Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Techy Tuesday - Will New Cars Have Radios in 2020?

According to the electronics trade magazine website Planet Analog, there's talk in the industry that cars may not have AM or FM radios in the not-too-distant future. 
These are difficult times for the commercial broadcast-radio business, both AM and FM. According to various articles, such as this one from The Los Angeles Times, listener ratings are continuing to fall, and some carmakers -- where most radio listening is done, apparently -- are considering eliminating radios in the car completely, and not even offering it as an available option. Today’s drivers don’t need old-time radio (a.k.a. "terrestrial radio") for music, weather, traffic, news, or whatever, as they have smartphone connectivity, MP3 players, satellite radio, and much more.
The linked LA Times article about format changes at KFWB AM in El Lay talks about dwindling numbers of listeners for AM radio.  It includes this line:
KFWB has been particularly hard hit as listeners have abandoned AM radio at a steady rate.

The station drew 172,000 listeners a week in July, a small sum considering that it broadcasts to a region that has millions of potential listeners. Top-rated music station KBIG-FM (104.3) pulled in nearly 3.5 million during the same time frame.
The Wall St. Journal, though, presents this graph of what audio sources car owners are using:
Survey respondents still said they tended to get their new music from AM/FM radio.  Some 75% say they listen to the radio to stay up to date, while 66% get new music from friends and family. YouTube and Pandora come in third and fourth with 59% and 48%, respectively.  That varied with age, though.  Younger people are more likely to use digital sources. YouTube takes the top spot among 12-24 year olds, with 83% using the site to keep up with new music. Friends/Family and Pandora are tied for the second spot with 71%.  But even among young people, 65% still use radio to stay up to date.

Buried in all that data is a statistic that surely has an effect on all this.  The average age of cars on the road is 11.4 years - the oldest ever.  That was in the infancy of digital music.  The iPhone has only been around for about seven years, with the first Android phones hitting the market six years ago.  MP3 players existed then, but services like Pandora, I Heart Radio, and other streaming audio services didn't exist.  What else are you going to listen to in a car that doesn't have the most modern services?  Someone did this image depicting the change in car radios we're talking about: 

Like all good humor, there's a kernel of truth in there.

Personally, I find it hard to imagine not having radio services in the car, but I've been a radio geek since I was a tiny kid.  One of my earliest memories is sitting with a cousin on the sand of Miami Beach at night listening to this marvelous thing he had called a short wave radio.  I don't even remember how old I was, just that I was old enough to know that England was a long way away and hearing the BBC was magical.  Years later, in 5th or 6th grade, my parents got me a clock radio so that they didn't have to wake me up for school.  I learned that if you tuned carefully across the AM dial, you'd hear stations from far away.  WABC in New York City or WCKY in Cincinnati?  Easy catches any winter night when the thunderstorms were gone.

I had Sirius satellite radio for a while but when most of your driving is 15 minute commutes, it doesn't make much sense.  On long trips lately, I've just plugged my phone into that aux jack and a USB charger, listening to streaming radio.  It's music or programming I want to listen to, but it doesn't have the local flavor of the local stations; the local talk show that discusses the goings on around town.  Homogenizing the country so that everyone listens to same programs is great, to a point, and there are FCC appointees (at least one) dedicated to killing off local broadcasting; the better to quell dissent with.   We still live in our communities, and local stations can reflect that.  

What do you think?  Is local broadcasting so dead that car makers shouldn't even provide the radio as an option? 


  1. I share your history with radio, and how magical it is.

    When I was growing up in Illinois I used to listen to the Lou Dean Show on WRVA at night when I was supposed to be sleeping!

    My 2006 Jeep is the first vehicle I've ever owned with satellite radio, and I didn't think I'd like it.


    Great variety, but in the time I've owned it, I think the commercials have probably tripled in amount on certain channels.

  2. There are some channels I just can't find equivalents to, but yeah - the commercials really started multiplying. Even a few years ago. Also, they used some sort of audio compression or CODEC or processing that left noticeable artifacts in the music.

    My '09 Exploder had Sirius in it from the factory, I think (bought it used). I get offers to subscribe a few times a year, but it just isn't worth it to me.

  3. I think they've changed the bit-rate on some channels, and they're right at the ragged edge of what the current codecs can handle.

    When I was working at DirecTV we saw the same thing if we didn't mux the audio correctly on the Music Choice channels. Most systems run variable bit rate to accommodate some channels needing more at times, and if the whole system is getting maxed out, the lower priority channels will suffer some artifacting.

