When cable television rates got too expensive, people began to return to over-the-air TVs with new HD antennas, which offered better reception and various free subchannels. Combined with online services like Hulu, it was finally possible to replicate, if not duplicate, the cable experience on the cheap.
Satellite radio isn't much different. If you love the variety of Sirius or XM (but not the monthly bill), you can closely replicate the satellite radio experience in your car for free with an Internet-enabled smartphone and some inexpensive accessories. You'll need one of the following downloadable apps, as well as a way to connect your smartphone to your car's speakers (an auxiliary cable or a cassette adapter are the cheapest ways). The technology also has improved in recent years; stations generally don't drop unless you're going through a phone dead zone. About all you can't do is change the station by yourself when you're driving.
All these apps are available for iPhone, and several are available for BlackBerry or Android. The basic versions are all free, except where noted.
• AOL Radio: This app features Sirius/XM-style stations from various musical genres and subgenres, some of them highly specific. Under the category "Alternative," for instance, you'll find sub-stations like "emo," "goth," "'80s alternative" and "'90s alternative" — along with more than 350 local affiliates of CBS Radio from cities across the country, making this a good choice for someone who misses a specific station from another city. Both the genre stations and the affiliate stations here come with commercials, and you often have to listen to ads at startup, which is a drag and very AOL of them.
•Pandora and Slacker: Both apps offer plenty of pre-programmed stations, as well as highly personalizable stations: Tell Pandora or Slacker an artist or song you like, and the app will create a station on the spot with songs that are similar — from familiar and unfamiliar artists. You can give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to each song, which further refines the station to your tastes, and both offer a limited number of song skips per hour. Both Pandora and Slacker offer limited commercials and the option of upgrading to an inexpensive ad-free subscription, which also allows an unlimited number of skips.
• ooTunes ($4.99): This program is the most expensive of its kind, but compared to monthly satellite bills, it's a bargain at $5. ooTunes is for serious radio enthusiasts: more than 30,000 stations from around the world, searchable not only by genre but by country of origin, along with free streaming of the BBC and live broadcasts of NFL and NHL games — all for a one-time $5 payment. This app's killer feature is radio recording and playback on your phone, making it great for plane trips — along with a sleep timer, alarm clock and other fancy features.
• SHOUTcast: Another app with a lot of depth and perhaps the simplest interface of them all; finding the type of music you like is a snap ... at least in theory. In practice, Shoutcast often seems to hang up on loading and drop its signal more often than does other radio apps.
• SomaFM ($3.99): This app only plays SomaFM stations, but it may be worth it. SomaFM is a 24-hour, totally ad-free, listener-supported network of about two dozen music stations — intelligently programmed and in better-than-CD quality. (I am addicted to Soma's Indie Pop, Underground '80s and Lounge channels.) Before you buy, you can try it out by searching for SomaFM stations on ooTunes or TuneIn Radio, both of which carry Soma for free.
• TuneIn Radio: If you download one radio app, make it TuneIn. It's available for nearly every phone, it boasts 50,000 easily searchable stations from around the world, it allows you to store presets just like you would on a car radio, and it's highly intuitive, with a clean interface. You also can search for a song or an artist and find the stations playing it right that moment. For someone switching from satellite, this couldn't be easier — search for the sorts of stations you enjoy, save them as presets and forget your satellite bill.