By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A corrupt proposal to save radio

The news in this Ars Technica story is so nutty that, frankly, I was reluctant to pass it on until I saw it in this morning’s New York Times. Yes, there are occasions when Media Nation still likes its MSM confirmation.

In case you haven’t heard, your friends at the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) have worked out a scheme that would require cell phones, personal digital assistants and other handheld devices to include FM radio.

This mind-boggling federal mandate would be part of a grand bargain under which broadcasters would pay performance royalties, ending an exemption that goes back to the earliest days of radio.

Nate Anderson of Ars Technica reports that the Consumer Electronics Association — yet another lobbying group, although in this case on the side of sanity — is “incandescent with rage.” In the Times, Joseph Plambeck writes that, according to phone-makers, smartphones that include FM chips will be bigger and chew through batteries more quickly.

More to the point, who wants radio on their smartphones? The only reason radio is still hanging on is that the ubiquitous, wireless Internet hasn’t come to your car yet. The idea that Congress could go along with this corrupt scheme to save a dying technology is somehow depressingly unsurprising. In a world of Pandora and streaming Internet audio, no one needs FM (or AM) radio.

I would love to see Steve Jobs frog-marched out of Apple headquarters for selling an iPhone without an FM chip. It would be great publicity for him.

If nothing else, this outrageous story should put the lie to the notion that large corporate interests care about free enterprise. When you think about how gingerly news executives have approached the idea of government subsidies for journalism, it’s quite remarkable that another segment of the media industry thinks nothing about demanding a federal bailout for its archaic, unwanted business.

Photo (cc) via Wikimedia Commons and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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  1. My primary reason for buying my first iPod was to listen to it in the car, so I wouldn’t be stuck listening to just one CD or, god forbid, 20 minutes of commercials/unfunny DJs to five minutes of music during my commute to work.

    I’ve never missed having a radio on my phone, either.

  2. Radio could have saved itself, or in the least, held on longer, if it beat the internet in going hyper-local. It went the other way, consolidating, limiting playlists even further on music stations, and relied more nation-wide syndication.

    When I was a kid, you’d hear a local flavor on the radio traveling by car from state to state. Now, save for the odd car dealership commercial, it all sounds the same. So, I may as well subscribe to satellite radio. There’s actually more variety there.

    And when groups of people from all walks of life fought for community radio in the 90’s, and many launched stations anyway, the industry that could have been helped by this movement instead fought it. What opened as a new LPFM class, finally, wasn’t useful in large markets.

    College radio has been an exception as the only radio worth listening to for the last twenty years, except for a few NPR programs and a rare few local holdouts on the commercial side. And their listeners tune into their online streams for the most part, anyway.

    I want desperately to save radio, but I can’t find much content worth holding onto anymore.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Seth: We don’t need to save radio. We need to save audio.

  3. **In a world of Pandora and streaming Internet audio, no one needs FM (or AM) radio.**

    Pandora is not radio.

    Radio is more than playing a bunch of songs.

    Remember when they required TV’s to have UHF? Most didn’t see the need, because there was nothing of any substance on UHF. But it helped by letting everyone have access?

    **The idea that Congress could go along with this corrupt scheme to save a dying technology….(

    Speaking of dying technology…how’s the newspaper and journalism fields Dan? 😉

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Lou: Journalism is thriving. So is audio programming. Newspapers are fading away, but not as quickly as commercial radio.

  4. Michael Pahre

    I believe you missed another fascinating part of the story: the requirement that a transmitter key be mounted on the side of all cell phones to permit sending messages by Morse Code.

    All smartphones will also be required to have an app that will translate, and display, all text messages into semaphore.

  5. @Dan: Well said. The bit rates used by satellite radio are too low. It sounds almost too awful to pay for, and frankly I’m shocked most of the public thinks it sounds just fine. The same can be said for most internet streams.

    Well, I’m not sure that’s quite what you meant. But, I understand that just because radio as a technology is gone, doesn’t mean audio programming has to go away. It can even improve.

  6. Oh boy, I hope they require quadraphonic – then iPod owners can finally enjoy that fly buzzing around in circles from “Dark Side of the Moon”

  7. Ben Rivard-Rapoza

    Nicely put, Dan. “Bailout” is certainly the right term, although I’m sure the radio industry would say this is a scheme to promote competition and benefit the consumer. I wonder if any disinterested groups will actually support it.

  8. Bob Drake

    Despite being old enough to remember when radio was useful, entertaining, informative; sadly, I have to agree with Dan. In it’s present form it’s not worth saving.

    Occasionally, I use a crackberry app, called Nobex radio companion when traveling to listen to mostly local NPR shows and very occasionally to listen to Boston traffic on the trees (sic).

    I had hopes for satellite radio technology, but didn’t feel that the programming would be that much different, or worth the cost of investing in new radios for cars/house etc.

    Radio was a great for of media for meny decades, but deregulation and corporate consolidation have largely made it irrelevant (WBUR and some NPR excepted.

