Okay, Whatâ€™s Next?
April 11, 2014
I'm not going to even try to claim that having to spend a week covering three separate radio conventions is somehow the hardest of jobs. It isn't. It also isn't fun -- a lot of travel, a lot of, for me, at least, sitting in gray, uncomfortable conference rooms praying that the caffeine in several cups of English breakfast tea will somehow kick in while I tweet my comments so I don't say them out loud. As wearing as that is and as unappealing the prospect of driving five hours or so through the desert in 100 degree heat in a car with broken air conditioning might be, there are worse things to have to do.
And there were some good moments, too, highlights like Lori Lewis' social media panel and TechSurvey 10 at the Worldwide Radio Seminar, and pretty much the entire RAIN Summit West agenda, and...
Okay, see, here's where I would normally go negative, and, surely, there were moments where I wanted to just scream. (Check my Twitter feed @pmsimon for those, and you won't have to look too hard.) But one thing I can't say about a lot of the people I saw there is that they aren't trying. Well, okay, the HD Radio booth has shrunk to postage-stamp size (they had some cars outside, but unless they were Uber cars and available for rides to the Strip and McCarran Airport, they weren't going to draw attention), and the floor space devoted to radio is down to, um, not much, but there were a lot of well-attended radio-oriented panels, so there's that. And there's also something of which I've been critical but for which, strangely, I'm also hopeful.
That would be NextRadio, and the NAB Show followed, shall we say, an interesting experience checking out the app at a retail outlet. I tweeted about it at the time, but the gist of it was that a Sprint store near me had something like 6 or 8 HTC Ones set up in a NextRadio display that missed the mark by a lot: the phones hadn't been updated, so selecting NextRadio took you to Google Play for a download, indicating that not only had the staff not done the job but that customers hadn't tried the things, either. And when I went ahead and updated the phones, because I couldn't just leave them there, I found that reception was, at best, spotty, stations were miscategorized (KOST, which has been AC forever, is "Other" in the NextRadio guide. Other?), and it wasn't as intuitive as I'd hoped.
Yet... okay, first, you know, I still don't think there should be a government mandate for the chips in phones. I'm still not sold that it's necessary. I know about the emergency uses, and the counterargument that too many stations plow ahead with music or don't have local news staffs to handle emergencies anyway; The chips seem to serve preservation of radio's existing business model more than consumer necessity. I haven't changed my mind about that. Still, the app, dare I say it, isn't bad at all. It needs work, and I'm still not sure that I'd buy a phone for it -- I have Sprint and I'm not switching from an iPhone to Android based on FM and NextRadio -- but if I DID find it available, I wouldn't mind at all.
And I think there are a few things that would make it really useful, but, first, the industry should understand a few things this app is not: It's not a panacea. It's not the savior of radio, because it still does not offer what its streaming competition does, customization and time-shifting. It's free and won't eat up data, but it's yet to be demonstrated that data caps are really that much of a concern for those using streaming audio -- use of online audio via mobile is increasing despite caps, and even Netflix, the king of mobile bandwidth hogs, remains in growth mode. And getting NextRadio downloaded doesn't mean it's going to be used over Pandora or iHeartRadio or TuneIn or podcasts; look at your own phone and see how many apps you have installed that you never use.
So there's that. But there's also the fact that it is extremely convenient to have a radio in a phone for those who want a radio around but don't want to carry a separate device. Forget emergencies, forget business models, forget whatever percentage of listening goes to streaming or podcasts. Having an FM tuner is nice. (Having AM would be nice, too, but I understand the technical limitations.) Being able to pop over to local broadcast stations as an option is... that word "nice" just keeps coming up. And the implementation isn't perfect, but it's a good start, and, like the streamers, it's nice (ding!) to have album art and song information and be able to share, which is critical in the present Internet economy.
But "nice" isn't enough, so I have some suggestions -- free of charge! -- that I'd like to see implemented as NextRadio moves forward. So, in the spirit of positivity because it gets exhausting to be Oscar the Grouch all the time, here:
1. Move from a geo-location-based channel guide to a guide driven by data. What I mean is, if I were to use NextRadio at my house, I'd be given a list of Los Angeles FMs, because I'm geographically within the primary signal contours of L.A. radio. But I don't get L.A. FMs here, I get San Diego/Tijuana stations, because there's a big honkin' hill between me and Mount Wilson. The phone should know that and tell me what IS available. Same for around the corner, where San Diego drops out and Santa Barbara/Ventura pop in. I'd like for the app to know what's actually available rather than what SHOULD be available, because the guide is useless and/or frustrating unless you can actually hear what's on it. Power it through reception of, say, RDS data or a stream being sent via -- gasp! -- HD Radio.
