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The “Reference Radio” Looks Ahead

Why the car radio of the future has to be simple, smart and sexy

Radioplayer is a non-profit partnership of the BBC and several commercial radio entities with the aim of “keeping radio listening simple, particularly on things which are connected to the internet.”

In November, it demonstrated the Reference Radio, which it describes as a prototype hybrid touchscreen radio for dashboards that can play digital radio, FM and internet radio streams while reducing driver distraction. “The Reference Radio is the culmination of years of research and development with industry partners like WorldDAB, Digital Radio UK, RadioDNS and Audi,” it stated. “The prototype shows how broadcasters like the BBC, Global, Bauer and dozens of international radio groups want their stations to appear in the car radios of the future.”

Radio World invited founder and Managing Director Michael Hill to explain the project.

Would you ever buy a new car that didn’t have a radio? If you’re anything like 82 percent of drivers we surveyed, you wouldn’t even consider it, with 84 percent of drivers “always” or “mostly” listening to the radio on every journey.

With numbers like these, you might expect radio to be a top priority for the car industry — but sadly this is not always the case.

Radio is a vital part of the driving experience for the majority of vehicle users, yet the design and user interface of most modern car radios is often quite old-fashioned. The upshot is increasingly impressive tech specs for cars, but underwhelming, outdated and hard-to-use radios in dashboards.

What’s more, car manufacturers — perhaps spellbound by the shiny new toys out there — often prioritize integrations with platforms like Spotify and Apple Music in their dashboards, even though the majority of drivers prefer to listen to the radio.

With the advent of connected vehicles, we’re at a critical moment in radio’s long association with the car, so it’s crucial that we work together to maintain its primacy in the dashboard.


That’s why we’ve been working on the prototype Reference Radio.

The Reference Radio is a smart multiplatform radio, able to play DAB digital radio, FM and internet radio streams. But unlike most modern car radios, the Reference Radio shows a single list of stations across all those platforms. There’s no need to select different “bands” first — the driver just taps a station logo to play it, and the system does the rest.

There’s a single A–Z list of stations across all platforms, and it’s easy to set favorites and personalize your station list by dragging and dropping logos. It’s important to note that the interface of the Reference Radio is platform-agnostic; it could just as easily be attached to an HD Radio tuner in the United States.

If you can get the interface right, you can make a car radio safer — and that’s paramount. Safety has been a major consideration in the design of the Reference Radio, with a large and intuitive interface, and easy ways to change station. In the next phase of development, voice control will be tested, so that drivers can keep their eyes on the road while changing stations.

We’re not starting from scratch here — there are already examples of great practice, like the hybrid radio in the high-end Audi range. Radioplayer has helped with the development of these elegant interfaces, by partnering with Audi to supply official feeds of metadata (logos, streams etc.) from stations across all Radioplayer countries.

We’re building on strong foundations too — there’s been brilliant research done by the WorldDAB Automotive group, of which Radioplayer is proud to be a member. We filmed dozens of drivers from five different countries as they used their car radios. The result was a common-sense list of guidelines for how car radios should work — and the Reference Radio follows them all.


Like any construction project, it’s important to have the right raw materials. “Metadata” is a dull word that describes a critically important ingredient in radio design. It’s the information about the thousands of radio stations in the Radioplayer family — like logos, streams and podcasts.

Over the years, we’ve learned that it’s impossible to build a great-looking modern radio without it. So we came up with the “WRAPI,” which stands for Worldwide Radioplayer API (an API is a data feed). It’s how we send the metadata to Audi to power their radios, and it’s also where the Reference Radio finds its metadata. We’re talking to other car companies about data partnerships — and now about new radio designs too.

“Combining good design and great data in the dashboard” was the title of my recent talk at the WordDAB General Assembly — and that’s how we’ll crack this challenge. We can definitely make radio simple, smart and sexy in the connected cars of the future — but only if we work together and invest in research and development to achieve it.

Watch a promotional video about the prototype at