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New car tech outracing AM/FM

As a recent buyer of a new car, I finally got a first-hand look at the brave new world of car audio. My previous car was nine years old and had no Bluetooth, satellite radio, USB port, or any of the niceties of today’s cars. My choices were strictly AM, FM, or CD with a digital display that only showed a station frequency or track number. In contrast, my new car has options that include satellite radio, Bluetooth, a wired connection that lets me use Apple CarPlay with my phone, a touchscreen display – and of course AM and FM.

car media display screen

Find the AM/FM tuner!

This new and potentially confusing cornucopia of in-car media can concern not only new car buyers but the radio industry as well. How do new owners “find” their favorite broadcast radio stations? How are they programmed into favorites? How do you switch between radio and media sources? All of these actions, fairly simple up until a few years ago, can now be much harder to accomplish. While my new car fortunately has an easy interface, there are certainly many cars I’ve rented that have been completely non-intuitive and hard to use.

NAB logo

Consider just the display. The NAB recently released a report about how terrestrial radio broadcasters compare with the newer audio options per their appearance on new car displays. As might be expected, the terrestrial stations – with many different ownership groups and local managers – were wildly divergent in how station and song information are presented to the driver. In comparison, the audio options with a single source – SiriusXM or apps on a connected phone – typically had very standard, user friendly displays. In the constant battle for ears, even something relatively unrelated to the listening experience – the display UX – could tip the scale towards one source.

A similar situation on the pay TV side – the roll out of video-on-demand in the 2000s – is informative. In that case, every regional pay TV service seemed to have a different branding and interface for their VOD service. Going across the country, there was no standard way for consumers to learn about, or learn to use, VOD. Enter Netflix with its easy user interface and the streaming vs VOD battle was half-won from the start.

Another aspect the NAB will be exploring is how new car buyers are educated by the car dealers on delivery of their new cars. When I got my new car, my salesman specifically did tell me how to find and program AM and FM stations, but that is not always the case.

Radio’s look for due respect isn’t going to get easier

In today’s digital world, broadcast radio does have a constant battle for relevance despite its high usage (90% of Americans listen to radio each week) and beneficial use close to purchase decision (listening while driving to the store). But with much of its listening in the car, radio has a vested interest in making sure that something as simple as finding, tuning, and storing favorite broadcast stations doesn’t get lost in the technology of new cars. With the advent of self-driving cars soon upon us, and car ownership projected to decline overall, this will open up new competition and opportunities for listener’s ears and eyes.

David Tice is the principal of TiceVision LLC, a media research consultancy.
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