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A person is shown putting a cassette tape into a car radio.

Move Over Analog Radio: What to Know About Car Radio Alternatives

Everyone can remember riding in a vehicle when they were younger. I remember when my dad, mom, grandfather, and grandmother would drive me around. Each experience was different, but they had one constant––radio. My dad would play radio stations with bands from his youth, like KISS, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, and Aerosmith. You get the idea. You can imagine the immediate shift in tone when I would get into my grandfather’s vehicle, and he would tune into AM radio. Sure, I had my GameBoy to keep myself occupied, but the droning sounds of a monotone man on the news spewing politics were something I never forgot.

Listening to AM/FM radio is going the way of the dodo today as more manufacturers are removing radios from their newer models. However, this doesn’t mean that people like my dad can’t listen to radio stations that play their favorite hits––in fact, it’s easier than ever. In addition to subscription services like Spotify and Apple Music, more cars are coming standard with AM/FM radio alternatives. The term “HD Radio” has been floating around, and many are still unaware of how internet radio services like SiriusXM work. It’s a new world of media streaming, and it’s time to get caught up. What are the benefits of these alternatives? That’s what I’m here to tell you, so let’s begin our discussion.

A classic radio is shown in a vehicle.

Radio in Our Culture

Radio stations have been a part of American culture for generations, and for many artists, it was the radio that spread their fame in an era before YouTube. Indeed, radio was once the only way to listen to music in your car before manufacturers began adding options for CDs, cassettes, eight-tracks, or even vinyl. Radio stations still play a pivotal role in the social zeitgeist, and tuning in to a radio station is a phrase we still use today.

Whether you used to listen to talk shows, sports, or your favorite music, radio has played a pivotal role in the lives of many. Who can forget the historical 1938 broadcast of George Orwell’s The War of the Worlds––a radio broadcast spawning anarchy in cities around the country because of the lack of distinction between its fictitious storytelling and the radio broadcast it was tied to? That broadcast is one of the reasons why advertising the station you’re listening to has become so prolific on the radio. Thanks, George Orwell––perhaps you’re the one that spawned the Ad-pocalypse.

A person pressing a button on an HD radio is shown.

The Introduction of HD Radio

You might not remember this, but United States television stations were told to forego the traditional analog broadcast signal in 2009. Since then, the television stations you’ve been watching have been broadcast digitally. Once this occurred, television stations began coming in with sharper pictures and better audio––but many viewers were forced to upgrade to the new system. This was unlike anything we had ever seen, as we collectively threw a technology in the trash on the same day.

By 2009, you were stuck in the past if you were still relying on an analog television broadcast to the antenna atop your house. More specifically, you simply weren’t getting a signal. Why do I mention this? We’re seeing something incredibly similar in the automotive space as more manufacturers replace analog AM/FM signals with something newer. You may have heard of it before, but if you haven’t: meet HD Radio.

What does HD Radio do that your average AM/FM radio can’t? For starters, HD Radio doesn’t mean you’ll be losing access to your favorite radio stations, and that’s because HD Radio only looks to enhance the system you’re used to. Much like the television broadcast signal I mentioned earlier, HD Radio utilizes a digital signal instead of the traditional analog method. However, it is broadcast alongside traditional analog stations and mirrors their programming rather than replacing the older technology entirely. That’s why “HD” in the term “HD Radio” stands for “Hybrid Digital,” because you’re not losing access to those traditional stations.

Sometimes, the station you set for HD Radio has more than one digital broadcast, and a few options pop up. The first will be a channel replicating the analog broadcast with better audio fidelity. You may also see up to three more channels that broadcast whatever the station chooses. Sometimes these are just lower quality levels of the main broadcast. Sometimes, they are entirely different programming. You’ll be amazed how many radio stations in your area hide behind HD Radio, just waiting to be discovered by new listening ears like yours.

HD Radio also sends slightly more information than the audio signal. What do I mean by that? HD Radio receivers are intelligent in that they can identify the song title and the artist and will display this information to you on the radio screen. If your HD Radio receiver is built into a car’s infotainment center, navigating all of HD Radio’s capabilities will be a breeze. HD Radio transceivers shine best when paired with a premium audio system––like those from Bose, Bang & Olufsen, and JBL––that lets you fully enjoy the higher audio quality.

A person choosing a station by pressing on a screen is shown.

The True Next-Generation Radio Experience

To many, the true next-generation radio experience lies in services like SiriusXM. To many of you, SiriusXM is nothing new. To those who have never heard of SiriusXM, it’s a separate catalog of radio stations you can listen to that aren’t linked to your local stations. The stations you listen to on SiriusXM are the same across the country, meaning if you’re listening to one of 100+ stations on the East Coast, someone on the West Coast is tuned into that same broadcast. Pretty neat, right? Is there a catch? The catch is that SiriusXM is only accessible with a subscription fee––but not an egregious one. Often, a new vehicle––or even a pre-owned one––will come with a trial period, so you can find some stations you enjoy and gauge your interest in SiriusXM radio.

My experience with SiriusXM can help show the diversity of programming available. Among the channels that were the most noteworthy to me are The Beatles Channel, SiriusXM Hits 1, and my all-time favorite, Ozzy’s Boneyard. Ozzy’s Boneyard is the go-to place to be if you like to listen to heavy metal music on the road, and while it’s not hosted by the Prince of Darkness, you’ll be hearing his tunes and many others from some of the best metal bands ever.

Many famous radio talk show hosts have also switched to SiriusXM––the most notable is Howard Stern, who was best known for pushing the boundaries of mainstream radio with vulgar, obscene, and many times utterly hilarious commentary. Unlike analog radio, SiriusXM allows for uncensored material on several stations. Many metal music stations that I know of are uncensored, and of course, Howard Stern continues to do his thing as he intends. Howard Stern was one of the most prolific signings that SiriusXM had in its early days, and the nail in the coffin was when Howard Stern made his official exit from mainstream radio in 2004. The rules and regulations between AM/FM radio and privately-funded media services wildly differ. To many, that’s good enough a reason to try it out.

Partners In Crime or Mortal Enemies?

While AM/FM is being phased out in some newer cars, we aren’t losing any channels because of it—we’re only gaining more options, thanks to the ever-increasing appeal of options like SiriusXM and HD Radio. HD Radio doesn’t cost any extra money, and SiriusXM does, so I feel that the former is more likely to replace AM/FM radio, while SiriusXM more closely competes with streaming services. There’s room for both, and having the luxury of an optional subscription service for a more personalized listening experience isn’t hurting anyone, so enjoy yourself, listen to some music, and you’ll be at your destination in no time.