Talking About a (Radio) Revolution

Vehicle audio is something I’ve been investing a lot of thought into lately, so I want to zoom out of Apple’s recent announcement of CarPlay and talk about the general landscape.

Video killed the radio star. There is one reason that it hasn’t totally annihilated him, though: Traffic.

When you think about it, hardly anyone listens to the radio purposefully anymore. How many people do you know that turn on the radio at the same time or day to listen to a specific program? Radio-listening is no longer a habit — it’s mostly an accidental byproduct of the amount of time we spend in cars.

So as the last remaining fortress of the radio star, it’s interesting to observe the ways the in-car audio system is changing.

Before the “seek” function became widespread in the 1950s, drivers had to use a scrolling wheel to land at (or close to) the AM/FM frequency that the desired station transmitted at. Later, the introduction of push buttons and presets provided more liberty and freedom of choice.

Today, of course, these restrictive interfaces are a distant memory. Radio is just one part of the car’s dashboard. And while listeners are still invited to “tune in,” the term is only symbolic, a holdover from ancient times. When I turn the key in my car’s ignition, its media center automatically scans for radio stations within reach and displays their names. I don’t need to remember what frequency they’re on, in fact I don’t even know it. What frequency the radio waves oscillate at has become a technical detail that only the computer behind the scenes needs to know. So whereas my father might have had to scan through five stations on his way from station A to Station B, I can do so directly, instantaneously, and with (relatively) minimal risk to life.

Looking forward, I wonder what the implications of voice control will be. When this technology becomes better (more accurate), I think we’ll have pretty much solved the interface aspect of vehicle audio.

But that’s all interface. The technology that powers vehicle audio has seen very little progress, and is still generally confined to the AM/FM spectrum. What happens when digital radio becomes universal? What if we bypass the primitive infrastructure completely, with something like built-in LTE? (Some car manufacturers are already doing this).

Sure, audio cables, short-range FM transmitting accessories, and even Bluetooth connectivity in newer models have been allowing drivers to consume music, podcasts, and internet radio for years, but the need for these extras is exactly what’s holding things back. Not until these intermediaries are eliminated from the process — or at least made invisible to the consumer — will the big shift manifest itself.

The day when our favorite podcasts are presented on the same list as our favorite radio stations may not be here yet, but it will arrive imminently. And when technological advances allow the interface to blur the lines between the radio and podcast, when all components of the system streamline consumer choice, this will further fragment the already dwindling market share of mainstream broadcasters.

On the web, the drift towards content-personalization in journalism has already led figures like Jessica Lessin, Nate Silver, and Ezra Klein to branch out on their own. In the past few months alone, Lessin left The Wall Street Journal to found The Information, a subscription-based publication catering for tech executives and know-hows; Silver launched FiveThirtyEight in cooperation with ESPN, having left the New York Times; and Klein parted ways with his employer — The Washington Post — to launch Vox.com.

And if you care to notice, all three ventures by these mainstream alumni follow the model I talk about in my piece about the future of journalism: Dedicated crowd; expertise; small team. I mention this because I see the same happening to radio once consumers are no longer confined to a spectrum. When the medium gets (merely) as personal as the web is today, knwoledgeables1 are going to capture their respective dedicated crowds.

My media colleagues seem to believe that broadcast radio as we know it today is safe at least until driverless cars become a reality. Maybe they’re right. I believe other changes will profoundly affect vehicle audio (and subsequently the radio industry) much sooner than they anticipate.

Who wins or loses on the producing end matters very little, though; the biggest winner from the next radio revolution will ultimately and undoubtedly be the consumer.


  1. Specifically here: podcasters. ↩︎
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