Everything you Need to Know about FM Radio Chips in Mobile Phones and NextRadio

Will FM be built into every mobile phone near you? Only time will tell.  But let’s consider some common questions and answers related to this possibility, all from my perspective.

As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

Question:  With FM on mobile phones I will no longer need to stream my content, right? Think of the money I’ll save!

Answer:  Wrong.  The purpose of streaming existing and new content via the Internet is not just to be present on mobile devices but to provide the heart of a broader brand experience attractive to consumers and advertisers alike. Dumping out of the online radio game now would be like dumping out of FM radio in the early 70’s because all the money was being made on AM.  The kind of precise targeting made possible by online radio will eventually produce CPM’s which surpass rates for terrestrial radio.  Online radio provides audience data sets and the ability to connect the right ad to the right audience at the right time in the right place for the right price.  It also provides the equivalent of more broadcast towers for infinitely less than the cost of a tower in the real world.  Forsaking online radio streams also means abandoning listening on more traditional desktop devices, where much of radio’s online audience currently tunes in.

Question:  AT&T’s bandwidth limits will put the chill on Pandora usage as consumers start racking up insane fees for their music listening, right?  Isn’t streaming as an alternative to radio simply not viable?

Answer:  Flat out wrong.  From the LA Times:

Pop & Hiss conducted a test run of an hour of continuous music streaming on the default sound-quality setting with Pandora on the iPhone. (Flipping on high-quality streaming doesn’t make a huge difference in bandwidth consumption.) It weighed in at just under 16 megabytes. In other words, you’d need to stream about 4 hours on Pandora every day to hit the 2-gig monthly limit. Mileage varies depending on your choice of streaming service.

This, of course, is well above average for radio listening even on regular radios.  Pandora has previously stated that far less than 1% of their listeners would be constrained by bandwidth concerns. And don’t forget that these caps only count when you’re away from a WiFi connection.  On WiFi, it’s “all you can eat.”

Streaming is simply different from radio and compatible to it.  Some measure of radio listening will head in that direction whether you like it or not.  So climb on board the merry-go-round or your seat on the ride will eventually be filled.

Question:  If FM is on mobile phones, that’s great because I don’t need a mobile app, right?

Answer:  Wrong.  The purpose of a mobile app is not only to act as a stage for your online radio stream(s) but also to create a monetizable and engaging experience that surrounds your brands.  The mobile space is increasingly an app-oriented space.  If we cease to play that game we will become irrelevant in it.  The future of radio is not simply the future of our over-the-air content, it’s the future of our brands in all their shapes, sizes, and manifestations, online and off.  In any marketing equation it’s critical to meet the consumers where they are, not where we wish them to be.

Question:  This deal would be premature.  Shouldn’t we fight the idea of a performance royalty tax?

Answer: The wind is not at your back, friend.  I have long argued that radio would be pushed into some sort of performance royalty – I think it’s inevitable. And that’s despite the very real promotional value that radio provides the labels which has almost entirely been discounted.  In my view, we should be charging labels for this airplay and doing so openly and legally.  Tit for tat.

Question:  Don’t surveys indicate consumers want FM on their mobile phones?

Answer: Some surveys do indicate this.  And I don’t generally believe them. That’s because consumers usually want more of many things, yet don’t necessarily buy them when they materialize. For example, right now there are many mobile phones already including FM radio and they are not strong sellers. Note that this doesn’t mean consumers wouldn’t use FM radio if it just happened to be built into their phones.  That’s another question entirely, and one whose answer evades these surveys.  I think some consumers would use this feature and some would not, but it will never be a mobile phone selling point.

Question:  Wouldn’t more audience via mobile phones means higher ratings for our brands?

Answer: Let’s assume that your premise is accurate and more audience would result.  In a diary world, it might impact ratings at the margin, yes.  But not in a world where the radio can’t be picked up by a PPM device unless the meter-keeper attaches a clunky interface between the slick new phone and its trusty earbuds.  Good luck on that one!

