Don’t Touch That Dial—No, Really, Keep Your Hands Off My Radio
Will there come a day when you’ll reach out to change to the station on your car radio only to find your radio isn’t there? It could happen. And it won’t mean you’ll need to file a police report. That missing radio wasn’t there in the first place.
As you read this, car companies are wrestling with the question of whether the car of the future, with its connected console of the future, should have an AM/FM radio in it. The debate centers on the importance of delivering on-demand content, which includes podcasts and Internet radio streams, versus making space for yesterday’s technology. Granted, radio is devoid of on-demand features. However, it offers two features of its own—localization and immediacy—the Internet can’t touch (at least not yet). When you’re driving, it might be handier to know about an accident up ahead, or the location of a 24-hour restaurant, rather than the five tips for successful _______.
There’s Mobile and Then There’s Mobile
There’s a third feature than makes radio a strong contender for precious dashboard space. It’s the one that its detractors point at when questioning whether radio belongs on smartphones. Zero physical interactivity. Radio broadcasts provide a constant stream of set-it-and-forget it entertainment that doesn’t encourage divided attention. Complexity may be fine when mobile means listening while sitting in Starbucks. But as Scott Burnell, Cisco Systems Director of Smart Connected Vehicles said at the recently-wrapped Atlanta Radio Show, “Having your content and doing cool stuff while you’re driving has no place in the pecking order compared to braking.” You have three choices with the radio in your car: listen to it, turn it off or hit a button and listen to something else. It’s boring, but how often do you need the wow factor of an accident?
Speaking of hitting that radio pushbutton, Eric Peters, writing for The American Spectator website, reported on a survey conducted for the Radio Advertising Bureau. According to Peters, “Fully 91 percent of those asked about [eliminating AM/FM radios from car dashboards] wanted the traditional radio with knobs and buttons; only 9 percent wanted that to go away in favor of an ‘app.'” [Emphasis mine]
Drivers not only feel comfortable with the remarkably low-tech car radio interface, they want it to hang around. It’s intuitive, easy to manipulate and less distracting than having what amounts to a mobile phone screen conveniently located to take your eyes off the road. Voice commands and heads-up displays not withstanding, drivers seem to know what’s good for them, even while manufacturers scramble to figure it out.
Where does this leave podcasting in the car of the future?
What seems to be remarkably missing in these discussions is our input. At least I don’t see independent podcasters quoted in news reports and articles. So for all those car executives reading this post, if pushbuttons are good enough for radio, why are you going through gyrations to find listening apps for podcasts? Yes, interactivity, both with the sponsor and the host, can set podcasts apart from radio. But as Burnell of Cisco noted, do we want the other drivers on the road ordering pizzas or leaving messages for podcast hosts while tooling down the highway at 65 miles per hour? Why not a “podcast radio” a listener can set to the current episodes of her 10 or 12 favorite podcasts, and that can be operated by pushing a button or voicing a command?
In fact, why not make all audio entertainment as easily accessible as radio is today? Maybe all a listener in the car of the future needs is the simple ability to listen, no matter how complicated manufacturers want it to be.