  9. Aaron Read

    Dan if you think journalism is thriving, I think you’re not paying attention. Journalism is dying a short and violent death, if it’s not dead already. How so? Check out the first definition of journalism according to Merriam-Webster:

    The collection and editing of news for presentation through the media (emphasis added)

    What we have out there is rarely “news”. It is opinion or propaganda screamed at top volume. That’s not “news”. And its ability to impact people at all levels in a positive way is dwindling fast. As a country, we still haven’t absorbed the concept that just because a story is widespread has ZERO bearing on how accurate or true it is. The internet destroys this base human “accuracy gauge” but nobody seems to realize it.

    But I’m digressing…


    Also, read up on the physics and the economy. Wireless internet is NOWHERE NEAR being able to even partially match the inherent capacity to serve a mass audience that AM/FM radio has. It’s barely at 10 or 20%, tops. And since the problem is raw infrastructure, and infrastructure takes years to construct…radio will enjoy a comfortable lead for decades. Technology alone can’t solve the problem either, it’s a fundamental issue of physics.

    As for the economy, AT&T is ending unlimited wireless bandwidth. All the other carriers are sure to follow. How will ANYONE afford to run bandwidth-hungry applications like streaming audio or video? Short answer: they can’t. Not without hopping from wifi point to wifi point…an unrealistic expectation for internet-in-the-car.

    Besides, the government requires technology to be added to equipment all the time. As mentioned, UHF to TV. FM to radio. Separate programming on AM and FM stations. Location services to cellphones. Pretty soon it’ll be CFL bulbs over incandescent. The list goes on and on. What’s the fuss?

    Honestly, I don’t get your objection to this. I’m rather surprised that you would champion the consumer getting FEWER options for receiving media.

    BTW, Jobs won’t be frog-marched anytime soon. The iPhone already HAS a radio in it. Jobs won’t activate it because he wants everyone to buy music from iTunes. And AT&T wants everyone to spend more money downloading songs from iTunes. And you call radio corrupt?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Aaron: Regarding journalism, you’re looking in the wrong places. Regarding ubiquitous Internet, you’re right – it’s years away.

  10. Joe Mont

    @Aaron: For someone so critical of “news” and that “we still haven’t absorbed the concept that just because a story is widespread has ZERO bearing on how accurate or true it is” your final salvo was a bit unusual.

    You claim the iPhone “already has a radio in it” and, as evidence, link to a year-old story reporting on a since-dismissed rumor. Evil, corrupt Steve Jobs apparently had his company design and install a radio into the iPhone, even though there was never any intention to activate it?

    Hardly makes sense. And, on top of that, there is, in fact, radio capability in the iPod nano (so there goes another of your accusations, although I do concede that it doesn’t do much regarding your beef with AT&T).

    Not being an Apple apologist here, but before slamming the media for its divisiveness and inaccuracies, perhaps you can rethink your charge of Apple/Jobs being “corrupt” when you lack any facts, evidence or actual insight.

    Perhaps the “accuracy gauge” needs a recalibration.

  11. Joe Mont

    Ok, I may have spoken too soon (egg on face), looks like the iPhone does in fact have a radio chip, used with Nike accessories primarily. Not clear if or how it could work, but my previous post is somewhat nullified, hopefully doesn’t sidetrack from the discussion at hand.

  12. Aaron Read

    No worries, Joe…Steve Jobs seems to delight in making monkeys out of all of us. There’s actually a long history of equipment in iPods/iPhones that isn’t activated by Apple’s software. The iPods had audio recorders for years before you could make use of them, even in a crippled fashion. If you were adventurous you could install Linux on the iPod and activate all sorts of interesting things. I tried it and it was kinda nifty but a lot of things also stopped working and I decided it wasn’t worth it.

    @Dan: I think that’s rather my point. The noise floor has near-totally risen above the signal when it comes to “news”…it’s damn near impossible for the average Joe to know who to really trust. And in no small part because of that, people turn to whoever seems to agree with them the most…instead of turning to the outlet that’s actually doing real journalism.

    Maybe a savvy media consumer can do okay in this crazy media landscape, but that’s a disappointingly small subset of America these days.

  13. Laurence Glavin

    Aaron is correct in pointing out that the gummint DID require TV set manufacturers to add UHF capabilities. But “FM to radios”? As they say at Wikipedia, I’d like to see a citation for that because right now there are numerous devices that offer only FM radio, and for a long time, while auto makers provided AM/FM service to drivers, AM-only radios were still being sold in stores.

  14. Aaron Read

    @Laurence: Hmmm…you may be right. Back in the days when ownership was limited to 1 AM and 1 FM station per market, the FCC did…for several years…require that owners program their AM and FM’s separately. This was because at the time, AM was still king and FM was floundering as owners merely rebroadcasted their AM stations on the FM, thus giving little incentive for listeners to adopt FM in any meaningful way. This gave rise to the “Golden Age of Rock Radio” in the 1970’s as said owners didn’t want to spend any money on their FM’s, so they just let cheap hippie DJ’s play whatever they wanted from their own stashes. I don’t remember when the non-simulcast requirement was dropped, I think it was the late 1970’s or possibly the 1980’s.

