About That Cell Phone Thing Again
October 7, 2011
The thick, heavy brick of a cell phone I've been carting around for the last couple of years is on its last legs. It actually died on me when I was in Chicago, and even though I can remember a time when we weren't connected to the grid at all times and we managed to survive, believe me, it's no fun to be halfway across the country when your phone decides to go into electronic convulsions and the guy at the cell phone store takes one look, scratches his head, and says "yeah, I don't know if I can fix that... it might take a while." After I got home, I revived it, at the cost of every contact and photo and document on the thing, because it wouldn't allow me to access anything and because it is evil. So it's time for a new phone.
As I've been making my decision about which phone to get next, it occurred to me that the process illustrated a disconnect I believe the radio industry's leadership has with the general public. I've been comparing several candidates, and I've been, I think, quite thorough in examining the specs and the pros and cons of each handset (limited, though, to one carrier, with which I'm pretty stuck due to signal issues at the Palatial All Access News-Talk-Sports Compound). Processor, screen size and resolution, storage capacity, OS, 3G/4G capability, camera, expandability, call quality, availability of apps, customer service... I went over everything, decided what I needed and what I wanted and what I could live without, and I've made my decision. But it was only after I came to my decision that I remembered that I (sort of) work in the (sort of) radio industry, and I'd gone through the entire process completely ignoring one spec: whether the phones had a radio tuner. And the one I'm getting does not have a tuner.
The only reason I thought about the tuner is that I'm in radio. I don't think people who don't work in the industry really care one way or the other when they're looking at phones. They care about whether it looks cool, whether it can handle the apps they want, the camera quality, the size and shape and color and screen. They care whether it's an iPhone or Android or BlackBerry or Windows Phone 7. They care about the carrier and the plan, about how many texts they can send and how much it'll cost. A radio tuner? Sure, if it's included and doesn't cost more, they'll take it. But they don't think of the phone as a radio, not, at least, as a replacement for a radio. That's what apps are for, and they can listen to radio that way, although at that point, radio becomes conflated with Pandora and Spotify and podcasts and streaming and whatever else sends audio entertainment and information through the speakers.
Look, I'm not a research guy. I leave that to the experts. And I've seen the industry research showing that people, when prompted, are enthusiastic about getting radio in their phones. But they aren't demanding it, are they? A radio tuner in a cell phone isn't a dealbreaker or dealmaker. And all the research I need is that, even after a disappointing reveal this week, people will still buy millions of iPhones -- without a radio tuner. If they want to hear radio on it, they'll use an app. Radio's there already, at least the way people want it. Yeah, I know, data caps are an issue, but people aren't using the phones to stream music and video 24/7. There's enough data in the typical smartphone plan for the way people use them (and my carrier's sticking to an unlimited data plan, so there's that); the caps tend to restrict heavy video use, but audio fits.
Yet the recent story about the NAB lobbying efforts said that mandating FM in cell phones is still one of the industry's top priorities, and there's that work being done on developing an HD Radio phone -- gee, I was thinking about an iPhone or Galaxy S II, but that HD Radio phone's so SEXY -- and I just wonder if the industry leaders responsible for that way of thinking have ever gone through the process of buying their own cell phones. Even for a guy like me who's spent a career in radio, it just never occurs to me to think about getting a phone with a tuner in it. I HAVE a radio in my car. I HAVE a radio -- four, actually, one with HD -- in my office. I HAVE radios in several rooms of the house, and an AM/FM Walkman and an HD portable. Would it be nice to have an FM tuner in my new phone? Sure, but I don't know that I'd even use it much. Where would I need it that doesn't already have a radio around?
Here, then, is my challenge to industry leaders who think that the future of radio depends on getting Congress to mandate FM tuners in phones: Go down to a cell phone store or an Apple store. Don't identify yourself -- in fact, don't say anything. Just watch real people going through the phone-buying process. Maybe even buy one yourself. And then ask yourself if the energies and financial resources of the industry would be better directed towards making and marketing better content than to obsess over getting a tuner into those things.
Speaking of making better content, if you talk on the radio for a living, you'll find some help for that at All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics, where you'll get hundreds of news stories and provocative ideas and which, as always, is available by clicking here, and on Twitter at @talktopics. You'll also fond "10 Questions With..." Ian Punnett, who is not only the weekend "Coast to Coast AM" host and morning host (with his wife Margery) at myTalk 107.1 in the Twin Cities but also, for the second time, a children's book author, and you'll also get the best radio and music industry coverage at Net News, with the top stories tweeted at @allaccess. And, unrelated to All Access, you can follow me on Twitter at @pmsimon, read my stuff at Nerdist.com, and check out my personal website at pmsimon.com.
I have an idea about what I'll be talking about next week, but I'll hold onto that for now. It could change. If the Phillies don't win Friday night, I might not be in the mood to write about anything.