Broadcasters Begin Push for Radio Chips in Phones

On June 6, the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing on “The Future of Audio” – an open-ended, quasi exploratory affair covering several subjects. Of note was the testimony of Jeff Smulyan, the President and CEO of Emmis Communications.
Emmis, in conjunction with iBiquity Digital Corporation and Intel, unveiled a prototype smartphone with FM-HD reception capability at the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual convention in April. The NAB itself has publicly acknowledged that getting FM reception into phones is its number one legislative priority this year.
Smulyan told the subcommittee that FM reception in cell phones would not only provide “greater access to the free news, public affairs and entertainment programming provided by local radio stations,” but it would also “expand access to the critical public safety information that Americans have come to expect from their local broadcasters during times of emergency.”
“Public safety” is the policy-angle that broadcasters have chosen to try and convince Congress that radio reception in phones is a necessity. Smulyan called radio “infinitely scalable” and noted that, unlike cell communications, it cannot be overwhelmed by network congestion in times of emergency.
Surprisingly, Smulyan denied that broadcasters are seeking a Congressional mandate requiring FM reception in phones: “[W]e have worked to educate policymakers on the benefits of expanding the availability of radio-enabled mobile phones,” he said. “We have also worked for many years to incentivize wireless operators to expand consumer options for radio-enabled devices.”
Instead, Smulyan characterized wireless carriers as inhibiting the expansion of radio in the cell space. Noting that many models of cell phones come with FM chips onboard, but not enabled, he suggested that carriers “would rather reap the revenue of data-intensive, fee-based streaming apps than offer consumers a free and local audio alternative.”
Smulyan’s testimony vilifying wireless providers is a bit disingenuous. For example, comparing radio broadcast content to streaming applications like Pandora is an apples-to-oranges maneuver. Pandora offers the ability for users to customize their content, while radio does nothing of the sort. In fact, the hyper-restricted playlists of most radio stations is one of the reasons why services like Pandora have become so popular.
Gary Shapiro, President and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, cited the trend in broadcaster consolidation to dismiss the public safety importance of FM chips in phones. “The vast majority of radio stations operate in unattended mode, meaning without people present to manually control the programming,” he said. “When it comes to informing their audiences about time sensitive information unattended stations typically either don’t do it at all, or are very slow to get the information out….A warning sent by analog radio is useless unless you happen to be listening to the radio at the exact moment the [warning] is transmitted.”
“What this is really about is not about emergencies at all,” declared Shapiro. “This is about an industry trying to preserve its market share. 47% of Americans listen to less radio today than they did just one year ago….And they’re coming to Congress and they say they’re not requesting a mandate, but yet in word and action they’re acting very differently.” Smulyan begged to differ, calling Shapiro’s assertions “crazy.”
Representatives of wireless carriers were also hostile to the idea of radio reception in smartphones. Christopher Guttman-McCabe, a top lobbyist with CTIA (the wireless industry’s trade organization), told politicos that while broadcasters “will try to wrap themselves in the cloak of public safety” to justify the inclusion of FM chips in phones, his own industry research has shown that “FM is not appropriate for wireless emergency alerts, and thus decisions regarding the inclusion of FM capability in wireless deices must be driven by consumer preference and market forces.”
It’s curious that broadcasters have preemptively declared that they will not seek a legislative mandate requiring FM chips in phones. Smulyan told the subcommittee that he hopes the government will at the very least sanction further study of the issue. (Some members of the subcommittee were downright skeptical of that idea.) It’s unlikely that this will grab the constructive attention of Congress anytime soon, but it’ll be interesting nonetheless to watch three trade-titans of the communications industry wrangle with it.