  4. I remember building a crystal radio from a kit in 3rd grade, and fooling with Dad's old Hallicrafter receiver late at night in the years after that. Voices from afar had more than a little magic to it.

    It's been said that Limbaugh saved AM radio, and that music made FM, both of which are probably true.

    Cost, availability and ease of use are probably what's hindering more widespread acceptance of satellite radio. I've had it in a few rentals, but if one's preference runs to music it's easier to plug in the iPod (or the phone) and get the commercial-less mix you want.

    One thing I've found useful is radioroadtrip.com.

  5. To answer your question, auto makers should leave radios in the cars. I fit all goes digital over Wi-Fi or satellite, then as you say, we loose the local flavor. The control of the "radio voice" will then be from major liberal information hubs. Mind control anyone?

  6. A year ago I had finally had enough with my cheapo clock radio in the garage/workshop. It din't get many stations, too much static/interference and poor audio made it not worth the trouble. I searched and wasn't really too impressed by what is out there. Then the light lit up and I relaized that 7" notebook computer would do the job with a set of $19.95 speakers. I just wasn't using it because it is so slow and so hard to read anything on that small screen. So I loaded my music on it and searched out a half dozen good local stations that aired over the internet and I now have a great "radio". As a plus I often have plans and instructions for projects on my regular laptop so I can just download them to the little one in the garage and I don't have to get up from the workbench to research something.

  7. A couple of years ago, I got tired of punching (really) the old radio in the 85 Suburban to get it to start playing again, and I bought the radio you wanted 10 years ago. I tend to live pretty far back on the technology curve.

    I still remember the first AM radio I got as a kid and the excitement of listening to "far away" places at night.

    To answer your question, I think they will still offer them as options, if only for the Sirius type stuff.

    To ask a question, does anyone have a recommendation for a decent but not bank-breaking portable SW receiver? And, is there still anything on SW worth listening to?

  8. P.S. I think they'll also offer them as an option because having the controls on the dash is pretty convenient... although the controls on the steering wheel on modern cars may obviate that convenience.

  9. Weetabix - I probably have a SW receiver within arms reach 24/7, but my favorite little portable is a Kaito WRX911. $20 on Amazon. It will run forever on a pair of AA batteries. Seems quite decent.

    As for worth listening to, that's a bit harder to answer. How about "fewer and farther between"?

  10. I think they will (or at least should) still leave radios in cars. While many techies and young people just use the speakers, there are many more less techie people who still use the radio portion. It is also a significant backup for getting information out in times of emergency (if handled correctly by local authorities).

  11. You do have a radio in your car. Actually you probably have a few, but I am talking about your cell phone.

    With Pandora or Spotify I can listen to only songs I want to hear. From artists that aren't on any radio station. If I ever decide to pay for premium service I can avoid ads completely.

    Some of the stuff I listen to you will never find on FM radio. Dead Can Dance. Hybrid. Rob Dougan. Crystal Method. Even some of the more mainstream stuff, like Indigo Girls you would be lucky to hear once a month. Depending on the city you are in.

    For a while I was driving back and forth between Florida and Chicago. Either through south Georgia, or through most of Alabama the FM radio was pretty awful. Unless you like televangelists and Country and Western music. (I don't!)

    Both of those services - and they have somewhat different music available, so I listen to both - are so tuned into my likes, that I can go for hours and never hear a song I don't like, and hear new (to me) music. Can't say that about FM.

  12. The podcasts I can listen to of favorite talk radio hosts and various academics and free thinkers are amazing. AM and FM offerings are vapid and annoying and music on any of the stations is in the fingernail on blackboard category. NPR has decent stuff if you don't mind megadoses of liberal panegyrics to utopianism, fiscal insanity, contempt for capitalism and America, and multiculturalism.

    I mostly drive long distances so the podcast alternative to mindless programming and static is imperative.

    Since my driving habits are not typical, I hate to think that local radio would die out. Isn't there a currently-available option for packing extra AM channels into available frequencies? Rather than see the AM offerings of today die off completely, it would be nice to have bandwidth increase to break the back of the media broadcast monopolies and allow for a sort of Youtube of the AM or FM band to flourish. I'd much rather listen to inspired "amateurs" and cranks on "public access" radio than what the professionals have to offer.

    If there's no there there, I don't see why car makers should put radios in new cars. But if we can get "Youtube" radio, "public access" radio, or "Twitter" radio then hell yes keep the car radios.