The radio industry’s efforts to carve out space for itself on mobile phones took some big strides foward this summer. In late July, AT&T announced that it would seek to enable FM reception capability in the Android devices it offers. This month, after a NextRadio-led Twitterstorm, T-Mobile declared it would do the same.
This is an important milestone for the NextRadio effort: three of the four major wireless providers in the United States have embraced the notion that terrestrial radio should be part of the media mix on mobile platforms. It will be interesting to see how long Verizon, the #1 carrier in the country, decides to hold out on offering FM radio as a feature in its phones. That it took until 2015 for this to happen is testament to the gatekeeping-power of the wireless oligopoly in the United States.
NextRadio has been downloaded more than three million times and points to the fact that the time people spend listening to FM radio through the app is on the rise. With more mobile phones enabled for FM reception, we should expect to see both NextRadio downloads and time spent listening also increase pretty significantly.
Of course, there are some caveats. The device-manufacturers themselves must follow through on AT&T and T-Mobile’s requests, but there is no reason to see why they won’t. FM reception capability is pretty much standard in Europe, where the exact same phone models are sold. Most mobile devices have an integrated chip onboard that has WiFi, Bluetooth, and FM reception capabilities bundled together; enabling the FM functionality for many Android devices is as uncomplicated as updating their firmware. This should begin to happen with AT&T and T-Mobile devices as of next year.
But not all devices are hard-wired in such a way as to simply turn on FM. This is apparently the case with Apple’s iDevices (save the iPod Nano). And AM stations remain cut out of the mobile migration, unless they also simulcast on an FM translator. HD Radio reception is also not in the mix, but this is more due to the fact that a workable and cost-efficient mobile chipset for HD reception is still under development (though Emmis, the parent of NextRadio, is also well-invested in HD development).
One thing that hasn’t been disclosed is whether or not AT&T or T-Mobile are being compensated in some way by NextRadio and/or the broadcast industry for adopting FM on their devices. It took a $45 million enticement from the radio industry before Sprint agreed to blaze the trail of FM adoption. That deal also includes a revenue-sharing component on advertisements served up through the NextRadio app on Sprint devices.
Some trade publications call AT&T’s adoption a “deal,” but that could mean something or nothing. Relative to the income they make on wireless device sales and service plans, a revenue-sharing deal with NextRadio would be chicken feed, but the wireless oligopoly’s greedy and hubristic enough to ask for a cut if there’s precedent for it.
The NextRadio app still does not provide the capability to switch between a station’s over-the-air FM signal and their online stream — nor is it likely to do so because of the legal can of worms it would open up involving copyright distinctions between airplay and streaming royalties and how to calcuate them. That’s kind of sad because being able to continue to listen to a particular station once you leave its FM coverage area might do a lot for increasing time spent listening.
Many pundits say that the NextRadio initiative is too little too late, or say the application’s import pales in comparison to the numbers other streaming-based apps like iHeartRadio, Pandora, and Spotify have racked up. That’s somewhat of an apples-to-oranges comparison now because NextRadio’s audio content emanates from an exclusive garden (the FM dial). The real question is whether or not that garden can be made vibrant and compelling enough to reverse the long trend of declining engagement with radio, especially among the younger generations.