My friend Shawnda Westly and I just got back from our second annual road trip. We went to high school together, and since we live on opposite coasts, we keep up by writing old-fashioned letters. That wasn't enough, so now we get together once a year.
This time we drove around Texas for a week—no itinerary, no hotel reservations. We barely got out of the car. We talked and watched the scenery and, like any road-trippers, we listened to the radio.
On this particular trip, Shawnda (whom I call Wanda Chestly for two compelling reasons) thought the radio was trying to tell her something: somewhere in west Texas we crossed a Henly Street just as the Eagles' Don Henley was singing "Hotel California." And before we accidentally drove into Mexico—it's not well marked—we heard Billie Holiday at the very moment we were passing an establishment called the Holiday Café. Wanda was sure these were signs, but of what she couldn't say.
More often than not, we scan obsessively for the song that best describes the state of our love lives. In the fall of 1999 we toured northern California desperate to hear Marc Anthony's "I Need to Know" (Wanda was starting a he-loves-me/he-loves-me-not relationship) and Mariah Carey's "Heartbreaker" (I was ending one). This year it was "Independent Women" by Destiny's Child.
ALL OF THIS IS NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, a private tale better left untold, except for the fact that in the next few months, radio will undergo its first significant change since the advent of FM in 1940. Two companies are launching satellite radio: national networks with 100 channels each. From their broadcast centers in New York City and Washington, D.C., respectively, Sirius and XM will beam signals to their satellites, which will then transmit them to a special car antenna. No static, no fading in and out, and, on the music channels, few or no commercials. Each company will charge $9.95 a month. Sirius has partnered with Ford, BMW, and DaimlerChrysler; XM is working with General Motors and Honda. Basically, if you buy a new car anytime soon, you're going to have the option of satellite radio. (Adapters will be available for older cars.) Home receivers will also hit the market.
You might scoff at the idea of paying for something that's always been free, but there's a lot to like about Sirius and XM: a much wider breadth of music and news/talk/sports than you can find anywhere else. Imagine one channel devoted to bluegrass. And another to reggae. And another to nascar. And, between the two networks, several jazz channels.
Clearly radio was due for a face-lift, so anything that improves its quality is welcome in my car. But I worry that what's good for the commuter isn't good for the traveler. If I were driving to and from work every day, heck, I'd love 50 channels of commercial-free music. As a traveler, however, I want to hear local radio. Driving in unfamiliar territory can be isolating; radio is one way the world around you gets into the cocoon of your car. When Wanda and I were in Uvalde, Texas, we heard a news broadcast about a local election recount, as well as the details of the upcoming sheepdog trials (which included a dinner at Lunker Peabucket's, where we ourselves later ate some excellent catfish) and the annual Turkey Trot. An elderly woman from Milton Jewelry & Gifts came on to wish listeners a happy Thanksgiving. It was sweet and real, and it was why we were in Texas in the first place—but then we're the kind of people who would go to an American Legion Hall in Llano to play bingo.
The music itself can be a connection. As I drove into San Antonio, with Wanda dozing in the passenger seat, I was listening quietly to Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," an extraordinarily beautiful song that I'd never heard before. I would not be lying if I said that I cried. Two days later, in the tiny town of Marathon, I experienced one of Wanda's "signs." I'd gotten up before dawn and was walking by the railroad tracks when I noticed something in a shopwindow: a poster for a Jimmie Dale Gilmore album.
IN RETROSPECT, SO MUCH OF OUR TRIP had to do with the radio. We grooved along to Patti La Belle's "New Attitude" and then realized it was part of Dr. Laura's show—we both felt guilty eking even a smidgen of pleasure from that woman. We had a small misunderstanding when I told Wanda that Harlan Howard's "The Chokin' Kind" could be her song ("I gave you my heart, but you wanted my mind/Your love scares me to death, it's . . ."). And when I'd first arrived in Austin, at midnight, needing a drink—the flight took eight hours, don't ask—Wanda pulled up in the rental car and announced that she knew where to go. She'd heard about a dance club on, yes, the radio. We found it and it was cheesy, and a rule was proven: Never go to a club you hear about on the radio. As Wanda admitted, "It's full of forty-year-old men and eighteen-year-old women, all trying to pass for twenty-five."
Sirius and XM say they have no intention of eliminating local radio ("First there was AM. Then FM. And now?XM"), but I find it hard to believe. I don't blame them—that's capitalism, kids—but I don't love it. When I travel, I want to see new things, and I want to hear them, too. I don't want to drive cross-country to shop at Old Navy or listen to radio stations I could hear at home.
Actually, my gut feeling about the homogenization of our culture is that by the time you realize it's happening, it's too late to do anything about it. As Ms. Chestly and I found out when we were in Alpine, Texas. We had tuned in to KALP 92.7, "the best country around," and found ourselves laughing at DJ Charlie Derek's jokes and really enjoying the music. One song in particular, Brad Paisley's "We Danced," gave us chills. Here's how Wanda described it in my notebook: "Chick leaves purse in bar—goes back for it—talks to bartender—they dance—he proposes." I can assure you we wouldn't have gotten chills if we'd heard the song anywhere but Texas. In fact, we wouldn't have even listened to it anywhere but Texas.
Anyway, Wanda decided to call the DJ on her cell phone to tell him about our adventure and see whether he could recommend a place for breakfast. Charlie had no idea: he works in Dallas, and the show is part of the ABC Radio Network. It gets beamed all over the country; only the commercials are local. (He did tape part of their conversation and gave us a shout-out; too bad he called me Erica.) Perhaps the era of local radio is already dead. Consider this essay, then, less of a call to arms and more of an elegy, or even a dirge. From what I can tell, the people at XM and Sirius (and ABC) do love radio. I just hope their love isn't the chokin' kind.