The larger question is why we’re using targetable, identifiable, customizable mobile devices to play a reach-based, anonymous, estimate-dependent Arbitron game designed for a world where media comes in only three shapes: Print, TV, and radio.

Question:  Wouldn’t FM on mobile phones give broadcasters the ability to power one-click commerce through “buy” buttons and downloadable discount coupons via RDS or other mechanisms (and eventually more powerful options via HD)?

Answer:  Yes.  And it would do so on an industry-standard basis, assuming radio embraces industry standards.  Of course, you’ll be sharing some of that bounty with our new friends the mobile phone makers, but c’est la vie.

Anything that promotes interactivity between consumers, radio, and our advertisers and also expands the boundaries of what “radio” represents are generally good things.

Question:  Can I get commerce capability and interactive monetization opportunites such as coupons through existing tools and mobile apps – do I have this power today?

Answer:  Yes.  This capability exists today without waiting for any new add-ons to the mobile phone. Quu is one such tool that solves this problem.  Text messaging platforms do likewise.

I ran this question up the flagpole with Fred Jacobs and Tim Davis of Jacapps, and here’s what they wrote back:

None of our current apps is pulling from an actual RDS feed.  To my knowledge, there’s not an API or access point for iPhone (or Android) to access the FM receiver to gather the RDS data in its native over-the-air format. That limitation aside, the possibility of accessing this data in other ways is quite high.  A given station could take the intended RDS data and dual-encode it – first for the RDS transmission, and secondarily to an XML/RSS or even .txt that would be available via the internet and could be included in any number of ways in the app – either as links, as text or as instructions to pull images/coupons from other locations. Ultimately, the use of RDS-type feeds via metadata embedded in the stream or as stand-alone XML files has a great deal of potential, and to some extent is already being used in our apps.

Question:  Isn’t the idea of FM on mobile phones a big middle finger to AM broadcasters?

Answer:  FM on mobile phones is really all about paving the way for HD radio on mobile phones. So your day will come, AM broadcaster – via HD.  The logic is as follows:  Once manufacturers install FM chips and see how desirable the feature becomes, HD will be an obvious upgrade.  This is sensible logic, although it’s the same logic that predicted HD would be all the rage by now once consumers heard how great the sound was and what terrific new options were “hidden” on new HD radios.  By the way, it’s worth mentioning that any and every AM station already has access to mobile environments via specialized apps.

Question:  Isn’t a government mandate for FM in mobile phones anti-consumer?  If consumers want it, let them ask for it!

Answer: The nature of radio is utilitarian.  Nobody ever asks for it.  Yet they always assume it will be there – somewhere.  Consumers will never ask for this.  Nor do I think they will seek out phones that offer it, any more than they seek out phones that already offer it or mp3 players that do so. Government mandates are perfectly reasonable ways to sustain corporate interests, whether we’re talking about the merger of competing satellite radio companies or the requirement that all TV’s go digital.  These rules may or may not be “fair” or “right,” but don’t pretend they’re unusual.

Question:  Isn’t radio pursuing this to “prop up” a “horse and buggy” medium?

Answer:  It is incumbent upon broadcasters to pursue any and every way to extend their power and influence and profitability and relevance, whether you like it or not.  Radio has certainly not positioned itself well in the pantheon of new media, but I’m eternally hopeful that will change with the rolling of the occasional head.  Meanwhile, part of radio’s pursuit of relevance and profitability must include an eye to the future where the future is farther than three months away.  So would FM on mobile phones be the end of radio’s mobile strategy or only the beginning?  It should be the beginning. I fear it would be the end.

Question:  Doesn’t Forrester have a point?  “Forcing devices to carry FM receivers,” said Forrester’s James McQuivey, “doesn’t change the fact that, given a choice, people will choose to listen to Pandora on their mobile  phone more readily than the local, misogynistic morning talk show.”

Answer:  Aren’t you glad Forrester isn’t producing your local radio morning show?  Do I need to answer a statement which is obviously pulled from a Forresterian posterior, and a poorly tended one at that?  For the record, I do think people will be more likely to listen to Pandora on their mobile phones than to the local radio station, but not if it’s misogynistic morning talk they want.

