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Everything you need to know about Radio in the new iPhone 5

Rumors are rumors, but patents are real.

Whether the technology produced by these patents arrives in the forthcoming iPhone 5 or a later version is anybody’s guess, but it sure makes sense to me that we’ll see this sooner rather than later (although it’s also possible that we’ll never see this).

Back in December, Apple quietly submitted a patent application that altered the radio experience for its users and introduced three new elements to the iPhone:  FM, AM, and Satellite Radio – all built in.

Besides a much slicker user experience than the standard radio dial, Apple has another trick up their sleeve, according to

The radio patents are an indication that the iPhone 5 might offer a unique radio station mapping function which will let users find and select a station with the closest or strongest signal. The folks at T3 believe that Apple might integrate an FM radio receiver added to the top right corner of the device. Apple plans to change the game by displaying all the available radio stations nearby on an interactive map, with names and signal strengths displayed for each station.

If you’re traveling from town to town, this might be a great feature.  Although from a functional standpoint it may be “cooler” than a scan feature, it’s hard to believe it is better.  Meanwhile, if you – like most folks – do your radio listening in your own ‘hood, then this feature is pretty worthless.  Still, kudos to Apple for more out-of-the-box (if surprisingly non-funtional) thinking.

Note the five presets on the image, too.

So what does this all mean for you?

  1. The dream will have been realized and radio (and satellite radio) will once again be portable on one of America’s most popular mobile devices – the style-setter for all the rest.

  2. That portability will be provided at the level of consistency folks expect from FM and AM signals without the dropouts that may characterize streaming.

  3. You’ll still need to stream, you just won’t need to stream so that an iPhone owner around the corner from the station’s broadcast tower can get your station on their iPhone.  Not only that, but there will remain an opportunity to stream things that are different from what’s on your air to properly leverage the power of your brand.

  4. You’ll still need mobile apps, you just won’t need mobile apps that do nothing more than repackage your station in a stream (do you understand now why Apple has been rejecting these single-function radio apps?).  You’ll have an opportunity to solve new consumer problems with your apps and extend your brand experience in new ways.

  5. Standard FM and AM are going into the new iPhone – not HD radio.

  6. Satellite radio is getting equal shelf-space to terrestrial on the new iPhones.

So all in all, this is a nice development but not a ground-shaking one.

After all, this provides more distribution for FM and AM radio, but distribution has never been radio’s problem (which is why almost everybody listens to radio).  Could it add new quarter-hours to your station’s audience?  Sure, but primarily at the expense of somebody else’s quarter-hours.  In other words, it does little to enlarge radio’s audience or revenue pie. Will folks turn off Pandora and their streaming radio apps for the new built-in radio app? Maybe.  But Pandora has succeeded on iPhones not because FM or AM isn’t there – it has succeeded because it’s different from FM or AM, and that will not be changing.

If you think young folks will wake up and discover a new world of radio heretofore hidden from them, stop fooling yourself.  Radio still barely targets these young folks with a limited menu of choices, and they know it.  And most of them are already listening anyway when they’re not spreading their media time across a plethora of alternatives, only some of which might be described as “radio.”

My biggest worry, frankly, is that broadcasters will look at the presence of radio on iPhones as a future-oriented victory.  But the race radio is competing in includes many more players besides other radio stations.  And product innovation is key to win that race.  Victory will not come from more distribution or from pretty geographic maps of your tower or from new platforms which place FM and AM beside satellite radio.

On the iPhone, your competitor is not the station next door, it’s everything else competing for time and attention and advertising dollars on the iPhone.  Imagine a radio dial that expands exponentially, and you begin to get the idea.

Are you in the radio business?  Or in something bigger?

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