Out at the far tip of Long Island, past the traffic on the L.I.E., the glitz of the Hamptons, and finally at the clam shacks of Montauk, all you can hear are the cicadas and the car radio. It’s relaxing for a while—until the cicadas get annoying and you find out that the pop-music station that comes in clearest is WMOS 104.7, “The Wolf.” In between ads for the Mohegan Sun, the Wolf subjects listeners to what I like to call the music of place—Boston, Kansas, Asia, and the like.
Last summer, after a couple of weeks of late-night listening to Led Zeppelin, I began to feel as though I were in a really bad movie—or experiencing a flashback to high school. My savior was a Sirius satellite receiver: I got a unit that worked in both my car and the house I shared with some friends. At first, my housemates were skeptical: Why did we need a new gadget when we already had iPods? But over the course of the summer, the clear reception and endless choice of satellite—more than 60 commercial-free music “streams,” plus an alphabet soup of talk channels—made me realize how much I’d missed listening to the radio.
Unlike the edge of Long Island, New York City has a lot of radio stations. But it doesn’t have a lot of variety. Hot 97 plays the same big hip-hop hits over and over (I like “Tipsy,” but not so much that I need to hear it several times a day), and the endless amped-up station promos get wearying. Independents like WFMU and WFUV have more eclectic playlists but tend to shy away from the kind of guilty pleasures that sound good with the car windows down. I want to hear “Summer Babe” by Pavement, but also “Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince.
On satellite radio, you can hear both—and practically anything else—for about $10 a month. Aside from reception, satellite’s great virtue is its granularity: There are enough channels so you don’t have to hear the same genre in one day, let alone the same song. The revelation for me was the streams dedicated to country (not exactly a commonly heard sound in New York), especially the Outlaw Country channel, which played alternative country—what a treat to hear Rosanne Cash’s clear voice on a hot, still day.
At our house, we preferred the hip-hop choices, a vast improvement over New York’s regular stations. If you want the Hot 97 experience, there’s a stream of new hits on the Street Beat channel; if you hate the Hot 97 experience, the Back Spin stream has enough LL Cool J to take you back to the eighties. There’s even a stream called Wax for remixes and D.J. freestyles. (And if I ever do get the urge for some of what the Wolf is rocking, channels like Hard Attack, Hair Nation, and Jam On keep its spirit alive and well.)
The fact that we argued about what station to listen to last summer, even in a house with stacks of CDs around, reminded me how much fun radio can be. When even the iPod’s shuffle mode gets tired, satellite can still catch you with a song you didn’t know you were in the mood for. It feels like a D.J. is making choices, instead of a Clear Channel computer. (In fact, some of the satellite talent comes from New York D.J.’s—XM, Sirius’s main competition, has hired classic-rock veteran Pete Fornatale and Sinatra scholar Jonathan Schwartz.)
I’ve already put the Sirius antenna up in this year’s share, with the help of a housemate. We went straight to Back Spin and cranked up the volume so we could hear it out on the deck. With the buzz and crackle that came out of the old stereo we hooked it up to, it sounded less like a new gizmo, and more like the way radio is supposed to sound in the summer.