Question: Won’t FM on mobile phones add audience to radio?  It’s more distribution!

Answer:  Yes, more distribution is always good.  But does radio have a “distribution problem” when more than 90% of listeners tune us in?  True – more distribution means more occasions of listening, not simply more listeners. But remember that it has been a full generation since radio has been portable. Portability for radio is a relatively new experience for younger listeners today and an unfamiliar one for older listeners (watch this video for a glimpse into a time where portability was as close as some really clunky antennae).

Portability of FM will come in the wake of zillions of alternative things to do with their mobile devices and a great mashup of media that transforms things like “radio” into cross-media value propositions, all mediated by the Internet.  This doesn’t mean FM on mobile is a bad idea, it just means it won’t be as good as you might think.

Question:  Isn’t radio commonplace on mobile phones across the world – and consumers use it there, right?  Aren’t we in America the oddballs?

Answer:  From what I can tell, yes.  Radio is likely to be found on many mobile devices the world over, although I haven’t seen statistics on how consumers use it.  My guess is that they do.  Then again, radio in many parts of the world is dramatically different from the way it is in the US.  It is often less competitive with fewer options than we have here.  In some cases, foreign stations are more compelling to listen to across multiple platforms and service more needs for their audiences than ours do in the US.  In some markets radio is even a comparatively new medium, evolving side by side with mobile phones.  So while the analogy is interesting, it may not be predictive.  After all, digital (a.k.a. HD) radio is big in some countries, too.

Question:  What about radio’s role in providing emergency information in a crisis? Doesn’t that justify radio’s presence on mobile phones?

Answer:  Indeed, radio is the device that one hand-cranks in an emergency when all the TV’s and WiFi go out.  Of course, we have radios in our homes, at work, and in our cars, so it’s not quite clear to me why this particular feature is an essential ingredient to a mobile phone, no matter how it’s powered or by whom.  I do bristle at the notion that radio’s significant value proposition is reduced to its role in a crisis as a key argument point to enter the mobile phone space, but as an additional reason to do so, I have no complaints.

So there you have it.

Your additional questions and answers are welcome.

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  • Greg

    “Answer: FM on mobile phones is really all about paving the way for HD radio on mobile phones. So your day will come, AM broadcaster – via HD.”


    I really have to disagree with this point. It is one thing to mandate analog FM chips, but HD Radio is an altogether different beast. According to Grant Goddard, analog FM on cell phones is to become the global standard, and the US Goverenment is not pushing HD Radio:

    “FM radio in mobile phones: the universal standard”

    “Right now, the new broadcast standard for mobile radio reception is being decided in the corridors of power in Washington DC and in the boardrooms of the mobile phone manufacturers. That standard will be FM radio… An FM chip costs next to nothing for a mobile phone manufacturer… The US is not trying to argue that some new proprietary broadcast standard (such as HD Radio) be adopted in phones to further the objectives of a particular commercial US business.”


    Because the failed Zune HD contained HD Radio, it could not be marketed outside the US because HD Radio is virtualy nonexistent. Also, the cell phone companies, if HD Radio was ever mandated, would be forced to pay those hefty royalties to iBiquity, which I doubt could be legally legislated. I would be interested in your further thoughts… I do agree with you that trying to mandate analog FM chips is a way to open the door to HD Radio. I really hope that the CEA, and other consumer groups, put a stop to any mandate.

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  • Fred Jacobs

    Mark, this is a very strong piece with important perspective on an issue with lots of tentacles. You've framed it well.

    Two comments, if I may.

    First, if you take politics out of the equation (I know – impossible, but go with me), and just look at it from the consumer's point of view, many truly would like an FM radio built into their smartphones. (Of course, I would like one of those nifty cameras that ensures I don't back into a mailbox or kid on my next car – but that won't be the principal decider for me about which brand to buy.)

