Perhaps the most interesting news on the digital radio front to come out of the NAB’s annual convention this year was the progress report on NextRadio. The Emmis-developed app works as an analog FM radio tuner on selected Android smartphones and was initially rolled out on the Sprint network last year; radio stations can also subscribe to a companion service to push related content to mobile listeners.

As of this month, NextRadio reported that the app had been downloaded more than 400,000 times through Google Play and has a 32% retention rate (meaning one-third of those who downloaded NextRadio continued to use it after a month). Some T-Mobile users have also successfully reported installing the app, and its developers say more phones are forthcoming with NextRadio pre-installed.

Yet broadcasters are not participating en masse: while 35% have signed up enough to have the app display their station logo (free), only 3% offer any interactivity through the app ($).

In many respects, NextRadio is an elegant kludge, bringing radio capability to the fastest-growing media device in the marketplace, while using the data-conduit of wireless telephony to provide a semblance of interactivity in the broadcast radio space. On the station-side, minimal NextRadio adoption costs nothing, but most FM chips in phones can also decode Radio Data System (RDS) signals, a decades-old supplemental FM technology that can provide some datacasting overhead within the app itself.

Prior to the NAB convention, NextRadio got a hearty endorsement from the CEOs of National Public Radio and American Public Media (even though NPR’s already invested heavily in the mobile space), and Sprint added NextRadio-equipped phones to its Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile service lines. Emmis also announced it’s beta-testing "interactive advertising" inside the app with "national brand" advertisers.

At the show itself, NextRadio demonstrated an automotive version of its app, which integrates HD-received data into the NextRadio experience (first demoed at the Consumer Electronics Show in January), and generally basked in the glow of a feisty first year post-launch. Radio World reported that Sprint and NextRadio were also working to get the app onto selected tablet devices later this year, but it would seem that they still have to figure out just which tablets might have FM receiver chips onboard.

On the day the convention wrapped up, industry trade All Access enthusiastically endorsed NextRadio, pledging it "will do all it can to help spread the word…and the need [for the radio industry] to truly get behind [the app]." The NAB also plans to add its heft to an upcoming campaign to encourage broadcaster buy-in.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told NAB attendees that the agency was unlikely to mandate FM chips in mobile devices, though she does hope they "will agitate carriers a little" to at least enable the FM-reception capability many smartphones already have. Outside of some vague talk of outreach, there’s no signs that other wireless carriers are rushing to board the NextRadio train. The radio industry soiled its relationship with mobile device-makers four years ago when it suggested going directly to Congress for such a mandate, and the idea hasn’t aged well.

At this stage, this position is somewhat baffling, for in a saturated device-market you’d think additional functionality would be a desirable differentiator. Furthermore, since NextRadio uses the carriers’ data networks to serve up all interactive elements, it’s unlikely that FM radio listenership alone will materially trim someone’s data usage.

All Access columnist Perry Michael Simon, who was underwhelmed by a NextRadio retail experience earlier this year, came away from NAB with renewed respect for the app—as well as a long list of suggested improvements. Among them are enhanced geolocation services, the ability to switch between a station’s FM signal and its stream, and the ability to record and share content between listeners. He saves the last suggestion "for the industry":

Do not forget for a moment that the most important thing about this app is the content. None of the tech stuff matters if the programming isn’t worth the trouble. You can’t on the one hand push this app and on the other reduce your offerings to voice-tracked mush. If you offer really good programming and NextRadio is the best way to get it, you win. If you offer anything less, your app could be the Greatest Thing Ever and it won’t matter. Great content will go further to sell the desirability of FM on your phone than anything else.

It’s important to keep in mind that for all the potential of NextRadio, it’s far from an industry-wide solution. AM and HD reception simply does not exist on mobile devices, and there’s no expectation for this to change. NextRadio might stand to unify the presentation of broadcasters on the glass dashboards of vehicles, provided this version makes it out of beta and automakers can be convinced to install it expeditiously.

I do not envy the long road NextRadio must travel before it might reach the near-ubiquity of other mobile services that are slowly redefining what "radio" itself is. Relative to those, the overall penetration of and engagement with the U.S. radio listening audience is infinitesimal, so in addition to coaxing broadcasters on board, mobile device manufacturers must be convinced to enable FM reception; every wireless carrier must be convinced to embrace the app; and the app itself needs to work across operating systems (Android-only won’t cut it).

These are no small feats, and they will require a unity of purpose among broadcasters far beyond what’s been mustered for prior digital projects. Even so, NextRadio may very well be radio’s only ongoing digital play that promises some meaningful return-on-investment. Unlike HD Radio, for example, NextRadio does not require stations to invest in proprietary technologies or re-build their transmission systems. The two strategies are almost apples and oranges—save for the fact that they both are the products of an industry player looking to make a buck off their innovation from other industry players.

Emmis might make NextRadio more attractive by Mozilla-izing it: make it free to use in all respects and open it up to public development. Devote a percentage of advertising revenue sold through the app to sustaining the NextRadio Foundation (or whatever) as a stable development coordinator, system-maintainer, and evangelistic platform. Early rumblings about interactive advertising make me worry about what just where the industry’s priorities are. "Putting FM on smartphones" is really just one small step into the convergent media environment of the twenty-first century. Part of this journey means letting go of the silly notion that you can wholly control your own destiny.