When I was a kid, the phone sat at the end of a wire and it did two things: It made calls and received them. Today? Well, as the iPhone commercials say, "There's an app for that." But even with more than 200,000 available apps at last count, there's one thing that most cell phones can't do – tune into to FM radio the way you would on, say, a transistor radio.
That may change if broadcasters can convince Congress to require cell phone manufacturers to include an FM chip in new devices. As reported by USA Today, the issue may become a big bargaining chip in a larger conflict between broadcasters and recording rights groups who think radio stations should start paying performance royalties for the music they air.
All along, radio stations have paid to play music, and those fees go to song composers. But the recording artists and the record labels aren't compensated on the theory that the promotional value of radio airplay is at least a fair swap. If you're a recording artist of lesser fame than, say, Lady Gaga, you're not getting big advances or royalties from your record label. Your big money comes from performing on tour, and you gladly let your label keep some or a majority of the profit selling your music because they did two things you couldn't do without them: promotion and distribution.
Until now, that is.
Anyone, anywhere, can now publish, instantly and worldwide. Like stockbrokers, travel agents, insurance agents, bookstores, and other middle-men, record labels have lost relevance because of the Internet. In fact, music's most conspicuous do-it-yourselfers might be The Eagles, whose "Long Road Out of Eden" 2-CD set was self-released several years ago, with NO label. The Eagles themselves sold millions of copies, and you could only buy it two places: the Eagles' web site, and Walmart, to which the band granted exclusive retail distribution rights.
For many, the cell phone represents their only music appliance and ear buds are everywhere. In addition to your own download library, your phone can tune into Pandora and other Internet music services. Many phones plug into a stereo at home, and into the dashboard of most cars sold in the last several years. Arguably, the wireless phone is in Baby Boomer parlance the new transistor radio ... although just about the only thing many massively-multi-function phones cannot do is receive radio stations. (That said, some stations, such as KCRW and WXPN, have their own iPhone apps.)
So with all this media content already on your phone, who needs radio? You do, because all those radio station owners promised Uncle Sam something that musicians and kitchen-table pundits didn't. As FCC licensees, AM/FM stations promise the government to serve "in the public interest, convenience, and necessity." It's not something you think about much between hurricanes, floods, and terrorist attacks. But that brief beeping-and-grunting sound you hear, every so often on radio, introduced as "a test of the Emergency Alert System" is just that. And unless there's a radio built-into your phone, you may not know something you should, because you're now using your phone instead of a radio.
Of course, there's a counter argument, too: Much FM radio is just plain lousy. It's been a long time since deejays decided what music gets played, and many formats are larded with the same six songs from the 1960s, "classic rock," or hits picked not by the people, but paid industry insiders. The solution there is simple though, and it's how radio has competed as an industry since it's inception: if you don't like what you hear, turn it off.
Still, what about that AM band where it all began? The broadcast industry would like to see that FM chip also be capable of airing HD, or "High Definition" radio, a technology that's struggled in recent years. The biggest impediment to the HD rollout has been equipment. Presently, you need an HD radio to receive an HD signal. But if HD reception is added to the cell phone wish list, it's a fairly simple process for AM/FM radio stations to simulcast the AM band on one of the HD channels.
Nobody at Apple will confirm this, but it is widely rumored that the iPhone already contains an FM receiver chip, "a sleeper" that Apple hasn't yet activated. Why they haven't is a mystery, because all those radio stations are "free apps," pre-existing content that makes the gadget more attractive and full-featured. (Full disclosure: I have an ulterior motive. I do a radio talk show. So if phone makers were required to put radio receivers in phones, I would reach a bigger audience.)
And if you've ever wanted to do a radio talk show, you may soon get your chance because the number of talk radio stations may soon explode. Since people now get their music elsewhere, broadcast stations are turning to talk radio to fill the void. Even before the recession many cash-strapped radio stations couldn't afford to pay those new music royalties which now seem inevitable. And, maybe most important, advertisers like talk radio more than music radio.
The Consumer Electronics Association and The Wireless Association are among trade groups opposing any such government mandate. That's what lobbyists do. But I think they're missing a good bet.
More than 90% of consumers listen to radio every week – a higher penetration than TV, magazines, newspaper – or the internet. That's content which must be available no matter what technology is used to enjoy it.
Tom Kraeutler delivers home improvement tips and more each week as host of The Money Pit, a nationally syndicated home improvement radio program. He is also AOL's Home Improvement Editor and author of "My Home, My Money Pit: Your Guide to Every Home Improvement Adventure."
Should cell phones get tuned up to tune in to FM?