    The fact that consumers haven't purchased handsets that offer broadcast radio isn't an indictment of FM radio. More important considerations – the handset, brand, etc. – come into play. That doesn't make it a bad idea, as you point out.

    If Apple's iPhone 5 features an FM tuner, it will be a huge seller. Because of the brand or because it lets listen to Z100 terrestrially on your phone? In any case, a lot more people would “discover” the ability to listen to radio in a portable setting – something we haven't enjoyed since those glorious Walkman days.

    In our Tech Surveys – conducted among CORE radio listeners – an FM tuner in an iPod (we WILL ask about this for smartphones in TP7) is very desirable. Why? Most respondents are P1s to radio, so I believe they truly would enjoy this feature, just as most HD radios are sold to people who enjoy broadcast radio to begin with.

    My second comment is connected to your point that radio stations will still need to develop cool, fun, and brand-supporting mobile applications – even if the day comes when FM tuners are integrated into smartphones. These devices are all about branding, convenience, and access.

    In the same way that stations fought to become a preset on a pushbutton radio – because most people don't grab the knob and start tuning up and down the dial looking for stations (just like a browser). The convenience and accessibility of apps is a key reason why consumers love them, and why phone platforms with great app platforms (Apple and Android) are winning, while those who don't (RIM and Nokia) are rapidly falling short.

    Apps are shortcuts to the content consumers crave.

    It's why apps for iPads trumps accessing websites from the Safari browser. Apps work better, they are more convenient, they offer a different experience, and they are all about branding on the “desktop beachfront.”

    Thanks for the insight, Mark.

  • Thanks for your comments, Fred!

    I do think people would use FM on mobile phones – just as I think they would use radio-oriented apps on mobile phones. But I remain skeptical that this would be a “reason to buy” a phone any more than it's a reason to buy any other device designed for any purpose that's different from radio.

    Further, the idea of getting lost in one app that features 50 local stations should strike us all as less desirable than being showcased on one app that includes not only your own station but also the experience you construct around it (this, of course, is what Jacapps is all about!).

    Those are my thoughts, anyway.

  • Why don't we just mandate that every person BUY a radio.

    That'll solve everything. :/

    This whole issue is an embarrassment.

    I can't think of 1 positive thing this effort says about Radio.

    Ok, maybe it says: People won't go out of their way to use our product – but if we mandate by law that it be tossed in front of them to trip over – they'll probably use it!

    This is what we're spending millions on?

    While I agree with your video Mark – that we ought to be focused on making content that people WANT and seek out – we won't.

    Because that's hard, creative, risky and uncertain work.

    Throwing money at influencing legislation to prop up default demand – relatively easy.

    Yeah us!

  • Gagarin Miljkovich

    I'm living in Sweden. The future you talk about is already here. 🙂

    My HTC Legend mobile phone-computer has already a great FM-radio, without any mandate. But he best thing is the unlimited mobile Internet. With it I could listen to almost all of our globes radiostations. Unlimited mobile Internet is cheap in Sweden. It costs about $10 USD/month through operator Telenor Mobile. http://alturl.com/kq2wb

    I use seldom the FM-radio, but nearly every day the mobile Internet to listen to U.S/U.K radio, and other stations around the globe. Have tested and deleted the special apps for radiostations. The “experience” constructed around them is usually unusable.

    Cherry player is one of the best apps to find radiostations. You could choose between more than 10000 stations; http://cherryrplayer.leadapps.com

  • You're right.

    More US broadcasters should look abroad to markets where digital developments – particularly on mobile platforms – are far more mature than they are here.


    If preformance on my Android based FM tuner is any indication of typical usage, people will be greatly disappointed. Reception is horrible. For my phone, the headphones (ear buds) is the antenna and it had issues receiving the two big Class C stations in my market let alone the other Class Bs (and forget about the Class As). Plugging in a regular set of headphones provided much better results. BUT this defeats the purpose of portability…

    FM on mobile phones? Keep the streaming and/or apps!

  • Thanks for that comment. As I advised, “be careful what you wish for.”

