Constant Companion

When Bob Holman started driving a truck in 1971 in the rural Northwest, he was lucky to pick up a radio signal at all. Three decades later, Holman isn’t having a problem, even though he hauls between the signal-sparse cities of Missoula, Mont., and Spokane, Wash. After years of fiddling with static-laced AM and fading FM, the UPS company driver from Spokane has turned to XM, the satellite radio service introduced last year.

“It’s one of the best things I’ve seen for the industry since the weight limit changed to 80,000 pounds,” Holman says. “I don’t know if it’s better than air ride, but it’s pretty close.”

Holman is not alone. Satellite radios were the darling of the consumer electronics industry last year, and truckers are jumping on the bandwagon. Of the more than 76,000 subscribers XM Satellite Radio claimed in its second quarter of broadcasting, the company says more than 10 percent are truckers. Competitor Sirius Satellite Radio says truckers are already investing in its radios and service, too, even though nationwide coverage isn’t expected until July 1. Both providers offer trucker channels.
Ray Lawson of Kenosha, Wis., an owner-operator with Schneider Bulk, was so eager to get his hands on a satellite radio that he bought one in September, a month before XM went on the air. In fact, Lawson owns two satellite radios – one in his truck and one at his home – and is thinking about buying a third for a campground he runs during the summer.

“I’ve been looking for this radio to come out for a year,” he says. Lawson and Holman say they don’t know how they lived without 100 coast-to-coast channels for so long. They say truckers in their fleets are converting fast, despite monthly service fees and the $300-plus price tag for the radio.

None of that is surprising to Doug Wilsterman, senior vice president of OEMs and special markets for Sirius Satellite Radio. “One of the things about satellite radio is that people need to experience it,” he says. “People get the concept immediately, but when they actually hear it they fall in love with it. That’s particularly true of truckers because they’re locked in the cabs for hours.”

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Sirius and XM are banking their services will be a hit with truckers and commuters. Long-haul truckers, in particular, can benefit from the services’ uninterrupted signals. The systems also offer variety: sports, news, talk, comedy, children’s programming, as well as dozens of music channels – from the mainstream to the eclectic. XM’s Taj channel, for example, is dedicated to Hindu music.

The services differ little in the basics. XM has two satellites, Sirius three, which it says gives it better coverage. Both use similar but incompatible receivers and antennas from top-line electronics companies. Sirius says it has fewer commercials and more original programming, but all that may be hard to notice as each service has 100 channels to choose from.

Satellite radios, available from a variety of manufacturers, start at $350 for the tuner and antenna.

One of those is XM’s Open Road, featuring longtime trucking radio personalities Bill Mack, Dave Nemo and the Trucking Bozo. Sirius has a trucker channel that features the Midnight Trucking Network. Both channels feature country music as well as call-in formats that give truckers a chance to air

their opinions. The stations also feature news tailored towards trucking; XM, for example, airs Overdrive Trucking News.

Holman says he likes being able to hear Mack and company anytime he wants, but he mainly tunes in to the music. “I like the 1940s and ’50s channels and the country channels. It’s all good music, just some is better than others.”

Both services offer half a dozen country channels, including a bluegrass channel and a golden oldie station featuring classic country. But XM Vice President Dan Murphy says truckers are tuning in to a lot more than the Open Road and country music.

“We get a lot of calls for our ’80s channel from truckers,” Murphy says. “It’s amazing how diverse the truck group has become over the past few years. There’s a good deal of age and ethnic diversity. You are still going to have your Hank Williams listener, but we’re finding a great deal of interest in our talk channels.”

That’s because truckers are looking for companionship on the road, Murphy says. And satellite radio’s talk offerings could make a big dent in the more traditional form of wireless companionship.

“I still turn on the CB every once in a while,” Holman says, “but I probably alienated a few friends because I got the XM.”

Lawson added his XM-equipped Alpine radio when he redid his in-cab entertainment system.

“I listen to the radio about 15 hours a day,” he says. “My radio goes on before the TV in the morning and is on until late at night.”

That’s why Lawson calls his satellite radio an essential trucking system. “I’ve been driving since before air ride and the Jake brake,” he says. “This is as good as all of those.”

This Sirius system by Jensen, which plugs into your existing sound system, includes receiver, antenna and control unit.


What hardware do I need?

An XM or Sirius-compatible tuner. Radio manufacturers such as Delphi, Sony, Alpine and Pioneer all offer systems. The radios can be bought at electronics chains such as Circuit City and Best Buy or direct from truck makers and radio shops.

What happens if I change services?

You’ll have to buy a whole new system. Sirius officials say a tuner that can receive either signal is still five years off.

How much does it all cost?

The tuners and antennas together start around $350 for a unit that plugs into your existing radio. Stand-alone units that include AM and FM reception and a tape or CD deck cost more. You’ll also have to pay a monthly fee of $9.95 for XM or $12.95 for Sirius.

Can I still listen to AM and FM?

Yes. Stand-alone systems such as those from Delphi or Alpine offer AM and FM units. Other systems such as ones from Sony or Pioneer plug in through your FM antenna and do not interfere with those bands if you turn the satellite radio off.

Is it easy to install?

The unit Overdrive reviewed, a Pioneer Universal XM Satellite Tuner, took about two hours to install. If you’re good at installing electronics, it will probably take less time.

What if I change trucks frequently?

You’re in luck. Pana-Pacific, the leading truck electronics provider, has developed a radio just for this scenario. It comes in a bag and can be installed or removed in minutes. The unit’s antenna attaches quickly to a mirror and is part of the package.

What do you think about this article? E-mail [email protected].

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