Radio broadcasters in the USA are once again pushing new technology that allows smartphones to pick up traditional radio signals with an app-based interface called NextRadio.
Surprisingly, smartphones already have the built-in hardware necessary to listen to regular radio signals, but cellphone companies must activate the FM chips for them to work.
So far only one cellular service provider, Sprint, has started offering the service to its customers, but radio stations plan to roll out an advertising campaign later this year to raise customer awareness. Since launching in August, about 200,000 users have signed up, according to Jeff Smulyan, president and CEO of Emmis Communications, the broadcast company that created the NextRadio app.
Most radio companies also stream their signals on them Internet, but the NextRadio technology is more appealing to broadcasters because it is cheaper to reach listeners over the air. NextRadio also benefits consumers because it doesn’t come with any data charges.
Broadcasters are hoping NextRadio broadens their listener base on the heels of 32 percent growth for digital streaming in 2013.
“The idea has been to steadily roll it out (and) introduce the concept to the industry,” Smulyan said. “We will start to introduce it to advertisers this year as we get more critical mass.”
The Tennessee Association of Broadcasters is supporting the app. Its president, Whit Adamson, said connecting smartphone users with traditional radio signals is critical to the future of the radio industry.
The application has a sleek interface that allows listeners to search for a radio signal based on the format they’d like to listen to — news, talk, country, sports, hip-hop, etc. When a song plays, the app displays the artist, the name of the album and the song title.
Using the example of KPWR, Power 106, a popular hip-hop station in Los Angeles, Smulyan said it is cheaper for broadcasters to reach listeners over the air as opposed to through streaming services, which most major broadcast companies offer.
“Our cost to transmit our signal to our listeners — and we have 3 million a week — is a $39,600 (annual) electricity bill,” he said. “If I took my transmitter and streamed through data networks, my cost to send my signal to my listeners is $1 million a year.”
Bud Walters, president of the Cromwell Group, which owns 23 radio stations in Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, said the technology has an added value as an emergency alert system. While natural disasters can affect cellphone communication and Internet connections, radio signals have been known to hold up under such conditions, Walters said.
“A good example is the ice storm of a few years ago when up in Owensboro, Kentucky, they lost telephone, cellphone service, cable, electricity — there was no communication for a week,” Walters said. “The only communication was our four radio stations. If you had it on your phone, so many more people would have had access.”
Smulyan said broadcasters have continued to have discussions with the other service providers such as Verizon and AT&T about activating the FM chips in their phones. He said automobile manufacturers such as Ford, GM and Honda have expressed an interest as well.
“The National Association of Broadcasters came to us and said your future to be in smartphones and all devices is interactivity,” Smulyan said. “We needed to build an interactive system, and that’s what we did.”
You can see a list of Smartphones that support this app here but at this point it is only supported on Android devices by the looks of it.
If you have an iPod Nano you can see and hear this app in action. Most Smartphones, including the iPhone already have FM chips built into them, but it requires the manufacturer and the cell phone companies such as Rogers, Bell and Telus to want to activate them. There have been a number of cell phones sold over the past few years that came with a built in tuner and used the headphones as the antenna, including a number of Samsung models. Blackberry have a radio tuner built into their new phones as well.
The CAB and local broadcasting associations need to make a lot more noise about this important safety issue, in my opinion, especially given the recent ice storms, and harsh winter conditions in Canada. A lot of Canadians lost electricity for several days at the end of 2013 and into 2014 because of the severe weather. Most Canadians have a cell phone so giving them the ability to listen to a local radio station via their cell phone would make it easier to get important safety information out to the public quickly and perhaps save some lives.