If you missed it: last month Sprint made good on its commitment to provide analog FM radio reception in selected smartphones. More importantly, the NextRadio app developed by Emmis Communications to make it useful was formally released to the public.
The initial deal between Sprint and U.S. broadcasters calls for Sprint to sell 30 million FM radio-capable smartphones over the next three years, on which the NextRadio app will be preinstalled. In exchange, the radio industry will pay Sprint $15 million dollars a year in advertising inventory and give the carrier a 30% cut of any revenue NextRadio generates.
The launches were met with a predictably celebratory response by broadcasters. Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan called them "a credit to the entire radio industry, which has unified to make this happen," and he hopes "that we’ll look back on today as the beginning of when we changed the trajectory of the America [sic] radio business." Some 70 broadcast companies representing about 1,500 radio stations have signed up to be a full-featured part of the NextRadio platform; that represents about 13% of all full-power stations in the United States, or about 23% of all full-power FM stations (since NextRadio only provides FM reception).
For its part, Sprint formally introduced NextRadio as a pre-installed app on the HTC One, which costs $199 and requires a two-year agreement.
Smartphone power-users find the application to be satisfactory, but nothing game-changing, since most stations aren’t signed up for NextRadio’s advanced "interactive" features (for which listeners need a data plan on their phones). Some initial installation problems with NextRadio were reported, but these have been fixed in the latest update (released August 27). The app has a 4.5/5 rating in the Google Play Store with 28 reviews and somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 installations.
In simple terms, the #10 radio broadcaster has teamed up with the #3 wireless carrier on the FM-in-smartphones campaign, and other broadcasters have pitched in in a relatively risk-free way. It’s a start, and both major players are healthy. Unlike many radio conglomerates, Emmis is trying to get out from under its long-term debt (though it’s still worth more than the company’s market capitalization), and Wall Street has responded favorably (the stock’s hovering north of $3/share). And Sprint was purchased outright just this summer by Japan’s Softbank, which has promised to make significant investments in the company to improve its network’s coverage/reliability and stop the hemorrhaging of customers.
I’m a long-time Sprint customer, hanging in there primarily to lend support to one of the few companies preventing an all-out wireless oligopoly in the United States. This year I switched from an Android device (the HTC Evo, which had FM reception capability) to an iPhone…and I hate it (long story). So I’m someone who might actually migrate back to Android with FM reception being a factor in the decision. I logged in to Sprint’s store to check out the HTC One…no mention of FM functionality (or NextRadio, for that matter).
The FM-on-smartphones campaign will take on real significance only if there’s buy-in from more carriers and, perhaps more importantly, device-manufacturers to install or enable the hardware necessary for FM reception. This is where Emmis could really use the help of Android hackers, who could test the bounds of NextRadio’s compatibility outside the Sprint and HTC-approved platforms. The next year will really tell the tale, as we see if any of Softbank’s largesse to Sprint trickles down to this campaign.