Give The People What They, Um, Can Take Or Leave, I Guess
February 8, 2013
First, let me say that I would not at all object to having an FM radio tuner in my cell phone. I don't know how much I'd use it, but I wouldn't go to the Apple Store and demand that they remove it. It might come in handy during those stretches of my daily run where Sprint's signal drops out and streaming doesn't work, but, then again, podcasts and music files do the same thing. Still, sure, if it's in the phone, fine. Whatever.
And that's probably how most people feel about the issue. There's no passion, but, well, does it cost extra? No? Okay, then. And I would estimate that the number of people unconnected to the radio industry who have gone to the phone store and specifically looked for or requested a phone with a radio tuner in it is approximately zero. (I'll use the qualifier "approximately" because someone somewhere may -- may -- be an exception. But it can't be many.)
Which brings us to the news that the radio industry has kicked in $15 million worth of advertising inventory over three years to Sprint to get FM tuners on "select phones," ultimately 30 million phones. That last part is interesting insofar as Sprint doesn't have to SELL all of those phones, just produce them. But the deal is especially interesting when one considers what it DOESN'T include, and that's this: the iPhone. In fact, while we don't know which models will bear the tuner chip, we DO know that one of Sprint's two top-of-the-line models won't, not unless the radio industry can change Apple's mind, and while that's not impossible, it's not going to be easy, either.
There are, I've been told, two kinds of buyers who walk into a phone store: those who know exactly what they want, which boils down primarily to the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy S III, and everyone else, who walk in with the idea that they'll get the nicest looking Android phone they can get for little or no money up front. The former don't care about the FM chip (the Galaxy S III actually comes with one overseas, but not in the U.S.), because they're sold on the phone beforehand with no regard to FM. The latter are just looking for something cheap and cool. I suppose getting some FM-enabled phones into those hands is nice, but $15 million worth of nice?
Maybe the thought is that, well, we're not selling that time too well anyway. And, certainly, Sprint hasn't been buying that much radio, either; I can't remember the last Sprint radio spot I heard, and I'm a longtime Sprint subscriber, so a Sprint spot would get my attention. But if I'm AT&T or Verizon or T-Mobile and I spend a LOT more on radio than Sprint, I'd be wondering where MY trade deal is, and I'd be thinking about throwing an FM chip on some cheapo free-with-contract phones and getting me some of that sweet free radio advertising and saving $15 million in my ad budget.
So this can run into some real money, or at least some real trade, and the return is that some, but not all, people who are NOT asking for FM radio in their cell phones will get FM radio in their cell phones. And they'll probably not even notice it's there, let alone use it a lot. Yet, let's go back to what I said at the outset -- it's actually nice to have FM on your cell phone. Save the "emergency use!" argument, because we know that's a Trojan horse; the real reason the radio industry wants this is that the cell phone is the entertainment device most directly taking ears away from broadcast radio. Fine, but there was, and is, a better way to do the job, and I've suggested this before: Get people interested in having FM in their phones and have THEM do the campaigning. Tell people they COULD get FM but they need to ASK for it. Tell them to email and call and visit the carriers and DEMAND it.
It's like cable TV. If you just get a channel added to your system and it's just sitting there, do you watch it? Do you even think about it? Yet if you found out about a channel and it wasn't on your system, you'd call and write and ask them to add it until they did. Have we not learned anything from the success of "I Want My MTV"? If people want it badly enough, the carriers HAVE to do it. Ask Sprint, which had to do a give-away-the-store deal to add the iPhone, because customers were willing to leave them to get it. Radio isn't a must-have, but if cell phone radio is going to be successful for the radio industry, it has to be something people actively want. Right now, they don't care, and there's no plan to MAKE them care, especially since, with iHeartRadio and TuneIn and other apps, most of the stations they care about are already on their phones.
But, again, if it's so important to the leaders of the industry that they'll throw $15 million worth of inventory at a carrier just to slap a chip into some free-with-contract phones, well, okay, if there's a chip in my next phone, thanks, guys. Just don't think you can make me use it.
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Reminder: Valentine's Day is coming next Thursday. I shouldn't have to remind you, since you're probably doing live spots for some 1-800 florists with your name as the discount code. Now, that's romantic.