What''s “Next” for Radio?

August 16, 2014

None of the major cellular carriers responded to requests for information, yet in the words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Having expected the cellular industry to be the big bad wolf, it became clear that as with AM stereo and HD Radio, here we go again, because we are afraid to lead and afraid to be lead.

For nearly a year, Emmis has offered NextRadio, http://nextradioapp.com/, an app for smartphones with the Android OS. While it has received some recent new attention, I have to ask: Where is the effort as an industry?

In 1954, the transistor took radio from transportable to truly portable. Within 15 years, that was reduced to pocket-sized. You could leave your car, and easily take radio with you. Sony''s Walkman 25 years later made your tape collection portable. For the next 35 years, portables still had tuners, fancy features, and a headphone jack even as the tape media changed. Today that size hosts a lifestyle and technologies that did not exist 5 to 30 years ago. So why isn''t there an FM radio receiver in your smartphone? The technology is readily available to include FM (yes, even IBOC) receivers in smart phones.

There are, in fact, at least 30 models of smartphone by Samsung, LG, HTC and others operating on the Android OS reported to include FM receivers and support the NextRadio app. I have one of those. A Samsung Galaxy 5, with service from AT&T Mobile. I downloaded and successfully installed the app. Here is the result when I try to run the app (see image). The app is indicating that the phone hardware is restricted, but it is not clear if by Samsung, AT&T or both. By some reports, there are 4–5 times those numbers in various cellular phone models that include an analog FM Rx. Kind of surprised, are you? Let''s get educated about the NextRadio app.

NextRadio is a smartphone FM receiver and data hybrid application spearheaded by Emmis and offered initially by Sprint (also Boost and Virgin Mobile). The app, which is free, allows a listener''s phone to access FM station interactive content without a hit to their data plan. Radio stations can sign up (nominal charge) for a TagStation license that allows the enhanced use of metadata, song, artist, and title info, station specific content, even messages, to the phone. With an FM receiver chip, the user gets content (even absent NextRadio) including emergency mass notifications, where no data network, usage charges, or subscription are required to receive on the portable device. There are reports that using the FM receiver to receive content increases battery life by three times. Searching the Internet, most of the carriers and some manufacturers in the U.S. market have taken to disable the FM receiver. They all make claims that the OTA restriction is offset by the ability to receive streaming media, in many cases at the cost of additional data consumption. The carriers all offer competing services that are supported by subscription and advertising, which has placed them in the role of being competitors to over-the-air broadcasting, with several unfair advantages, most being the result of antiquated regulation. The inability to use the included FM receiver in my S5, after downloading the NextRadio app, causes one to wonder if this isn''t a restraint of trade issue. That would be an FTC/DOJ matter, not an FCC matter. Imagine not being able to use the clock in your microwave because Samsung also sells clocks bundled with a Microsoft NTP subscription. But … are they the villain in this story?

Digital media research firm Coleman Insights has produced some rather startling research with regard to under-40 listener perceptions on behalf of NextRadio; see http://www.colemaninsights.com/nextradio. In the survey video, there are interviews and summaries with a decent sample of listeners. The most startling takeaway, in my opinion, is that listeners are not aware that free OTA radio reception is portable. They are of the impression that radio is something that comes with a car (and is going away). So…the chip is disabled in the phone, and the consumer is not complaining because they have no idea that it is either there, or how they can use it.

How did this come to happen, that the industry that birthed portable media, is now shut out of portable media? The research goes on to show while there is interest; there is little knowledge of the OTA or streaming media aspects of FM. NextRadio addresses both of these, but how is the industry making the consumer aware? We seem to be a much bigger part of the problem that the survey expected to reveal. If you don''t know, how will the listener know?

Recently NPR, American Public Media and Educational Media Foundation have become active voices in educating the industry about NextRadio. The industry has to educate the regulators. BlackBerry is reported to offer some models with FM receivers active in the US. HTC''s One (M8) is reported to allow FM reception on most carriers. Cox is reported to have subscribed to TagStation, as have many other broadcasters. Digital isn''t going away. We can lead, or we can follow, but if we do nothing, we are going to be pushed out of the dashboard, out of the portable device, and out of the way. Decide what''s Next for Radio.