Why Getting the FM Chip Activated in Smartphones is Critical to Radio’s Future

Transistor_radioIt was not that many years ago that most people carried a transistor radio with them. They took it to the beach or to a party and radio was the primary source of musical entertainment. Today there are still lots of radios in cars, in homes and in the work place. But the one place that radio is not, is the one device that most people look at and use multiple times a day. That of course is the smartphone.

To be fair, there are some Blackberry and HTC devices that have a radio tuner built in and activated, but the most popular phones cannot listen to a local radio via a tuner built into the smartphone, because either the manufacturer or the carrier has not activated the FM chip which allows this to happen.

Did you know that many of today’s smartphones already have an FM receiver built in, but not activated? This means that everyone could have easy access to radio for the entertainment they love and information they need, but those FM receivers are not activated by all wireless carriers and phone manufacturers.

The NAB analyzed the top 70% of smartphones based on sales volume at the NAB labs and found the following:

  • Listening to FM radio provides as much as a six-fold battery life extension over online streaming services. Also they noted that battery life is better when listening to radio on a built in tuner on your smartphone as opposed to streaming audio.
  • According to the NAB, FM radio listening on a smartphone has almost no impact on a user’s data plan. However, according to the NAB, labs streaming 2 hours of an online radio services per day can consume over 3.5 gigabytes of data per month.
  • When the FM chips is enabled, every smartphone can be a radio, allowing critical emergency information to be distributed by radio stations quickly and efficiently. There is absolutely no cost to the carrier, but there are revenue share opportunities which could be a welcomed source of revenue for both radio and the cell phone companies.

The NAB had virtually every cell phone on the market as at the end of 2014 taken to an independent research laboratory and stripped down. Here’s is what they found:

2% of smart phones have the FM chip activated
20% of all smartphones tested have the FM chip installed and could easily be activated
10% of all smartphones tested have the FM chip installed but it is not activated
68% of all smartphones the FM chip is unavailable or could not be identified. Of these phones, Apple iPhone made up 67%.

Getting the FM chip activated in Canada is starting to gain some traction. But this may not be easy because some of the cell phone companies don’t see the value in allowing this to happen. There are training and support challenges and costs associated with this. But the main reason that some cell phone companies don’t want to see this happen is because they are eager for consumers to use lots of data because that is where they make the big money.

Also, some of the companies who manufacture these phones have their own strategy and hope to benefit in some way from not allowing the FM chip to be activated. For example, Apple launched iRadio a year ago. It has been total disaster for Apple and in early 2016 they quietly shut that division down, and today the only Apple Radio stream I can find is Beats1.

But getting the FM chip activated is only half the battle. Next we need a single app that can tune all radio stations that can be heard in an area and make it really easy for listeners to find the station they wish to listen to on their smartphone. Fortunately, all the heavy lifting has already been done thanks to a number of American broadcasters who developed the NextRadio app. This is a simple app that can come pre-installed on your smartphone.

In the USA, Sprint entered into an agreement with Next Radio and has shipped over 8 million phones with the FM chip activated and the NextRadio app already installed out of the box. In addition, the Next Radio app has been downloaded over 5.7 million times onto other phones as at the end of 2015. There are over 12,700 radio stations available on the app which covers almost every radio station in the USA.

This all happened because radio in the USA took a very proactive approach and ran promos and PSA’s educating the public about the benefits of activating the FM chip. They used the power of radio to drive listeners to websites such as www.freeradioonmyphone.org and encouraged consumers to contact their cell phone provider, the FCC congress and even Apple and demand that they activate the FM chip. They also encouraged listeners to use the power of social media to spread the word using the hashtag #UnlockFM. As at the time of writing this article there is now only one of the major US wireless carriers who have yet to activate the FM chip in smartphones and that is Verizon. However it is important to note that Apple, who have a massive share of the market Apple have not as yet activated the FM chip in the USA, even though it is built into every one of their phones.


tagstation_Page_2Built into the NextRadio app is the Tag station tools which allow listeners to not only hear the radio station, but also display album artwork and provides listener interaction.  Tag stations also synchronizes visuals and provides value metadata to improve the listener experience. Listens can purchase songs instantly, or click on an ad graphic for a voucher, or directions to the location.

