Thursday, March 7, 2013

Terrestrial Radio Needs to Step It Up!

'Radio Transmission Towers Atop Mt. Wilson' photo (c) 2011, Andrew The radio industry has been in quite an uproar in the past ten years or so. Out of the sight-lines of most people, there has been a real struggle involving traditional "terrestrial" radio (which comes to you directly through the air to an old-fashioned AP or FM radio), satellite radio, and Internet radio. Each has its advantages and drawbacks; terrestrial radio is free and has the advantage of being local in scope (paradoxically, some stations have switched to a syndicated format with no local programming, giving up their biggest trump card over the others); satellite radio is available pretty much wherever you are for a monthly subscription fee which never changes, and there are a zillion channels to choose from; Internet radio offers even more stations than satellite, with the added benefit of being highly customizable (like Pandora or Songza).

Each of the three also has its drawbacks (terrestrial radio has a limited range, statellite radio requires the purchase of expensive equipment and has an ongoing subscription cost, Internet radio can be expensive based on your bandwidth usage and can be glitchy if you have a slow connection). Terrestrial radio stations have tried to fight back by broadcasting online in addition to their on-the-air signal; my guess is that this strategy meets with some degree of success, because these days it's not easy to find a terrestrial station which doesn't also have an online stream. But I think terrestrial radio stations are not doing everything they can to make technology work to their advantage.

For example: one of my cars has a radio that can display the name of the song you're listening to as it plays... if the radio station's transmitter is broadcasting that information. I'm amazed at the number of stations that either don't provide that information at all, or just continuously broadcast the station's call letters and station motto. Come on, people! This tech has been in place for years now! You KNOW you have this information. You've got a computer logging every song that is played anyway, and even if you don't, in this era when any smartphone with Soundhound or Shazam or Midomi or any number of other apps can instantly identify a song based on just a few seconds randomly selected from the middle of the song, there's no reason to not automatically provide that information to your listeners. And you don't even have to burn airtime having your DJ say the title. It's just THERE.

But if the terrestrial stations really want to keep people from heading to Best Buy and picking up that Sirius or XM box, I think there are things they could invest in as an industry that might keep people in their court.

I think every new automobile radio should have a GPS sensor in it. I don't think they should necessarily have navigation information built into them, but I think they should know where they are in the world. Why would this be useful in a radio? Because if you know where you are in the world, and you know what stations exist there, then you can provide a list of available stations to choose from. If there was a list that could be downloaded periodically, I'll bet people would go to the trouble to set it up. If you park your car in your garage and you have WiFi in your home, chances are your car could access that signal (maybe even using the car radio antenna!) and download. If you don't have a signal where you park but your cell phone has hotspot capability, you could use that to periodically update your list. Or you could park out in front of McDonald's or Starbuck's or somewhere else that has a free WiFi signal, and in a few seconds your list could be updated.

Or maybe there doesn't have to be a master list at all! It would be entirely possible for a radio, over time, to gauge the availability and strength of radio signals in places where the car goes, and build its own list over time. With digital memory as cheap as it is, you could store a great deal of information. Heck, it would even be possible to share that information with other radios nearby, so if you're sitting in a traffic jam or parking lot, your radio could be comparing notes with other radios about what frequencies are available where. You might find that you drive to a new place and your radio already knows what stations are there!

But let's back up even further. There are only a few places I frequent... I live in the Tulsa Oklahoma area, and my brother lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. Sometimes we drive to Oklahoma City, and I have family in Shreveport Louisiana. In each of those places I have stations I like to listen to, but I only have twelve or so radio presets to play with. Just my Tulsa stations fill up those buttons; when I visit my brother in DFW, I have to reprogram my radio presets. Why not have an arbitrary number of preset banks, which are sensitive to location? Why can't my radio show my Tulsa presets when I'm in Tulsa, and when I'm in Dallas, show me my favorite stations down there?

And let's go even one step further. In Tulsa, one of the stations I listen to has three separate frequencies that all broadcast the same programming. Depending on where you are in town, any one of the three might have a stronger signal than the others. Why shouldn't I be able to group the three so that, based either on my physical location or signal strength, the channel automatically changes to the best signal? And even better: that station is one of those local stations that is actually part of a national network. They just launched a frequency in Dallas. Why can't my button for them in Tulsa be the button for the same programming when I get to Dallas? Stations could provide a downloadable list of their own frequencies that could be used to program this new, cool, technology-enhanced terrestrial radio. Heck, stations could even provide an internal link to their Internet streams if they wanted, so Internet-capable radios would be able to switch to the online stream when they are out of range of the over-the-air signal. I think it would make sense for the terrestrial radio industry to invest actual money in developing these technologies, because when they become available, it will benefit them tremendously.

I won't even go into things like the possibility of the radio being able to make suggestions based on genre (rock, country, talk, etc.) because those capabilities are already out there in some existing radios. That technology suffers from the same problem the Song ID technology suffers from: stations don't always provide that information in their signals. I could also brainstorm from the perspective of the marketers: transmit the station or show's call-in number with the signal so your radio could dial your cell phone for you (there's a "distracted driving" case for the lawyers) or use the GPS capability to let you know when one of the station's advertisers is nearby. There are so many ways that car radios could be enhanced, it's kind of sad that in general, car radios still do basically the same thing they did in the 1970s when you knew what station you were on by looking at where the stick was over the list of numbers.

Terrestrial radio hasn't been making the effort to beat out their competitors in outer space and on the Internet. Many new car radios come with a line-in jack; mine doesn't, but I have a small FM transmitter that I can use to play music from my cell phone through my car radio. Even now, I can choose Internet radio over terrestrial if I like. As bandwidth continues to get cheaper and Internet music services continue to get better, traditional radio needs to step up its game, or it's nothing but downhill from here.

(Since I wrote this post, I've learned that 4G is coming soon to a car near you. Get on the ball, radio stations!)

I'm not a radio industry professional, and it's entirely possible that I've gotten some of my details wrong. Do you know something that contradicts the ideas I've presented here? Any more ideas that could be incorporated into car radio technology that would make listening to over-the-air radio easier or more enjoyable? Has the terrestrial radio industry made an effort to help technology along? Join the discussion below in the comments section!

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