibly can.

XM has more potential marketing clout but they aren't being managed very well (IMHO). They aren't acting as a market leader, they are acting as a follower. They are basically trying to adopt SIRI's playlist strategy and then steal from terrestrial radio where possible and instead of playing up their differences, they just seem to ignore the competition.

XM has far more potential market power, but they are making really poor use of it. I know Ron has criticized SIRI's management (though that was before Mel) but XM's management has to just be inept. They had a big head start, and they have put out one of the most "blah" marketing campaigns I can remember.

I root for XM, because XM offers something unique for it's listeners and investors Posted Image But XM needs to really develop a strategy of playing up exclusives.

XM doesn't address at all on their home page that they are the home of O&A for all of people's love for them in this forum and the SIRI forum, they don't appear anywhere on the homepage. The fact that XM is the exclusive partner with Air America? Also never gets a mention. And so on.

XM does a terrible job of pointing out what the hell they have, and they need to start pushing their differences rather then a "blah" "we have Oprah in 6 months" push the truly unique things you have. And every day make a marketing effort to introduce something new and interesting that will at least make people come back.

Here's the real look:

http://www.googlefig....o&word2=sirius

Why does SIRIUS get so many more hits and lookups? Because they act like a virtual Barnum and Bailey, touting even the smallest exclusive.

XM has a good product, but if they continue to try and just follow SIRI they will drive away a lot of their listeners because the differences between the two won't be meaningful enough.

Meanwhile, there are lots of us who bought our service based on an exclusive - and that's true of XM as well - and those people won't leave. But XM has to remember what helped it grow, and yes, part exclusive, but part a mix of music choices that kept people renewing. If they lose sight of that, they will regret it.
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