Keeping Radio Relevant in the Digital Dash

Smartphone use by Americans keeps rising and it’s affecting how listeners access radio in the car and elsewhere.

Some 71 percent of Americans now own a smartphone, and 73 percent of those owners use them to listen to radio online, according to the latest “Infinite Dial” survey from Edison Research and Triton Digital.

In fact, “online radio has truly become consistent behavior” for some people, according to Triton Digital Market Development President John Rosso.

AM/FM in-car is still the most used audio source at 81 percent in a survey of some 2,000 listeners age 12+; that compares to the CD player at 55 percent and MP3 player/owned music at 38 percent.

Though AM/FM remains strong, it’s being challenged by other audio sources in the car, especially among the younger demographics, concluded
Edison and Triton.

This trend is occurring as automakers install more in-vehicle connectivity in the new “digital” dashboard infotainment systems. AM/FM and HD
Radio share dashboard space with pure-play streaming audio services, satellite radio and music that drivers bring into the car.

Automakers are making it easier for consumers to connect their smartphones in their car, with systems that make it possible to wirelessly connect either Apple or Android smartphones through technologies like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

In addition to all the competitors mentioned above for the listener’s time, podcasts are becoming more of a factor; podcast consumption is no longer a “niche medium,” according to Edison Research Vice President of Strategy and Marketing Tom Webster.

All these trends mean more competition for over-the-air, live radio. That’s why iBiquity Digital and Emmis Communications expanded their partnership and have developed a prototype of their combined HD Radio-NextRadio auto platform, which they plan to feature at the NAB Show.

The first implementation combines FM analog and digital over-the-air radio services with visual and digital capabilities of the NextRadio smartphone app. IBiquity Digital President/CEO Bob Struble believes the platform is “an opportunity to pair the efficient, free, over-theair broadcast service with connectivity.”

In their auto platform, the NextRadio smartphone app has been simplified, making it easier and safer to use in a moving vehicle.

The auto platform development is underway as an on-air marketing push has begun to let consumers know about the availability of FM radio on their mobile devices. The NAB, RAB and National Alliance of State Broadcasting Associations asked stations to support the industry effort.

“If our industry tells the American people that they can activate the FM chip in every smartphone, we are certain that our industry will be dramatically revitalized. It’s in our hands now, and we can succeed if we all work together,” said Emmis Chair/President/CEO Jeff Smulyan.

MORE RADIOS

While NextRadio and iBiquity combine work in the car, efforts to increase the number of HD Radio tuners in the marketplace increase.

According to iBiquity, every automaker that sells cars in the United States now includes HD Radio in at least some models, either as factory-standard or optional equipment. Struble calls that the result of a “many, many year effort.”

Some 70 new HD Radio consumer products will be available in 2015, according to iBiquity.

However, fewer consumer electronics devices include AM/FM these days and portables and tabletop radios are becoming harder to find. That’s why iBiquity has added two European suppliers, Roberts Radio and View Quest, to its list of partners; these tuners will be on display in iBiquity’s booth.

So too will tabletops, portables and boomboxes available online from iBiquity’s new private label “Sparc Radio” line.

AM REVITALIZATION

Meanwhile, the industry still awaits FCC action on “AM revitalization,” a package of proposals designed to help AM station owners, such as loosening many of the technical regulations governing AM transmission and antennas.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai urged his colleagues to be decisive on the issue, telling broadcasters meeting in Toronto recently, “Now is the time to take concrete action because time isn’t on the side of this grand old band.”

AM operation, signal coverage and digital AM will be discussed at length in today’s Broadcast Engineering Conference panel “AM Radio Boot Camp,” 10:30 a.m.–6 p.m. Of particular note is the 5 p.m. panel “Digita lBroadcasting on the AM Bands: Is it Ready for Prime Time?”

“The Future of Connected Car Content Consumption” and a “NextRadio Update” offer insight into the impact on terrestrial radio’s place in the digital dash and tips on connecting with in-car listeners in the future. They’re part of Wednesday’s Broadcast Management Conference’s “Digital Strategies Exchange for Radio,” 10:30 a.m.–4 p.m. NAB Labs presents this one-day series of workshops focusing on several technologies affecting radio, aimed at non-technical managers.