This post originally was published as an article called “The End of the Road for Radio in your Car?” on www.hisair.net
Another week, another brand-new(ish) car. Such is the life of the traveler. For the last ten years, I have made my living travelling the country working with various businesses in helping them find money. For radio stations, it’s vision and fund-raising. For car dealerships it’s finding money in their rebate processes. For every business in 27 states, it’s saving money on gas and electric bills. I am on the road a lot. And because of that, I wanted to make some observations about in-car entertainment.
Recently, Eric Rhodes of RadioINK (www.radioink.com) caused quite a stir when he talked about a conversation regarding in-dash entertainment. The indication was at least two of the Big Three auto makers were going to eliminate AM and FM from the dashboard. Apparently, there was some research showing that many people are using cellular-based 3G and 4G data for streaming entertainment. Right now, there are myriad ways to get entertainment in the car: AM radio, FM radio, HD radio, Satellite, Bluetooth Audio, hard-line connections to audio devices, CDs, DVDs, portable media storage (thumb-drives, digital cards) and hard-drive storage. There are probably others, but these are the ones that I see
With so many choices, which will be the main access point for people in the future? Some people suggest it is the streaming of audio over the cell network. Others sugguest IP-based networks. While IP-based streaming is at best several years down the road, I listen to my phone in the car a lot.
One of the main complaints I have about using 4G- or 3G-based cell phone access to streaming audio is the hit-or-miss access you get when driving outside metropolitan areas. I can tell you that even in Columbus (my fair city), I can be driving along listening to a stream on my Sync system and it will just go away. While iHeart Radio apparently has a better algorithm that has a more consistent “hold” on the stream than TuneIn, neither has the normal, consistent reception that I see most anywhere with AM or FM.
In February, I was in Florida and I rented a 2013 Ford Edge to drive. It had My Ford Touch (the latest version of the Ford/Microsoft collaboration). Driving from Ft. Lauderdale up to Sebring (not exactly metro, but still the heavily traveled US 27 corridor), I ran out of stream frequently. Later, in Orlando, I was listening to the HD signal of Z88.3 (www.zradio.org). Driving on the near-fringe, I was getting good analog signal, but the HD kept going in and out. While there is probably no better-engineered station in the country, it was still a problem as the Analog and HD broadcasts are a few tenths of a second out of phase. It sounded like the “record” skipped every time there was a transition. I must add that in Orlando proper, it sounded fine and there were no drop-outs on the HD signal. While this has nothing to do with streaming, it is still a choice drivers have to make. Thankfully, the HD receiver can be disabled.
The complication of connecting anything in many cars is horrendous. For instance, with Ford Sync, if I want to listen to TuneIn or iHeart, I have to fire up a separate app for that. Then, I have to verbally tell the system to play “Bluetooth Audio” (no button for that!). If the stream has started before the Bluetooth starts, it pauses, which requires another interaction. If I want to get out of the car and turn it off, the whole process must be started over again. While I am tech savvy (and patient), if a car company asks me to make this my main way of hearing audio, I will NOT be a happy camper. By the way, if your iPhone works better than my Motorola Android Razr Maxx, good for you…but the majority of smartphones in the public now are Android (68.1% Android to 16.9% iPhone per NBCNEws.com). And when an automaker adds iHeart or Pandora to their dashboard, it’s still got to go through the phone.
So, what’s the bottom line? All the choices I have are still based on getting the entertainment I want to my ears while I travel. I am amazed at the number of times I find myself going to iHeart or TuneIn to hear the stations back home. Why? They are talking about places and things I am interested in. As we advise at Lazarus Communications Group, concentration on the Big Three (Personality, Entertainment and a Sense of Community) will mean that even when getting Pandora/Spotify/Podcast is much easier, we can keep our audience. And keep them for years to come.