  • “The nature of radio is utilitarian. Nobody ever asks for it. Yet they always assume it will be there – somewhere.” The most poignant statement in the article. You go to someone’s house and assume they have running water. It better be good. Otherwise you drink something else. Now that there’s digital media, radio still holds that utilitarian space, but if there’s digital content out there that-to the consumer is better-then guess who loses? It’s still about content. Build it- and they will come. We (radio) need to learn and focus on that …in all of our endeavors. One will not replace the other if we learn to embrace, and use each as the expansion of the other. We’re not learning yet. Keep pluggin’ away, Mark.

  • Funny, back in 1980 I had the same trouble with a walkman cassette player. In 1990 I had the same trouble with a walkman CD player. Who would expect that it would be any different with 2010’s mobile phone tuner? I sure don’t. I’m IN radio and don’t care if my phone has FM or not. I know it if were there, it wouldn’t work very well.

  • The good news is that you don’t need to do complicated encoding of additional metadata into your RDS/RBDS signal to add additional features: because you’ve got the internet on your phone as well.

    http://radiodns.org/2010/06/04/radiodns-adding-visuals-to-fm-radio-on-a-mobile-phone/ shows a mobile phone with FM inside it, also pulling additional information from the internet: images and clickable ads that lead to your (or your advertiser’s) website. The technology – RadioDNS – is completely open (and works with FM, HD, and the DAB standards).

    As you so rightly say, internet is complementary to broadcast radio. With technologies that link broadcast radio to the internet, we as broadcasters can have our cake and eat it – use the benefit of FM broadcasting when in coverage, and use the benefit of IP to upgrade the listener experience (and/or seamlessly give you IP streaming when the FM signal isn’t good enough).

  • Guest

    This from Gagarin in Sweden is worth repeating, I think:

    Gagarin: My HTC Legend mobile phone-computer has already a great FM-radio, without any mandate

    I use seldom the FM-radio, but nearly every day the mobile Internet to listen to U.S/U.K radio, and other stations around the globe. Have tested and deleted the special apps for radiostations.

    The “experience” constructed around them is usually unusable.

  • That's not true at all. It's simply one user's experience. Further, I argue that the experience of mobile apps is only in it's infancy.

  • Thanks James!

  • Agreed. His comment just had me thinking about the challenge of an individual station differentiating itself, through apps or any other technology, in a world with thousands of interactive creative channels.

  • I have 4gb of music on both my phones. I have Last.fm on my droid, while my blackberry has pandora and iheartradio on my blackberry. I never even use the streaming apps that I do have, in fact, I don't even have the ones on the Blackberry after I reset it. I would much rather have the money and space in the phone used to increase memory or processing power.

    Taking a step backwards is not progress…

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  • Jesse Dorsey

    I listen to the radio in my OLD DEACTIVATED cell phone about 10hrs/day while I’m at work. My newer phone doesn’t have the chip activated. My employer doesn’t provide wifi for personal use AT ALL; only company computers and verifiable business use. I would hit data limits very fast if I tried to stream that much. Besides; I want LOCAL radio with local news and interests, not playlists.

  • Jesse, the easiest solution for you is to simply do what folks have done for generations: Bring a radio to work.

  • mulp

    My god, a corporate shill for the corporate pillage and plunderers pulling money from customer pockets and starving the consumers of food and shelter, all on the premise of you will be better off while waiting in line at the soup kitchen and waiting for a bed because of streaming radio thanks to the $150 cell phone payment.

    Sorry, but I say no, listening to FM off the air on my first new FM radio that I bought for $50 to get HDradio(tm) after 25 years of listening by my Sony walkman that cost probably $40 way back then. With both, I have rechargeable batteries so my cost for hundreds of hours of streaming FM over the air is pennies per month.

  • Jeff

    What a shill, so you want to force people to buy another device to keep around the office (and what buy another one for when you go for walks or exercise???) when the device already in their pocket is capable of performing the same function for pennies. Sad that there is such a shill for the phone companies with a website like this.

  • Actually, I’m a shill for consumers and their desires.