    I could’ve sworn that in the 1960’s the FCC required OEM’s to add FM reception capabilities to all radios sold. (I never said there was a rule requiring AM reception to all radios) But you’re right, I can’t find any documentation of that…so apparently not.

    I did, however, find a reference to the All-Channel Receiver Act that was originally about requiring UHF receivers into TV’s. Said act had nothing to do with FM, but it WAS used in the 1980’s to required that all AM receivers sold be able to receive the expanded band of 1610-1700 kHz when it was activated in the early 1990’s. Granted, this is not as “extreme” an example as requiring FM reception would’ve been.

    The Act was considered to be used to require HD Radios in all SDARS tuners (XM and Sirius), which personally I thought was not a bad idea to help drive the new technology and the additional cost would’ve been negligible. It never got anywhere, though…and with XM/Sirius flirting with bankruptcy every week, I don’t think it matters much anymore.

    However, the Act was used to require DTV (ATSC tuners) in all TV’s as part of the DTV migration. One could certainly argue that the entire DTV migration was the government mandating a move that was to save a dying industry. Although I admit it’s not as blatant as FM radios in cellphones…and there were “valid” reasons to migrate from analog to digital TV. From Congress’s perspective, that includes the billions they’ll reap from auctioning off now-unused TV spectrum to wireless internet providers. :-/

    @Dan: BTW, if you ever needed any additional proof that the concept of “citizen journalism” is deeply, deeply flawed? today’s Globe article about “Reputation Defender” companies is all you need. These companies can be, and are, used to bury any negative coverage that a citizen journalist could provide…and such journalists usually lack the legal or budgetary clout to override such “cleaning” efforts. Whereas governments and even minor businesses can easily afford such services.

    Whatever’s not lost in the noise is buried in a deep hole.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Aaron: If you took my comment that journalism is alive and well as some sort of endorsement of a certain type of citizen journalism, well, I don’t know where you got that from. Though I think citizen journalism can be valuable under some narrowly defined circumstances, I was referring to the fact that the average person has never been able to avail himself of more high-quality, professional journalism than today. I don’t want to write an essay here, but let me anticipate one counter-argument by pointing out that much of this journalism is non-profit, whether at the national level (NPR, ProPublica), regional (public radio stations) or local (the New Haven Independent). If people choose to load up instead on opinion shows, well, what of it?

  15. Pat Danielson

    I love the picture of the radio like the one I listened to with my grandfather. (Red Sox, Walter Winchell, Christmas music)
    I hate to think that 99.5 Boston’s all classical station will disappear. I hope you people know where it will be be when it’s not any longer on my car radio.

  16. Aaron Read

    @Dan: I’m being perfectly serious here, but…seriously? More high-quality professional journalism than ever before? I think that’s a highly subjective statement, and even then I still have doubts that it’s correct.

    Given the massive slashing of jobs in newspapers…which have been the true bastion of professional journalism for over a century…I find it questionable that we’re still able to access QUALITY journalism. Certainly, we’re able to access multiple OUTLETS for journalism, and there is value to that. But 100 websites run by one person are not as effect as 1 newspaper with 100 reporters.

  17. Aaron Read

    Yikes. It may be time to write that essay, Dan!

    THIS is a major part of what I mean. There’s little NEWS going on these days, it’s all just dittoheads parroting what one guy manages to tweet first…which is often wrong (or at least misleading) because everyone’s in such a ridiculous hurry to post first.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Aaron: When I wrote that I think the news media are alive and well, I was referring mainly to national and international coverage. The picture is much more complicated locally. There are places where established news organizations are getting tough competition for the first time in years. There are other places where there has been a near-total meltdown. And there are too many places like Boston, where the Globe and the suburban papers continue to do a commendable job, but where no one has stepped up to replace the coverage that they’ve had to give up.

      With regard to national and international news, though, I don’t see that there’s much of an argument. The New York Times, even with a slightly smaller staff, is as good or better that it’s ever been. NPR does at least as much real journalism as the three network newscasts did in their heyday. A few non-profits, especially ProPublica, have emerged as major sources of investigative reporting. And I hardly have to point out that we all have instant access to every quality news organization in the world — foreign and domestic, including new ventures such as Global Post and Global Voices Online. I know more about national politics than I used to know because of Talking Points Memo, which combines reporting and opinion.

      The Twitter stunt you cite is meaningless. Maybe there was a brief moment when the news business was at its peak — in the 1970s and ’80 — when high-quality news organizations wouldn’t run with unverified information. For the most part, though, they always have and they always will. What I find especially amazing about that story is that Wise wouldn’t understand that others would run with it because of his and the Washington Post’s reputation. Well, the Post’s reputation isn’t what it used to be, and Wise’s has now vanished.

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