2. All stations should be transmitting detailed programming information, because alternative services can and do. Even podcasts can be accompanied by descriptions. They're pushing TagStation to enhance stations' presence and advertising on the app; there's no reason a talk show, for example, can't push segment details out. That goes for the guide, too -- I shouldn't have to search to find shows. Radio doesn't do program guides anymore, but it should. Don't make me work to find the show I want.
3. Recording function. I know, music, recording, oh noez royalties copyright whatever. Frankly, I don't care if they block recording for music so much as I'd like the option to hit the red button and save a talk show I'd like to hear later, one that might not be available as a podcast. I don't even want to have to remember to look for a podcast. I want to hit a button and record. They do it on some streaming apps, so why not for broadcast FM? Make this happen.
4. Streaming. Wait, what? Okay, hear me out. Use case scenario from my life: As I go running in the morning, reception of stations varies. In my immediate neighborhood, I get San Diego FMs. A mile up the road, it's Ventura and Santa Barbara. A mile after that, it's L.A. So, say I'm listening to a particular San Diego station and leave the signal and I want to keep listening to the station via the stream. I COULD leave NextRadio and fire up another app, but that's a pain. And I COULD pick another station, but maybe I don't want to (and the station I'm listening to doesn't want that, either). I should be able to switch to the stream at the touch of a button. At least, integrate with a streaming app to let me switch without a lot of trouble.
5. Marketing. NextRadio IS marketed at conventions. It SHOULD be marketed better to the public. As I mentioned, I have Sprint, and I NEVER see anything about NextRadio in the stuff I get; maybe it's because my phones can't get the app, but, hey, I'm eligible for a phone upgrade, and if FM is something that might sway me towards a new phone, shouldn't they be hitting me with that pretty hard? And if Sprint's retail clerks don't understand or aren't motivated to push NextRadio-enabled phones, maybe local radio marketing folks should be in there helping teach them what this thing is and why they should be on the floor steering people to the (updated, I hope) display. I know, stations gave away all those spots, but I listen to a lot of radio and if they're on, I never hear them. I'm not sure how you make a radio app cool, but that's why you hire professionals to get the message across. Hey, iHeartRadio's managed to make inroads, and Pandora IS "radio." You figure that out. You need to.
6. Enhanced sharing. It IS a sharing economy on the Internet now. But it's not enough to tweet "I'm listening to Crazy Ira and the Douche on 93.7 The Groove FM." We've heard about how audio is less adaptable for sharing, but at least with talk radio, wouldn't it be great to be able to send a link to a particular talk segment right away? This is not that huge a technological hurdle. It can be automated. If I'm listening to something great or interesting or appalling and I want my friends to hear it, that should be as easy as sending that "I'm listening" tweet.
7. For the industry: Do not forget for a moment that the most important thing about this app is the content. None of the tech stuff matters if the programming isn't worth the trouble. You can't on the one hand push this app and on the other reduce your offerings to voice-tracked mush. If you offer really good programming and NextRadio is the best way to get it, you win. If you offer anything less, your app could be the Greatest Thing Ever and it won't matter. Great content will go further to sell the desirability of FM on your phone than anything else.
There's my unsolicited, unpaid advice. Truth is, while I can live without an FM chip in a cellphone, it'd be nice to have, and the NextRadio app is a good start. Beats the HD Radio app I've tried with a tuner dongle on the iPhone, that's for sure. Okay, that's a low bar, but it's something. And I do have a phone upgrade to use....
As I slowly catch up after Convention Week, we'll get back to normal at All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, with hundreds of items and ideas for segments on your shows, plus kicker stories you won't see anywhere else. Find it by clicking here. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item.
Sorry for the tl;dr nature of this week's column, but that's what happens when you come home from a convention with lots of thoughts running through your head. I'll probably have more about what I experienced next week as I go through my notes. I hope it's more succinct.