Trouble Ahead for Car Radio

Radio had already staked its claim to fame on being mobile media long before cell phones and iPods.

Once the family stopped sitting around the radio together and went to watching TV instead, the radio industry reinvented itself to survive the TV challenge.

To accomplish this, the radio industry had to lay claim on the car as its main receiver.

As automobiles proliferated -- two family cars and then cars for the teens -- radio was the one constant.

A built-in, ready-made -- always accessible audience.

Keep in mind that in the 1970's, FM radio could not grow and prosper until automakers decided to make FM receivers standard equipment in automobiles. Once that happened, music stations migrated to the better fidelity on FM and the industry continued to thrive. (There were also fewer commercials, less hype, better variety -- until we screwed FM music formats up, too).

Now, that once-sacred listening place -- the car -- is in serious jeopardy.

And I'm not even talking about the obvious -- which is that fewer cars are selling during the economic downturn. Ask Sirius XM what it feels like to lose over a million subscribers at $12.95 a month and not be able to replace them at their only significant listening post -- the car radio.

No, I'm talking about social engineering here -- enabled by new technology.

Consider the following and you'll get a grasp on how bad decisions being made by radio CEOs today about programming are playing right into the hands of its competition:

1. The car radio is now known as the vehicle's "entertainment center". That says it all.

2. The Ford Sync has been installed in one million vehicles so far. The popular new Sync -- which is still called a "radio" by the way -- is described as "audio traffic updates and directions as you drive (and) will launch May 18 in some vehicles and early June in several others, as Ford converts the popular radio to the traffic/information appliance it announced in January".

3. Starting this month owners of a 2010 Fusion, Mustang, Milan and MKZ will be able to download an upgrade to their Sync radios that will enable conversion to traffic/information appliances via the SyncMyRide website. The original Sync allowed voice activation and control of the next generation's most popular devices such as iPods.

4. New versions of Sync will allow easy access to have what the manufacturer calls voice in--voice out traffic updates and trip navigation and weather, stock reports, news. It's all free at least for the first three years of ownership. The link for the service is the user’s Bluetooth phone and the information is sent over the phone’s voice channel so no data plan is required from the carrier.

But sit down ...I don't want you to hurt yourself because the real killer is coming next ...

5. In nine to 12 months, Ford's Sync will enable Internet capabilities on a smartphone and allow the Internet's most popular radio station - Pandora -- to play throughout the car's sound system. Want Live 365 -- you've got it. Want terrestrial radio -- you can listen to a stream but who wants to do that? Terrestrial radio operators are busy importing cheap Repeater Radio into their markets. What innovators they are! Terrestrial radio is about to be had for lunch -- maybe even dinner.

It gets better -- or worse depending on whether you are Fagreed, Tricky Dickey and Slogan Hogan or an eager consumer...

6. How about reading your email by voice while you're driving. It's on the way in a future version of Sync.

7. Ford reports that "The updated Sync uses INRIX traffic data and Tellme voice technology as well as Airbiquity and TeleNav technology. Best Buy is slated to provide technical support to Sync customers who have trouble pairing their phones with the new Sync. The Sync was developed with Microsoft".

8. It's not just Ford, the other surviving automakers will also be adding the most anticipated consumer audio feature of all time -- Internet streaming. Delphi and Autonet Mobile are calling for companies to create Internet connectivity devices as standard equipment for new cars. That technology is being tested. Mobile high speed Internet access is coming.

My readers know what radio consolidators don't care to know.

Radio is outdated (after all, wasn't their idea of the digital future HD radio?)

But consumers are on the cutting edge.

Technology is now meeting consumer expectations and matching their behavior.

These clowns who run consolidated radio companies are playing with the future of the industry by trying to save their butts through cutbacks and mass firings.

They should be innovating in the mobile space because their lack of foresight has driven radio into a slow lane on the information super highway.

You know that you can't go two blocks without seeing a driver on the cell phone -- even more during rush hour and on freeways.

And increasingly we've all seen driving while texting.

Why not?

Texting is an addiction to the next generation.

Radio has become as mundane as brushing your teeth.

I've mentioned this before but awhile back when I asked a class of college students if they ever drove while texting the roar of laughter was so loud for so long -- well, I got my answer. The reworded question I asked was, "has anyone not texted while driving?" Out of 45 or so students, not one could raise their hand.

While radio geniuses are finding ways to bring the 1960's into 2010, consumers have turned them off. They now hold sacred the cell phone (and the iPhone, Blackberry, etc).

Texting is not simply an option.

To them, it's an entitlement.

It's like crack but there is no Promises at Malibu to break the addiction.

If you're following this line of thought, you can see why Steve Jobs at Apple is cooperating with the inevitable and succeeding while competitors fail.

Radio CEOs are shooting themselves in the foot.

Instead of running a station on 1-3 employees, they should be developing new mobile content and streams -- information pods and unique content that will play in the radio of the future which -- significantly enough replaces the radio in a car dashboard in more ways than one.

Yes, of course -- terrestrial radio will still be available in cars for the short haul -- but the handful of radio CEOs who see the future their way are not likely to gain market share.

Not with Pandora on board.

Or Internet streaming enabled.

Or email and voice access to the services and features they crave.

Unless, Don Imus on oxygen turns you on in 2010.

Or Ryan Seacrest can keep your hands off of switching to Pandora.

Or listening to voice tracking tell you to get out and enjoy the day while you're driving in a tornado watch that terrestrial radio has ignored.

If we know these things, why don't the radio CEOs?

For one, they are in it to thin it -- cut down not build up.

They scoff at advice such as "mind your generational media" because they can't relate to radio any other way than how they experienced it or how they want to keep it going.

If I walked in and tried to sell you the newest, best looking steam locomotive in the world for your railroad, you'd kick me out on my ass.

No one needs the best steam locomotive.

By extension, no one needs the best radio of the 1960's today -- let alone the worst version of it on voice tracking and syndication that is now being offered.

Radio is mired in yesterday.

Happy to live in the past. Consolidation as we are learning has killed off the entrepreneurial spirit that always drove radio.

If a mom and pop operator today owned 4 AM and 7 FM stations, his or her children would grow up in radio and probably pester mom and dad until they could try out this newfangled technology called -- the Internet.

By contrast, consolidated radio would appoint a national Interactive VP and then start dictating decisions from headquarters until ...

...until the budget was cut.

Then eventually eliminated.

Car radio is on the road to a major accident.

And the crash is going to come at the hands of the people in the driver's seat -- terrestrial radio.

Through arrogance, ignorance, malfeasance and mismanagement they have wrecked their strong hold on the car radio.

And for the record, I am predicting here and now that within a short time you'll start seeing some automakers give buyers a chance to leave terrestrial radio out of their entertainment systems -- an economic decision.

This accident was totally avoidable but now that it has happened it appears to be fatal.

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