    They can stream anything they want anywhere they are on those devices you’re talking about. They need no FM chips or other gadgets to do so.

  • Jeff

    And get charged for data usage…I’d love to just stream at work but the head of IT won’t allow it over WiFi so I’m listening to the FM radio on my old phone (which has charging issues)…I’d pay $50 to have an FM radio added to my current phone which is a top of the line Google phone (Nexus 6p) just because over a year I’d save that much money by using the FM receiver over streaming when I’m at work or walking the dog. Now I’m carrying around 2 devices, and apparently that’s your solution…that’s just fine that we should all have 3 or 4 devices (instead of being able to do it all on one device that is clearly capable of it). No, I’d much rather have the FM receiver in my phone because it costs next to nothing to activate (a line of solder) and is on one of the chips already included in every phone.

  • Well that’s great. You are in that small minority of people who are not permitted to use WiFi at work for streaming even though you certainly would if you could. Indeed, the reason it is disallowed is not for security but because everyone would use it if they could. So yes, you have a problem an FM chip would resolve. You also have a problem a $10 desktop radio would resolve. You can debate for yourself which is more likely to be at your disposal faster.
    And – I might add – there is no need to carry around a radio that sits on your desk.

  • Jeff

    Yep, now what do I do when I want to walk my dog, which I usually take a 2 mile or 4 mile walk every day…??? Buy another device according to you, now I have 3 devices when all could easily be built into the one single device at the cost of 10 cents. I’m not so sure about being in the “minority” since I can do a quick search for “FM radio android phone” and I find 7.5 million search results and on first 2-3 pages of that Google search I find hundreds upon hundreds of people taking the time to complain about it.

    Why do the carriers go out of their way to remove that ability from the devices? Is it because they want us to use their data plans? If not then why did unlimited data plans go away around the same time the FM chip started to be pulled out phones? As much as I dislike the lack of an FM chip I really dislike the carrier tactics and I’m on Google’s Project Fi because now I don’t have to deal directly with the carriers…the lesser of 2 evils I guess.

    Since you’re looking out for consumers would you mind pointing me to a very small, portable device that picks up FM radio, I can charge using a plug in wall charger and can connect to bluetooth headphones…which is how I would like to listen to my FM radio on walks…does such a device even exist at a low price? I only ask because I’ve been looking for a device for a couple days and can’t seem to find it…

  • Yes, we can argue about this all day if you like.

    A static device requires no carrying around. If one have multiple TV’s in your house one doesn’t complain about having “too many devices.”
    Carriers don’t remove anything from their devices. They just choose what features to add or not add. And adding unnecessary features is something they have learned can be toxic.
    Your search is nice, but anyone who is complaining about the absence of FM on a mobile device can simply go to their local Best Buy and purchase a phone with FM activated, because there are plenty there. But I guess sometimes it’s more fulfilling to head to the Internet and complain than head to Best Buy and buy the phone that actually has the features one wants.

  • I don’t block comments. Nor do I work at best buy. Try them.

  • Chuck U. Farley

    What utter bullshit. Radio was free on every Walkman and mp3 player I ever owned, I’m not about to ever pay for it on my cellphone which should also get radio for free. Radio stations make their money from advertising. And they make tons of profits, look at what even a basic Radio advertising package costs at your local station, I’ll blow your mind.

  • You pay for bandwidth. The radio comes along for free. Just like everything else you use in your mobile device.
    Also my hunch is you haven’t purchased an MP3 player in a very long time
    Mark Ramsey

  • Chuck U. Farley

    you just contradicted yourself. If OLDER mp3 players could do it, why can’t newer ones? is technology going backwards? How can you not understand that paying for radio is a scam?

  • I don’t know. Why doesn’t your new Mac come with a built in disk drive? Why doesn’t your new office come with a fax machine? Why doesn’t your new house come with a landline? The answer is because technology changes. And you don’t need to pay for radio. You can buy radios in any CVS. But what you want is to have a radio built into your mobile phone, and such a thing requires market demand. Not just your demand.

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