WiFi on Wheels -- Radio's Worst Nightmare

Chrysler announced recently that starting with many of next year's models, it will offer a new option that will include WiFi's capability to bring the Internet to the car as a dealer installed option.

Luckily for the radio industry the auto industry is also in the tank.

As a recent article in the LA Times put it:

Have you ever thought rush hour on the 405 Freeway might be more bearable if you could check your e-mail, shop for a book on Amazon, place some bids on EBay and maybe even, if nobody is looking, download a little porn?

Now, drivers and their passengers will have access to email while in the car as well as the ability to surf thousands and thousands of Internet streams. All of a sudden the customary traffic jam on the nation's roadways will be bearable.

Keep in mind that Ford's Focus already has a hard drive option that can take music downloads from consumer devices. My anecdotal experience is that young people love this idea.

The iPod dock in the car is another device that is coming of age as Chrysler gets ready to roll out UConnect Web -- that's what they're calling it.

So, WiFi on Wheels is the latest wake up call to the radio industry to look beyond the transmitter and tower business and jump into Internet content.

That, and mobile content will be the future.

Radio CEOs won't like it, but the people they employ are perhaps the most qualified to produce content beyond terrestrial radio.

Imagine podcasted morning shows no longer than the average commute time to work or school that play seamlessly in cars. That can be started, stopped, time-delayed or deleted on the listener's terms.

And five minute podcasts -- in the image of YouTube -- to be consumed by a generation short on attention span and high on consuming information and entertainment.

And now, WiFi.

This will lead some radio folks to ask, "do we really want to be in that business?"

My answer is, "hell yes".

WiFi will change everything -- and WiMax, a technology with greater coverage -- could also be a game changer. Several major cities are in the process of building WiMax networks -- Baltimore being the one closest to getting up and running soon.

Radio broadcasters are stuck on yesterday.

They want to will new formats to succeed to make terrestrial radio a growth business once more.

Older radio listeners like radio, but they may also like WiFi Radio. In fact, many of my industry friends who have WiFi radios at home love them. True, they easily access the terrestrial stations they want to hear nationwide that are being streamed on the web, but they also listen to many obscure streams.

It's this variety -- the variety that radio has been missing for over 25 years -- that will be WiFi's real appeal. WiFi and WiMax are not just the technologies that will deliver a new form of radio. They are the enablers of thousands and thousands of new choices for listeners.

Some of the founding fathers of consolidation truly believe satellite radio is their competition.

They are slow to embrace the Internet.

Have no plan to get into the mobile content business.

They are in deep denial that HD Radio will actually matter let alone make a difference.

They have become prisoners of Wall Street's slash 'em and trash 'em strategy of ruining good assets run by exceptional people just to deliver what investors want in the short term.

They let their trade associations wander off message -- fighting useless battles when they should be pitching a tent and inviting Internet streamers in to fight together for copyright fairness.

Radio's leaders refuse to embrace posting when advertisers say they want it -- talk about burying your heads in the sand.

And they seem to have nothing better to do than memorialize their joy in hurting Arbitron's People Meter without regard for how much they are hurting radio in the eyes of the advertising community.

The automakers started making it possible to listen to iPods in cars a few years ago mainly with the upscale brands -- this will simply proliferate going forward.

They've got entertainment consoles for all types of buyers -- satellite television in vans, satellite radio everywhere and now the coolest and most significant advance since, well -- the car radio.

WiFi and soon, WiMax.

Ask anyone who runs or programs a radio station how important this new technology is. They know.

Ask most radio CEOs and you get poppycock about issues that only matter to their investment banks for the quarter. They don't know.

WiFi on Wheels will prove to be radio's worst nightmare.

Ironically, the only thing more outdated than a tower and transmitter is the CEO who controls the tower and transmitter.

As some of you know, I used to be program director of a radio station in Philadelphia called WIFI 92. No kidding -- they were the call letters. It was a pioneering FM station with a rockin' stereo format back in the day. One of the big roadblocks we had then for "terrestrial" WIFI 92 -- besides a lousy signal -- was lack of FM radios in automobiles.

My boss was John Tenaglia -- a guy I always thought was nuts -- a wild and crazy guy.

One thing is for sure -- Johnny T wouldn't be crazy enough to miss the "new" WiFi wave.

The same can't be said for the not-ready-for-primetime radio CEOs who once again are putting a proud industry behind the 8 ball.

To compete with thousands of new streams increasingly available on WiFi, terrestrial radio is going to have to get better. Fast.

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