Broadcasters to Smartphone Makers: Turn On the Radio, Already!

While most smartphones natively have the capability to play FM radio, it's a feature that's not turned on for many phones—and something that the National Association of Broadcasters wants to see changed. But the mobile industry—with a few exceptions—hasn't been willing to play along.

Here’s a little secret about your smartphone you may be unaware of.

You know how, when you’re looking for something to listen to, you often open up Pandora or Spotify—but those apps gobble your data plan? Well, it turns out that many phones theoretically support playing free-to-air FM radio—but that feature isn’t turned on in the chipset of devices, including the iPhone 6 and many Android phones.

But the broadcasting industry—which, it should be noted, has been at this radio game a lot longer than its tech-oriented frenemies on the streaming end of the dial—want the situation to change.

In recent months, the radio industry—represented by the app developer NextRadio and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), among others—have pushed for regulatory changes that would require over-the-air radio to be enabled on devices. The groups have launched a campaign, Free Radio on My Phone, recommending that consumers have the radio dial available, no matter where they are.

A look at NextRadio’s website nails down the problem: While the app, in theory, allows you to stream audio from the radio airwaves, if you click the icon to download the iPhone version of the app, you instead get a link explaining that Apple blocks the functionality. And if you try to get the Android version, you’ll see a mishmash of support for various phones, based on the carrier.

“This campaign is the fruition of leaders in the radio business working together to provide listeners with an exciting new broadcast radio experience that is dependable in times of emergency and provides the interactivity listeners seek,” NAB President Gordon Smith said in a letter that had been sent to NAB members, acquired by FMQB . “Please help us by uniting in this important effort to secure a bright future for radio.”

Extending Emergency Alerts

The situation has an additional angle as well: safety. In recent weeks, Democratic politicians have argued to the Federal Communications Commission that smartphones that have their FM radio functions disabled are preventing the public from receiving important emergency information in case of storms, presidential warnings, or Amber Alerts. While the wireless industry has enabled similar functionality in their own devices, these have at times proved problematic to consumers.

Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR) note that the 90-character Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) often recommend that phone owners listen to local media for more information.

“It is unclear to us why the radio chips that are already in most smartphones are deactivated, preventing the public from immediately taking the very action the WEAs prescribe,” the congressmen wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler earlier this month.

In an interview included as part of the Free Radio campaign, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate pointed out that the phone system often crumbles under the weight of additional demand during emergency situations.

“As more and more people use their smartphones as streaming devices to get news, get radio, get a lot of things like that over their networks, I don’t think people realize how vulnerable they get,” Fugate explained.

Mobile Resistance

For its part, the mobile industry has traditionally opposed activating the FM radio in mobile devices.

In the past, CTIA: The Wireless Association has opposed the move for multiple reasons, including the argument that many consumers just don’t find the feature important.

“Look, if consumers want a feature, such as over-the-air FM radio, in their wireless devices, that is an option on a number of smartphones,” the association’s Jot Carpenter argued in 2012. “But it’s not a feature available on every single device. But that’s the point—it’s an option, not a government mandate.”

So, do you think your phone needs a built-in FM radio? Offer up your take in the comments.

The NextRadio FM radio app, which is only supported on a handful of mobile devices. (Handout photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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