Many smartphone owners are unaware that there is a built-in FM radio inside of them and that's because the device vendors have made sure the chip is not activated.
This is almost certain to change in the near future as the National Campus & Community Radio Association (NCRA) rolls out its online "Free Radio on my phone" campaign to persuade telecoms to activate the chip that resides dormant in many Apple and most Android phones in use today.
Vendors have been complicit in maintaining the status quo because the FM chips only require WiFi to receive signals and the telecoms are earning a bundle selling data plans. Put another way, they have a keen interest in supporting services that require data streams, and zero interest in providing a service that is free; ironic given the fact that most of them own radio stations that are competing against music streaming services.
There's no getting around the fact that the smartphone has fuelled a change in media consumption habits and it's a growing challenge to radio as the go-to audio source for news. To get local broadcasts, Canadians (and Americans) increasingly download podcasts or stream from news apps where they can skip or pause segments. As popular as this form of consumption is, these apps all suck up costly data. They also cost the radio industry a bundle creating them.
Earlier we reported how Harvard Broadcasting-owned Mix 103.7 in Fort McMurray, AB was forced to resort to providing news updates to residents fleeing the fire using social media, specifically by tweeting and posting information on Facebook. The broadcaster was forced to leave the station on Franklin Avenue as were other businesses and residents when a state of emergency was called asking everyone to leave the city. With the chip activated, many people would have had instant and ongoing access to news and emergency measures updates on their phones as the news team fed information using one or more remote studios.
The money to be made from selling data isn't the only reason the chip hasn't been activated. There's also a lack of consensus amongst broadcasters on both sides of the border on a standard platform to use on the Internet. A standardized platform would make it simpler and easier for broadcasters to measure the effectiveness of ads that pay to keep them on the air, and to measure who, how many, how long listeners and to which radio stations listeners are tuning in, all of which are key metrics needed in attracting advertising dollars.
A standard platform is a discussion being thrashed about in boardrooms at the big league players such as Bell Media and Rogers right now, but their reaching a consensus is a call that is hard to call at this time. The NCRA campaign is definitely heating up the discussion though, and the Fort McMurray emergency adds a lot of weight to the CRTC mandating the industry act on activating the chip sooner rather than later.
You can read about the NCRA and its campaign here, the CBC has published an article about it that can be read online here, NPR in the US has its own campaign going, and Mark Ramsey Media has a good overview about the issues involved that can be viewed here. Finally, NextRadio is one of the platforms under discussion. The following video offers a handy sales pitch on a WiFi enabled app that allows one to listen to FM radio on the smartphone.