Successive rounds of hurricanes battering the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico are the latest fodder in a radio industry campaign designed to pressure smartphone manufacturers to include radio reception capability in their devices.
Many Android-compatible smarphones are capable of receiving FM signals. The radio industry, led by Emmis Communications, has designed an app called NextRadio that functions as an onboard tuner.
Prior elements of this campaign involved running public service announcements letting people know this functionality existed, and low-key advocacy for a possible mandate for FM in smartphones both at the FCC and Congress. Following Hurricane Irma’s destruction, particularly in Florida, broadcasters amped it up.
They took their cue from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who explicitly called out Apple on September 28th to enable FM reception in their phones “to promote public safety.” The next day, the National Association of Broadcasters issued a statement that claimed Apple’s iPhone hardware does indeed contain a chip capable of FM reception, but the company has chosen to disable it; “we encourage Apple to activate this feature on their future handsets so Americans can have access to lifesaving information during emergency situations, something that many local radio stations provide.”
Other industry players took things further. The advocacy site “Free Radio on my Phone,” run by National Public Radio, American Public Media, Educational Media Foundation (that’s two public broadcasters and the largest religious broadcast conglomerate in the country), and NextRadio, redesigned their front page to provide quick links for listeners to complain to Apple and contact the FCC. The Adams Radio Group launched a more strident site called “Activate FM Chip Now.”
That’s all it took for the hot takes to start pouring in. You can see a collection here: the general theme is the industry’s frame, in which Apple is nefariously withholding FM functionality from its devices in order to drive everyone into streaming services that it controls.
Perhaps one of the most shrill was an editorial from south Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, which demanded that Apple enable the “hidden radios” in its devices. “Smartphones contain an inner switch that lets them receive over-the-air analog signals from local radio stations,” said the paper. “In other countries, including Cuba, manufacturers are required to flip the switch on. But in this country, Apple rules. And it prefers to sell the iPhone with the FM radio button switched off.”
Apple wasn’t having this, and the tech-press had a field day. This representative article from TechCrunch captures the tone best. It also includes a statement from Apple that says while there was hardware onboard iPhones that could conceivably permit FM reception, it was removed as of the iPhone 7 model-line.
The author of this piece, Matthew Panzarino, notes that Apple is such a large player in the semiconductor market that chip-maunfacturers make hardware for iPhones to Apple’s custom specifications. “The FM block is simply not there in current iPhone radio chips,” he writes. “It may look the same but it’s not on the chip at all. Broadcom would need to re-spin the chip to add the stuff Apple would need back in.”
Both sides in this tussle are shading the truth for their own ends, but the broadcasters and those journalists who bit on their line display a surprising degree of technological illiteracy. There is no magic “switch” in iPhones to enable FM reception. A single chip in iPhones, and most other smarphones, does triple-duty, capable of handling wi-fi, Bluetooth, and FM signals.
However, the chip must be physically mated to the rest of the smarphone hardware in a configuration that enables this capability. The firmware that controls the hardware must also be programmed to include this functionality. And other hardware-elements must also be present for the FM reception to work, such as a standard 3.5 millimeter headphone jack which itself is connected to the circuitry that handles FM – for your headphone-cord is used as the receiver’s antenna.
Apple devices still do contain a chip that theoretically can handle FM reception. In the iPhone 7, Murata makes the hardware in question, while in the iPhone 8 it’s Universal Scientific International.
Available specifications on these semiconductors tell a muddled tale. It seems that the Murata chip only contains wi-fi and Bluetooth capability, while several outlets reviewing iPhone 8 teardowns claim that USI’s chip does contain FM capability. So Apple’s shade is claiming that no onboard hardware can receive an FM signal, as the functionality was intentionally omitted by design.
Yet this doesn’t really matter since Apple removed the headphone jack completely starting with the iPhone 7 in favor of a Bluetooth-based wireless headphone system. Thus, Apple is correct when saying the potential for FM functionality was removed in iPhones starting with the model 7 – but that’s primarily due to the headphone situation, not any semiconductor issue.
The entire “magic FM switch in smarphones” incident best illustrates how behind-the-curve the U.S. radio industry is when it comes to understanding and interacting with technologies newer than its own, and the desperation that exists within the industry to do anything it can to find some sort of foothold in them. Some car manufacturers are now phasing out AM reception entirely, while radio itself occupies a subsidiary position in most automotive center-consoles now. Even the smartphone-fixation feels kind of yesterday-ish, as this year the industry’s been hyping the potential to bring “radio back into the home” by enaging with “smart speaker” devices like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod.
The fact that radio has to struggle to find and maintain a meaningful foothold in these technologies and their platforms says much about how little its legacy matters in today’s media environment. The radio industry has nobody to blame for these woes but itself, as it wasted crucial decades getting fat, dumb, and happy on industry consolidation and passing aural pabulum off as “product,” while also trying to force its own proprietary digital broadcast platform on the rest of us.
A period of catch-up is often required when the world passes you by…but you don’t get there from here by blaming third parties for your own history of hubris.