Radio Grapples With Its Place in the Car

This is a dynamic time for radio people who care about how content is consumed in the car.

NAB Show will explore podcasting, smart speakers, digital revenue and other trends for radio, but it’s noteworthy that “The In-Vehicle Experience” is a key theme.

Internet connectivity is approaching ubiquity, while autonomous vehicles are becoming more common and dashboards are turning into massive “Star Trek” displays. Broadcast leaders see an opportunity for content consumption, delivery and tailored experiences for riders. This opportunity goes far beyond radio, but its impact on radio is a key story line.

The Radio Advertising Bureau captures our moment this way: “Radio is and always has been the foundation of infotainment in the vehicle and continues to capitalize on the rich opportunity to expand upon technological advancements for broadcast and compelling, original and local content that people want to listen to,” it posted recently.

“Radio’s in-dash experience is changing—there are advancements in HD Radio allowing for a richer and more robust content experience. With voice controls, the driver can easily request where to tune in, and the possibilities to act on advertising are becoming quite real. Imagine hearing an ad on the radio and using voice to tell your vehicle to drive you there, or hear an ad on the radio and ask for the information to be sent to your smartphone via SMS or text.”

Broadcast AM/FM radio remains the audio source Americans use most often in the car, according to “The Infinite Dial 2019” report from Edison Research and Triton. Yet its share continues to drop, nibbled at by personal music, satellite radio, online audio and podcasting. Many radio companies, of course, use some of those channels too.

At the same time, the number of people whose cars have in-dash information and entertainment systems is approaching one in five. And according to one estimate, nine in 10 new cars will be connected in 2020. Meanwhile, futurists believe that when 5G and car autonomy really kick in, those trends will make the current evolution in dashboard design seem modest. In fact some evangelists have been saying for years that broadcasters should plan for a day when new cars come without analog receivers at all.

At the recent Geneva International Motor Show, Volvo’s Polestar brand showed a pre-production car featuring an Android-based center stack. Roger Lanctot, associate director in the Global Automotive Practice of Strategy Analytics, blogged that the electrified model “revealed for the first time what a full-on Google enhanced in-dash system will do—including controlling a wide range of vehicle functions.” (The car will tune to analog FM, DAB and DAB+ stations as well as streaming audio, though there’s no analog AM receiver.)

The Polestar 2 is just one high-end car model that isn’t even in full production yet. But radio thought leaders are keeping an eye on such developments. Meanwhile, part of the story at NAB Show is the profile of car ecosystem names like Ford, Audi, Waze, Avis Budget Group, the Center for Automotive Research and the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.

More than 55 million cars on North American roads now have HD Radio, according to Xperi. One reason many broadcasters adopted it was to take advantage of its display and data capabilities, so what role will HD Radio play in this ecosystem? Further, NAB’s PILOT and the BBC have both been experimenting with “hybrid” (over-the-air-plus-internet) platforms; where will such systems fit?

And how close are we to an integrated “UX”—a user experience in which a listener will be able to get up from her sofa, hop in her car and head out on the highway without interruption or changing platforms—a seamless experience?

The challenge for radio leaders is encapsulated in a session title: “In-Car Entertainment Perspectives: Piloted Driving ON! Radio OFF?” Whether radio executives view car connectivity as opportunity or threat may depend not only on where they’re going but how fast they can get there. One thing seems inarguable. To quote NAB Executive Vice President of Conventions and Business Operations Chris Brown: “As automobile technology evolves towards autonomy and even more advanced forms of transportation, vehicles are becoming the next frontier for content distribution.”

Radio managers also have plenty to talk about beyond cars, including the possibility that the FCC will ease ownership restrictions further.

The commission is conducting its periodic review of media ownership rules, including the one that limits the number of stations an entity can own in a local market and the number in a market it can own in one service (AM or FM).

The NAB has told the commission it should keep the eight-station limit only in larger markets and only for FM stations, and that it should eliminate numerical limits for both FM and AM outside of the top 75 markets. The commission is taking comments on that idea as well as on whether it should eliminate AM/FM subcaps and how that might affect AM revitalization efforts.

At the NAB State Leadership Conference in February, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly offered some hints of what’s coming.

“At the initial stages, there seems to be agreement that eliminating the AM ownership limit is more than timely,” he said. “Although some may argue that certain AM radio stations have become the de facto news source once provided by local newspapers, that recognition is not a good argument against allowing for greater common ownership. On the contrary, allowing consolidation of AM stations may be a key way to preserve this function. Let’s not ignore what happened to the newspaper industry and the role the commission helped play in its demise by denying similar opportunities to grow and remain viable.”

He noted a number of proposals to permit a relaxation on the number of FM stations owned in a market, and then said: “I am pleased to see that a large portion of the industry has moved past the issue of whether some cap relief is needed and towards just exactly what form it should take. Now that we are past the initial rhetoric, we can figure out how best to provide relief while preserving sufficient diversity of voices in markets.”

On other issues, the FCC also is exploring whether the broadcast radio listening market should remain its relevant product market, or if it should broaden its definition to include satellite radio and online audio.

There’s also a money matter on the minds of some broadcasters, after the commission allocated up to $50 million to help FM stations affected by the TV repack. Congress had authorized this money but left it up to the FCC to administer it. This will help FMs that have had to relocate or modify their facilities or build auxiliary ones to keep operating while construction work was happening on a repacked TV facility.

Also on the technical front, radio attendees will be hoping for updates on the planned changes in use of the C-band, including the possibility of reimbursement and retuning for those that currently use satellite services in that part of the spectrum.