Public radio execs call for FM in smartphones, and they are right

haaga mctaggartIn a collaborative open letterPaul Haaga (acting President and CEO of NPR) and Jon McTaggart (CEO of American Public Media Group) call for all smartphones to contain activated FM chips. Specifically, the two public radio leaders call on broadcasters to demand FM capability from smartphone manufacturers and cell-phone carriers. The editorial cites radio’s traditional, and still vital role as information source during emergencies.

We agree with the emergency angle, but also regard FM as a desirable mobile feature in all respects, and relatively easy to accomplish. Smartphones do contain FM chips, but in most models they are not activated. That activation must be done by the phone builder, and phone carriers can put pressure on them to do so. But the initiative really belongs to broadcasters, who have the most skin in the game.

In the pre-iPod era, most MP3 players did embody FM reception — it was part of the standard feature set. Apple excluded FM from the iPod, whose specifications created a new template for MP3 devices. When Apple introduced the iPhone, there was no company legacy of FM inclusion, and the iPhone template became standard for smartphones.

nokia lumia 925There are exceptions. Last year Nokia put activated FM in its Lumia 925.

Also last year, the Emmis radio group spearheaded a solution with Sprint, affecting some (not all) models of Sprint phones whose FM chips are activated. An Emmis-created specialty app called NextRadio, powered by a delivery platform called TagStation, is available to owners of those phones, and required to get FM reception. FM listening on those phones doesn’t touch the data plan, which is one advantage over pulling in FM programming through an Internet app like TuneIn or iHeartRadio. TagStation also allows NextRadio to deliver enhancements like album art and artist/song info, if the radio station supplies them.

The NextRadio solution is called out and encouraged by Haaga and McTaggart, but it’s not the main point. The main point is that phone makers should activate those dormant FM chips. It wouldn’t surprise us if NPR/APM had an idea of developing its own delivery apps in a universe of FM-activated smartphones. NPR was one of the quickest radio groups to leverage the Internet in its programming and delivery, and remains on the forefront of podcasting, time-shifting, and other brand extensions.

But whether or not NPR has a secondary motive, we agree that smartphones, which brilliantly accomplish thousands of functions, should be enabled to play radio.

Brad Hill