NextRadio ran a national test case with Insurance giant Allstate on 245 radio stations in 78 markets from April until mid September 2015.  When the ad played on radio it was synchronized with the image, and digital call to action in the NextRadio App.


allstate ads

2.28% of listeners responded directly to the Allstate campaign which is 114 times better than the advert click through ratio on a display ad on a website.


I am told that the NextRadio people had a high level meeting with at least one Canadian cell phone carrier at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas recently and there appears to be a level of interest. However, they will likely want to know that most Canadian radio stations are prepared to embrace NextRadio before they ink a deal.

By the way, NextRadio was one of the hot items shown off at CES in Las Vegas in early January. It was shown on the latest smartphones such as BLU who released their new Vivo 5 and Vivo XL, both in shiny gold and featuring NextRadio as the native FM tuner application. NextRadio has partnered with BLU to be the native tuner for all forthcoming devices.

Also, the NextRadio app was being demonstrated in the Ford booth as a featured SmartDeviceLink app. SmartDeviceLink is Ford’s open-source platform for connecting smartphone apps with the Sync car dashboard, and the technology was also recently adopted by Toyota. The in-vehicle demo showed how the FM tuner worked as powered by NextRadio. The app connects via Bluetooth and uses the station guide and metadata from NextRadio to create a visual and interactive radio experience in the car dashboard.

This is perhaps the most compelling reason for our industry to band together and not only get the FM chip enabled but also to ensure the app is on as many car dashboards as possible. I have been shopping for a new car for some time and have sat in lots of 2016 models and already I am seeing vehicles in Canadian show rooms with Apple’s Carplay and Googles Android Auto product. We need the radio to be in the car dashboard, and extend that to include the Nextradio app so listeners can enjoy the full extent of the tools and benefits this app offers.

Aside from the convenience benefit, there is also a major safety benefit in having a FM radio tuner that can pick up all the local radio stations on your smart phone. When disaster strikes, often the cell phone grid is the first to go down, either because of equipment failure or overloading. Here is what FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Administrator Craig Fugate had to say about value of FM Radio on Smartphones

“I don’t think people realize how vulnerable they are. For example, recently there was an earthquake in Virginia and while there was no real damage to the cell system, there was such high data demand, and demand for getting through, the system crashed and people could not make, and in many cases receive, calls. So, all of a sudden, their smartphone became a brick. We also saw the same thing happen when Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern seaboard. The cell systems went down or data was overloaded, and people could not get information. But when you start combining functions, like putting FM chips into cell phones, you start getting local radio. So even if the cell systems are overloaded, you still get that information and it moves us beyond streaming.

With radio chips in smartphones this is way to ensure that when all else fails, you can still get from the broadcasters critical information, because the government’s going to turn to the broadcasters and we’re going to pump information either through the emergency alert system or through broadcasters.

We always say all disasters are local and the most important information is going to come from those local broadcasters that are plugged into local officials, telling you what’s going on, on the ground. In a crisis, your best source of information is going to be the locals, and a lot of times, that’s going to be on radio.

At FEMA we still recommend every person have a portable radio with some sort of emergency power, whether it’s batteries, solar or hand cranked.

We don’t want you to think that this technology isn’t great, but we also want you to think about, in a disaster, can you get information? And what’s out there? So, again, we’re still recommending you get a radio. And, if your radio’s now in your cell phone, that’s just one less device that you have to have to have an extra of.  But, it’s important to make sure you can get those broadcasts in an emergency.”

In Canada there are lots of reasons to push to get the FM chip enabled, and also adopt the NextRadio model. Frankly, it seems like a no brainer from a public safety point of view, but it will require action on the part of our industry to make this happen.