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Commentary: Include Radio in iPods, Phones, Home Media

Broadcasters Need to Push for Inclusion of FM Tuners in New Devices

Broadcasters Need to Push for Inclusion of FM Tuners in New Devices

The author is chief executive officer and co-founder of Telos Systems, one of the companies developing surround sound technology for HD Radio that have merged efforts to form the MPEG Group.

I sincerely hope you are enjoying this article while digging your toes in the sand and licking the salt off the rim of your afternoon margarita. Okay, perhaps, unhappily, you are not enjoying this Radio World at the beach; but as summer’s sun makes way for fall’s breezes, it’s nevertheless a good time for a bit of reflection about where we and our industry are headed.

I remember my visit to CeBIT in Hannover, Germany a few months ago. It bills itself as the world’s biggest technology exhibition, with 480,000 visitors jostling to get a peek at the wares on display from 6,270 exhibitors – perhaps the best place on Earth to get a grip on what is going on in the world of communications, computing and consumer technologies.

What I saw there was both exhilarating and worrying.

The exhilarating part was the explosion of networking technologies. Ethernet and things to plug into it were everywhere – as if some natural force was causing every ecological niche to be filled. Switches, routers, phones, interfaces, servers, WiFi, WiMax, iPods and other players, a bewildering variety of PCs, optical links, telco central office gear, on and on, aisle after aisle. These are all useful tools for building modern studios.

The power of creativity was everywhere, a vivid reminder of what people can accomplish when they are using their imaginations. One comes away with a feeling of tremendous respect for human inventive capacity and optimism for the future.

The new Walkman

But for our industry, there are developments that look worrisome. The iPod is today’s Walkman. You remember that the Walkman started as a cassette player, but quickly went on to include an FM radio.

The iPod doesn’t have a radio. The trend is, indeed, going the other way; there are now docks that let you use your iPod as a substitute for your car radio and home stereo.

GM, BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, Ferrari and Nissan have announced that some of their cars will have this as a standard feature. The car radio’s speakers, buttons and display are colonized by the iPod.

Over in the red-hot mobile phone exhibits, you could see a bunch of phones sporting integrated MP3 players and download services to fill them are getting started. No FM radios.

At the consumer electronics exhibits, flat-screen TVs with surround speaker set-ups were the norm. No FM radios.

There were some demonstrations and a lot of buzz about a new category of living room product called “HDD DVD” just now being introduced. These are DVD player/recorders with a hard drive and some intelligence. They are supposed to be $299 at Wal-Mart this Christmas.

A similar, but more powerful product is the PC-based “home media center.” Several Asian companies were showing sleek devices with TV tuners, DVD drives, hard disks, and network interfaces – wired and wireless.

Wither FM tuners?

As with the HDD DVD boxes, you can record and play TV, but most also let you download music and video from the Internet and you can have terminals around your house that tap into the programs stored on the unit’s hard drive. Microsoft says they’ve shipped more than a million software packages for these devices. But FM tuners? Nope.

Microsoft is covering another base with the soon-to-be-released new Xbox. Sure, it’s a game machine, but it’s also a DVD player with surround audio, a network terminal and a VoIP telephone. Seems they are planning for it to eventually to become your home’s main media device. No FM tuner, though.

Remember when FM receivers were your home “media center”?

While listeners are mostly still with us, the technology world is finding nothing much compelling in today’s radio broadcasting. All these new digital machines need to eat digital food. And their designers need to be convinced that radio matters.

HD Radio finally gets us in the game. Once we have that in place, broadcasters and manufacturers can go on to collaborate to invent devices that have internal storage to make a new hybrid that includes traditional radio programming, podcast-like downloads, and MP3 playback.

As listeners, we often want to actively choose, but we are also happy at times to be in a passive just-play-me-something or tell-me-something mood. And we usually want the comfort of a human connection and knowing that we’ll be on top of important news.

A hybrid device that lets this happen in a flexible way would energize gadget inventors and listeners alike. Multicasting is a step in this direction. But there is so much more unexplored potential.

We could tag our on-air programs as well as offer special record-only ones to let a listener build the personal “radio station” he or she wants, including targeted advertising. The individual could listen at home or load up an iPod for the road.

We could integrate elements downloaded via mobile phone channels or the Internet. We could collect fees for downloads. We could offer ad-free programming, for a price. We don’t have a lot of bandwidth on HD Radio, but local storage and clever engineering can work around that limitation.

Make radio trendy

With or without these fancy features, we surely want all those media centers and iPods to receive our radio broadcasts. To get this done and protect our future, we need to be perceived as “cool” by techies and teenagers.

Techies because they’ll decide whether radio makes it into the products they design and buy. Teenagers because they are early adopters and trendsetters.

We also need to get a capable surround system on the air so that we don’t lose because of an obvious and correctable technical deficiency. All those home-theater-in-a-box systems you see in consumer electronics shops should have HD Radio surround tuners in them – and many probably would if we were transmitting this signal today. So would the car “media centers” that play DVD discs in surround.

As computing and networking become ever more a both rival and an enabler to our industry, I wonder where we will end up. These are, indeed, interesting times.

The author adapted this article from one that appeared in the Telos/Omnia/Axia newsletter. RW welcomes other points of view.