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Broadcasters step up FM-tuner-mandate campaign

Radio broadcasters aren't giving up on their quixotic quest to require that future cell phones include FM tuners--part of a grand bargain in which radio stations would agree to pay the same "performance royalties" to musicians that Web and satellite radio stations already hand over.

This morning, the National Association of Broadcasters released a survey it commissioned from Harris Interactive that--shockingly enough--found that large majorities of phone users would like radio reception built into their phones:

* Three-quarters (76 percent) of cell phone owners would consider paying a one-time fee of 30 cents to access local radio stations through a built-in radio chip.
* Local weather and music are the top reasons they would listen to their local stations on their cell phones.
* Seventy-three percent of cell phone owners indicated that having a radio built into their cell phone capable of providing local weather and emergency alerts in real-time would be "very" or "somewhat" important.

The online survey (PDF) also found that 61 percent of Americans didn't know they could buy a phone with an FM radio in the first place.

In today's release and in earlier arguments--see, for example, NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton's lengthy blog post from late August--the broadcasters make two arguments.

The more serious one is a public-safety defense: People need a way to know when some crisis is happening near them.

But there's already a standard in the works, a text-messaging alert system mandated by Congress in a 2008 law that would send alerts to phone users in affected areas. The NAB has a right to criticize the pokey deployment of this; the first large-scale test won't happen until this fall and the full system won't be up until 2012 (PDF). But text messages work with almost all existing hardware and don't require users to turn on some other feature on the phone to get the update (Wharton wrote in an e-mail that engineers were studying ways to wake up a phone's FM tuner remotely).

The NAB's public-safety argument would look stronger were it arguing for mandatory radio tuners in cars: A driver shouldn't be looking at text messages but will probably have a radio on if it's already ensconced in the dashboard. But the market has long since seen fit to put AM and FM tuners in every automobile.

The second part of the NAB's argument boils down to "give the people what they want." But why is it the government's job to mandate nice-to-have features in new products? The Consumer Electronics Association--shockingly enough--made that point in a statement released today, asking "do consumers really want the government to design their phones and require features?"

If, however, the folks at the NAB are going to get into the field of cell-phone design, they might as well be comprehensive about it. I hope that future NAB polls will solicit opinions on such topics as the price of text messages, Apple's control of the iPhone App Store, or the weird way a phone's battery drain accelerates once you're down to the last quarter of a charge.

Wireless manufacturers and carriers, in turn, can return the favor by commissioning surveys on such radio issues as the repetitive commercials that clutter too many sports broadcasts, the failure of local rock stations to play the work of such local rock bands as the (newly reunited) Dismemberment Plan, or why radio newscasters sound so gosh-darn peppy no matter how early the hour.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 14, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  Mobile , Music , Policy and politics  
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"But the market has long since seen fit to put AM and FM tuners in every automobile."

I'm pretty sure the latest Porsche sports car, and at least one version of the Subaru WRX, lack radios. They're shaving ounces off of those things.

Posted by: wiredog | September 14, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Back in the day, "radio delete" meant very, very fast car. However,I don't think I would be happy with a very expensive car w/out a radio.

Posted by: tbva | September 14, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

This is an issue that will be obsolete by the time they mandate it (which, knowing Congress, they'll mandate it anyway). I already have no use for a radio, since I can run Radio Time (a free app) on my Palm Pre. As soon as I start the program, it hits the GPS to find out where I am, and then I can hear nearly all local radio broadcasts via the Internet. Why would I want to add more power sucking radio aparatus to my smartphone?

Posted by: islesfan | September 14, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

Local music? What local music? Most of it is off the satellite.

One thing about FM is that it is local. Obama does not have his finger on a kill switch as he does for the internet.

Posted by: ObamasGulfResponseIsMuchWorseThanKatrina | September 14, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

These are the NAB's last gasps as a dying industry. They know that the trend is away from radio and toward Netcasts. This ship has left the dock and all the "FM tuner chips" in the world won't buy NAB a ticket.

Or to employ another metaphor, it's 1925 and the NAB wants the government to force you to buy horse buggy whips.

Posted by: BoteMan | September 15, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Local music? What local music? Most of it is off the satellite.

One thing about FM is that it is local. Obama does not have his finger on a kill switch as he does for the internet.

Posted by: ObamasGulfResponseIsMuchWorseThanKatrina

Those Kool-Aid drinkers make me embarrassed to be an American. The fear in them is SO not the America we used be so proud of.

I hope they all leave the grid and hide in their bunkers, leaving us thinking people to carry on a proud nation.

Posted by: lquarton | September 15, 2010 11:48 PM | Report abuse

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