Automotive > Infotainment & Telematics Blog

Time for a Car Radio Mandate

by Roger Lanctot | Apr 16, 2020

Where do you listen to the radio? We know you're listening to the radio because radio has the greatest reach of any media. So where are you listening?

According to multiple surveys conducted across multiple global geographies radio is the media with the widest reach, as reported by listeners to a wide range of researchers. It's that reach - defined as the total number of different people or households exposed, at least once, to a medium during a given period - that has made radio the go-to means for communicating with large populations during crises.

Sadly, that reach has been eroded over the years and that domination fragmented by an increasingly diverse world of digital content sources from television to streaming apps and social media. Radio has more than held its own, though slipping into second or third place in some studies, in the face of an onslaught of content delivered via mobile devices, televisions, and even in cars.

In fact cars have proven to be one of the most enduring platforms for radio listening. Nowhere is this endurance more evident than in the U.S. where multiple researchers seem to concur in their assessment that 50% or more of all radio listening in the U.S. occurs in cars.

This in-vehicle domination has also been eroded due to the influx of connected and not connected smartphones in cars with their stored and streaming content from mobile apps. The real test of radio's endurance, though, has arrived with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The latest study of radio listening - and the last to be conducted prior to the onset of COVID-19, was posted by Jacobs Media. Jacobs Media's TechSurvey 2020 is the annual take on radio listening and serves as a pithy piece of research providing powerful insights into U.S. consumer listening (and viewing) behavior across the full spectrum of available media sources. The results are sobering and they point toward a need for regulatory action.

Jacobs Media's TechSurvey 2020 results can be found here: https://jacobsmedia.com/techsurvey-2020-results/

The survey delves into the full range of listening behavior metrics from demographics, to content type preferences, to media and device preferences, to reasons for and location of listening. At stake for the audience of the Jacobs Media study is the $18B+ in advertising revenue that is fought over by the more than 15,000 broadcast stations nationwide.

The broadcast radio industry doesn't get a lot of attention. In fact, the rare occasions when the broader public does pay attention to broadcast radio usually occurs when a broadcaster gets in trouble for an inappropriate or offensive on-air comment by a DJ or talk jock.

The sad reality is that it is the "trouble makers" like Howard Stern, Don Imus, and Rush Limbaugh that have contributed to sustaining radio listening across demographics, regions, and devices. (It's worth noting Don Imus' recent passing and Rush Limbaugh's declining health.) What these radio personalities have demonstrated and reaffirmed is what has always been understood by advertisers and broadcasters - that radio has immediate impact on public debate, entertainment, music discovery, and, of course, sales.

This is also why radio is such an important medium for emergency communications and local community announcements, such as school closings. With the onset of digital radio, HD radio in the U.S., radio has also become a conduit for urgent traffic and weather communications including road hazard alerts.

Many of the largest broadcasters behind this impactful content-delivery platform have long labored under burdensome debt obligations. They have been able to endure in spite of the audience fragmentation brought on by SiriusXM satellite radio in the U.S. and audio streamers such as Pandora and Spotify.

COVID-19 has changed everything.

The Jacobs Media TechSurvey 2020 highlights a grim reality for the broadcast radio industry: Only about eight in 10 listeners have a radio where they live. This means that standalone radios in the home are slowly disappearing as they merge into smart speakers or smart televisions. It also means the car is a more important source of radio listening than ever - yet the in-vehicle "share of ear" (to steal an expression from Edison Research) is declining from fragmentation of listening and the rapid adoption of smartphone mirroring solutions from Google (Android Auto) and Apple (CarPlay).

Neither Google nor Apple have prioritized radio listening for their in-vehicle solutions. Both have opted to shift the traditional radio dial experience to an app-based solution such as TuneIn or IHeartRadio. In spite of that, car makers have continued to offer in-vehicle AM/FM radios for the U.S. market and most markets around the world.

Car makers have chosen to keep radios in cars for the most part based on consumer preferences. But there is no guarantee that the radio dial in the dash will endure.

For the most part, the radio dial is already gone. No two vehicles render the in-dash radio in the same fashion. For some car makers, finding and figuring out how to use the radio has become far more difficult than using the smartphone app.

This slippery slope is sliding toward an elimination of the in-dash radio altogether. Adding to these ominous user interface challenges is Apple's ongoing resistance to enabling the FM chip already built into every iPhone.

In this post-COVID-19 world I have taken to doing a lot of walking and listening to radio via my iPhone. But to do so, I must listen to the live stream instead of pulling the signal directly from the over-the-air broadcast. The FM chip is built into my phone, but Apple refuses to turn it on.

It is time for a Federal mandate requiring radio reception in cars and on smartphones. Such a mandate may seem unnecessary in a world where all cars already come with built-in FM radios (some electric vehicles lack AM signal reception due to interference issues) as do all Android phones. The argument is that an AM/FM reception mandate is in the public interest for the communication of emergency and public service messages as quickly as possible to as broad an audience as possible.

I am no personal fan of government intervention. The onset of COVID-19, though, has exposed the vulnerability of this otherwise durable medium. Senators and the National Association of Broadcasters are calling for aid in the form of direct cash infusions or the funding of advertising in the form of public service announcements.

Inside Radio reports: "The NAB and newspaper group also called on Congress to consider another stimulus bill to include an additional $5 to $10 billion in direct funding, which federal agencies could spend on local media advertising. The groups said such funding would not only buy ad time that would inform Americans of how to stay safe, but also support the media outlets they rely on for news.

"The advocacy group Public Knowledge supports efforts to funnel federal aid to local media outlets like radio stations. 'The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the extraordinary value of local news outlets, which have seen huge jumps in traffic since the beginning of March. Local news stories are now among the most viewed stories in the country – even as local media fight to survive the pandemic,' said Lisa Macpherson, Senior Policy Fellow at Public Knowledge. 'Without funding from the next stimulus package, we may lose one of the most important sources of information we have to navigate through this crisis,' she said."

A car radio mandate ought to be included in this legislation.

Radio is the most democratic means for reaching the masses with an urgent message. You don't need a smartphone or a smart speaker or a smart TV to listen to the radio. You may need a car - but with a mandate - if you are in a car - you could rest assured that a radio was not far away. It's time to support broadcasters and it's time for a car radio mandate. The radio is one potential COVID-19 casualty we cannot allow.

 
 
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