The Polarization of NextRadio

As industry forces continue to grapple with radio’s digital transition, the medium’s push for renewed portability got a bit more complicated this summer. Not much of a surprise that the discourse surrounding the NextRadio app mimics similar forays into the new: lovers and haters lining up with little air to breathe between them.
The latest developments began with the launch last month of Free Radio On My Phone, a public-awareness campaign for enabling FM reception in smartphones. The campaign is a joint project of NextRadio, the National Association of Broadcasters, National Public Radio, American Public Radio, and the Educational Media Foundation—all heavy-hitters in commercial, public, and religious broadcasting. EMF has also agreed to sign its entire station-roster up for enhanced NextRadio services.
The Free Radio argument is simple: greedy wireless carriers would rather you pay to stream music than to get it for free via broadcast radio. Also, radio is the go-to medium in times of emergencies, so having access to radio on your phone makes you safer.
The campaign provides links through which consumers can contact their wireless provider, phone manufacturer, Congress, and the FCC. The reach of the participating organizations means listeners will hear a lot about radio on phones over the next several months, but will they be motivated to take action?
NextRadio seems to think they will. Its parent company, Emmis Communications, and the NAB funded a two-part "study" of NextRadio whose results were released just after the launch of the Free Radio On My Phone campaign. Phase one of the "research" was conducting one-on-one interviews with smartphone users about the potential benefits of having radio on your phone.
The most interesting takeaway is that most folks under 40 don’t even think of radio as a portable medium: for most of their lives radio is something that has lived in the car. They don’t have or desire a stand-alone radio receiver, and the mp3 players they grew up with never had one.
Phase two was an online survey administered to 800 respondents about the attractiveness of NextRadio itself. Surprise: after watching an introductory promotional video about the app, more than 80% said they were interested in learning more and could see the benefits of having FM radio on their phones.
"Study" and "research" are in quotes here because the project doesn’t really resemble anything worthy of those words. The funders got the results they paid for, as the two phases were basically just suggestive conversations. First you put a phone with NextRadio in the hands of some folks, let them play with it, and then ask them nice leading questions about it. Then, screen a promo video and inquire as to whether the NextRadio app is "really cool" (this was actually a survey question, to which 92% of respondents agreed).
Broadcast consultant Mark Ramsey has rightfully savaged this information for its lack of integrity, calling it a "silly publicity stunt" and "junk science." He also savages the app itself as a wasteful diversion from radio doing convergence right (whatever that is). Using data provided by NextRadio, Ramsey estimates that the app is only being used by 100 people at any given time. "Your own radio station’s web stream is likely serving more listeners right now than the entire NextRadio platform at the same time," he writes. "The best that can be said is that usage is growing (almost) every month. Modestly."
Meanwhile, NextRadio has since trumpeted the "research" results. In addition, Cumulus subsidiary Westwood One has stepped up to take some of the burden off Emmis’ back for keeping Sprint on the NextRadio team, by agreeing to handle the ad inventory the industry owes to Sprint for turning FM chips on in selected mobile devices. At the same time, there’s no guarantee that the next generation of domestic Android and Apple devices will have all the necessary hardware and firmware to universalize FM reception.
In many respects, the frames of this debate are shaping up to be HD Radio all over again: focus on the technology du jour and create a perception of momentum around it, then declare victory and congratulate yourselves while the world passes you by. Critics default to the most radical position possible, and thus go mostly ignored. Radio’s already late to the app game, and while the coalition of broadcasters who have affiliated with NextRadio is impressive, their commitment to full-on interactivity (which comes at a price) is less so. [No place for HD Radio in smartphones, so no need to worry about that here.]
If it only it were that simple. Radio is a medium whose technological underpinnings are undergoing major flux. As an industry, there’s a lot of initiatives in play and each one is attempting to paint itself as the magic bullet that will bring radio broadcasting fully into the digital present. That’s not a constructive paradigm, though Mark Ramsey’s base critique—it’s the content, stupid, not the delivery system—is spot-on. It’s also a critique that transcends any particular radio platform.

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