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Cell Phones Killed the Radio Star

Lisa Rau |
August 29, 2010 | 11:10 p.m. PDT


When Howard Stern left FM radio for satellite, people adapted. When Adam Carolla left FM radio for podcasts, people adapted. When mandatory FM radios were implanted into every cell phone in America, people were forced. 

FM radio tuners may become mandatory for all American cell phones if Congress passes a bill this fall. (Photo illustration by Lisa Rau)
FM radio tuners may become mandatory for all American cell phones if Congress passes a bill this fall. (Photo illustration by Lisa Rau)

Okay, it hasn’t happened yet, but Congress may vote on a bill this fall to make it illegal for cell phones to continue to be sold without FM radio capability.

A heated, decades-long feud has stood between American radio broadcasters and the music industry. The two could never agree on the royalties—or lack thereof—paid to artists and labels for songs played over the radio. At no cost, public stations could blast anyone’s tunes over the airwaves because—as broadcasters put it—you can’t buy free publicity.

Last month, all this changed. With music reps fretting over the decline of CD sales and broadcasters scrambling to compete with private Internet and satellite radio outlets, the two rivals discovered they were stronger together. 

Broadcasters and music label lobbyists have struck a two-pronged agreement to present to Congress this fall. 

The financial agreement:

  • Radio broadcasters (the National Association of Broadcasters, or NAB) have agreed to pay $100 million per year in royalties to artists and music labels for playing songs over the air.

The zinger:

  • In exchange, music label reps happily lend their support to propose a federal bill mandating all cell phones sold in the U.S. to enable FM radio. Supporters claim that public safety communication is the number one catalyst for this potential decision, should the H-bomb or zombie virus hit American soil.

Deal, or no deal? The NAB will not support the agreement unless the second tenet is met, and neither party wants to go back to square one. 

But wait, FM radio fans are already alive, well and growing, claims Arbitron, a media research firm that reported a seven million-person FM radio audience increase as of March 2010. So why are they pushing to retrofit every iPhone, Blackberry and Droid with FM antennae, extra battery bulk and a tuning dial? Yes, a tuning dial. See mockup for the deets.

NAB Executive VP Dennis Wharton responded to widespread criticism about the bill in “A fact-based response to the critics of radio cell phones.” In it, he notes that in Asia and Latin America, people prefer FM radio over texting, cameras and even the Web, so logically, so should Americans. We susceptible Americans like chow mein and tacos, so we must have the same technological preferences, too.

Fallacies aside, I should disclose that these “fact-based” arguments are backed by his own organization’s research data. That’s like putting my mom as a reference on my résumé.

Frills aside, his arguments are the following:

  1. “Radio serves as an information lifeline during times of crisis.”
  2. “Cell phone subscribers deserve access to radio’s free service.”
  3. “There is Congressional support for radio-capable cell phones.”
  4. “Radio capability is common on many other innovative devices.”
  5. “Americans deserve better.”

My thoughts on each:  

  1. It’s the Information Age. We’re bombarded with public information every day. Even if a meteor crash wipes out Wi-Fi across the planet, it’s not like we’re severely deprived of radio access. Just jump in the nearest car, head to the nearest building, or :gasp: turn on your iPod nano.
  2. Cell phone subscribers deserve access to a free market governed by supply and demand. And if you remember anything from Econ 101, you know that demand will always bring the supply. Bring it, American people. Shove it, mandate mongers.
  3. What about Congressional support to move along the 2006 “SAFE Port Act,” a public safety alert system based on existing cell phone usage? Broadcasters lament that it hasn’t gotten off the ground, and I lament that they aren’t helping them, tooth and nail.
  4. If I want FM radio, I’ll find one. If I want mobile Internet, I’ll shell out the extra 30 bucks each month. If I want to play Snake, I’ll dig up my old Nokia.
  5. What about the 11 percent of Americans who don’t have a cell phone? Maybe the government will mandate FM radio brain implants. For their safety, of course. In 2009, the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry reported that 277 million Americans had cell phone subscriptions. The U.S. Census accounts for 310 million Americans. Yup. More than 33 million people are off the grid, cell phone-wise. Thirty-three million people just like your grandma who have never known the gentle touch of a silicone trackpad.

In the end, it’s sweet that the NAB and music industry finally found a way to make nice, but not on our token of free agency.

It’s an undeniable human right to exercise personal preference, and no one should dictate our private lifestyle choices. I’m still miffed about a seatbelt ticket I got a few years ago. Whose business is it if I’m strapped in or not? No one else was in danger as I unbuckled the belt to fix my hair just as an under-stimulated cop spotted me from across the street. A $167, and I maintain that I still only wear a seatbelt out of respect for my own life and the friends and family who’d be super bummed should I go flying through the windshield. Not because it’s mandated by California state law.

FM radio, I’m glad you’re alive and well. I’m glad your audiences are growing. I’m glad that I can still tune into KROQ’s Kevin & Bean during my morning commute. But don’t you dare force yourself into my pocket unless I ask for you during my next cell phone upgrade.

As Kurt Cobain might've said, we may be in danger of a radio-friendly unit shifter, after all.

Reach columnist Lisa Rau here.

Follow her on Twitter: @LisaRau



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