Can FM Radio Be Liberated from the Car?

roger lanctot contributor logo 360wFM radio is trapped in the car. And the wireless industry holds the key.

The once-ubiquitous FM radio is today primarily enjoyed in the car, where a growing variety of audio consumption occurs. But stored and streamed content on mobile devices is steadily marginalizing the broadcast portion of in-car listening, sucking the audience lifeblood out of the medium.

This phenomenon wouldn’t be such a problem if mobile devices could access broadcast radio in the U.S. The sad reality is that the semiconductor chips required to receive broadcast signals are already built into most smartphones in use in the U.S., but the wireless carriers — with one exception — have chosen not to enable access to broadcast radio. (Outside the U.S., broadcast signals are routinely accessed via smartphones.)

Sprint is the one exception in the U.S., offering NextRadio (an app created by Emmis Communications) to let its smartphone users (for specific models) receive broadcast signals by using the headphones as an antenna. NextRadio provides an app for free over-the-air listening to local radio stations — not to be confused with apps such as iHeartRadio or TuneIn Radio which enable listening to in and out of market radio stations via an IP stream.

The NextRadio app cleverly sorts the local stations by genre, tracks listening history and allow functions such as “like,” “dislike,” “share,” “buy,” and “save.” Switching between local stations is also simple. HD stations are not available.

Coleman Insights recently released the results of a consumer study intended to test the messaging and positioning of NextRadio with a representative sample of potential U.S. users. Results of the study are here.

What is clear from the study is that the participants in the study were impressed with the app and seemed to find the interactivity appealing. Participants in the study were shown a video introduction, then asked for their reaction.

The Coleman study focused on users under 40. It is apparent that those of us (wink wink) over 40 are blind to the fact that radio is no longer ubiquitous and is, for some, hard to find outside the car.

Coleman’s conclusion from the study is that NextRadio be positioned as “FM radio on your smartphone.” A secondary message or benefit is its use of the broadcast signal so that it has much less impact on battery use and only a tiny impact on data usage.

never leave your radio aloneIt so happens that one of my sons just picked up a Sprint phone and was able to demonstrate the app to me. Like the Coleman survey respondents, he found the app to be compelling and clever, but he was even more interested in the six-month free trial of Spotify that Sprint is offering and the $5/month friends and family plan available after the commercial-free trial period. Ergo, even Sprint is distracting potential NextRadio users from the free FM tuner available on some of its phones.

The Coleman study found a variety of complaints regarding existing streaming audio alternatives including stale play lists, limited opportunities to discover new content and too many ads. What the Coleman study failed to take into account is the range of listening options that are continuing to emerge including Amazon Prime, Google Play, Aupeo!, Apple’s iTunes Radio, Pandora, Spotify, Beats, Rhapsody, SiriusXM, YouTube, TuneIn Radio, iHeartRadio, Rdio, Slacker and Aha Radio.

From the study, it was not clear how much audio usage the participants engaged in or across what range of apps, devices or scenarios. Audio consumption occurs at home, in the car, at work and on the go. Apps and services are accessed in the car, on mobile devices and on desktop and portable computers.

User preferences are determined by cost, presence or absence of commercials, on-demand content vs. curated or automated stations, playlists, social network integration and availability of new music, among other factors. Most of these elements were ignored in the Coleman study in order to focus solely on the concept of FM radio on a mobile phone.

“FM radio on your smartphone” is a reasonable marketing statement around which broadcasters can rally, but the underlying message for me is “FM radio for everywhere else.” NextRadio is facing multiple hurdles including recruiting wider wireless carrier support and the long-shot proposition of bringing Apple on board.

Of course, if Google and Apple are really determined to displace the in-vehicle car stereo they should be taking a closer look at NextRadio. For Apple it is a simple enough decision to implement. (Apple phones have FM demodulator capability today but lack filters and antennas to enable FM to work.)

For Google, it amounts to nothing more than adding NextRadio tech to AndroidOne reference designs. At the recent Google I/O event, indications were that AndroidOne will have the necessary FM radio silicon, but the full scope of enabling technology to be included was unclear.

RadioDNS in the UK is working on setting standards for enabling a full hybrid (IP + broadcast) experience on smartphones and in cars. Auto makers are working with RadioDNS and ETSI to make this happen and significant progress has been made.

Starting with Nokia, handset makers and carriers outside the U.S. long ago decided to enable FM reception on handsets as a tick-box feature. The next step is to make the broadcast signal available on handsets as a resource either for standalone apps or as an accessible resource for other apps.

It is possible that Nokia’s historical weakness in the U.S. contributed to the lack of interest in radio integration on mobile phones. RadioDNS is working closely with Emmis to merge the NextRadio and hybrid radio experiences. Today, NextRadio advocates must customize the app to work on a phone-by-phone basis.

In the meantime, NextRadio is stuck in the awkward position of trying on its own to liberate the radio from the car — the one venue where radio remains simultaneously strong and imminently at risk. And to escape the car, NextRadio is dependent on the support of the wireless industry — which is way more interested in enabling streaming audio services than facilitating free over-the-air reception of content.

NextRadio has the power to turn radio into a much more interactive medium. But the wireless industry holds the key to unlocking that opportunity. The broadcast industry exchanged a substantial amount of advertising airtime to bring Sprint on-board. Is there enough inventory to bring the rest of the wireless industry along?

Roger Lanctot