Drive Time

26 01 2011

When XM Radio launched on 25th September 2001, I thought it spelled the beginning of the end for broadcast radio. After all, suddenly we had 100 new channels from which to choose, with extremely narrowcasting the norm rather than spinning tunes for the masses. Like new country? No problem. Soft jazz? Go ahead and mellow out. Grunge? Get your Cobain fix in no time.

But satellite radio has never really taken off (ha ha), perhaps because of the nagging little subscription fees. At first, it required the purchase of add-on equipment, but eventually, new cars came equipped with satellite-ready radios. This gave broadcast radio some breathing room to figure out how to stay alive.

But the Grim Reaper is once again knocking at radio’s door. The iPod (also introduced in 2001) quietly started a music revolution (even though it is but a digital version of the Sony Walkman). Today, most new cars have an auxiliary plug for iPod-like devices.

The story gets juicier. With close to 50% of Americans now owning smartphones, and those same people rapidly embracing mobile apps, there is less and less reason for people to listen to regular radio. With over 80 million people already listening to Pandora, there is almost a mandate to let us take our custom radio with us in our cars.

So Ford was among the first to offer smartphone app integration between Pandora and car stereos. In fact, several automakers are rushing to integrate numerous apps into the driving experience.

Which means we may be listening to our Pandora stations more and more in the days ahead, not just by plugging our headphones into our phone, but by connecting via bluetooth between the phone and the car stereo. As for broadcast radio, the time has come to reconsider how it is going to survive. Local weather and traffic may not be able to carry the day.

I have somewhat mixed emotions about the phone-car connection. Personally, I would rather the car stereo have its own data plan (pulled from the same cell towers as the phone). There would be built-in GPS, which would be a great theft deterrent (much like OnStar), because a car could be located quickly before the thief disables the stereo.

And there is that other conundrum about how and why people were reluctant to pony up $12 a month for XM, but have no problem with $30 at ATT. But that puzzle solves itself when you consider that Pandora allows for mass customization, plus the phone data plan is far more cross-functional.

But in my perfect world, we would be able to have a Rhapsody app so I could hand-pick not just a genre or “sounds like” a certain artist, but rather a specific album, artist or song. And let’s toss in Netflix streaming for the backseat passengers (aka, our kiddos).

Still, I am happy to see the progress being made in car entertainment systems (because that’s what they really are). I hope an after-market of app-ready stereos blossoms so that we do not have to purchase a new car to enjoy this technology. And I really do hope they can just set up my van and RV as if they were their own mobile phone account. I want a legitimate data center in my vehicles, not one jerry rigging a connection.

That’s when you’ll see me tuning in and turning on. But not dropping out.

Dr “Crank It Up” Gerlich

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