Emmis Digital's NextRadio is being criticized for not being successful enough, fast enough. Is that a valid criticism? Perhaps -- but Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan says NextRadio was designed for a slow rollout. It's available only on a few carriers and phone models right now, but more are expected to come on board over time.
So what exactly is NextRadio? Just about every cell phone in the world has an FM receiver on board. But in the United States, the receivers on most phones are never activated. NextRadio is an app that lets listeners hear local FM stations over the air -- not via streaming -- on certain phone models from Sprint, Boost, and Virgin.
Smulyan started the initiative for FM in cell phones, and it is, he's said, his most important contribution to the radio industry. He believes that as more consumers are being moved to metered data plans, they'll soon find streaming audio is too expensive -- and says research shows that younger consumers, many of whom have never been exposed to portable FM, like the idea of a radio they can keep in their pockets.
I'm one of those on the fence about NextRadio. I love radio, and I think radio remains strong (there is evidence), and I love the idea of every phone being a radio. But there's every reason to believe consumers will continue migrating to digital for some audio entertainment -- which I suppose is a good argument for NextRadio, so radio is available on the same devices. Meanwhile, Audi has just announced in-car WiFi, and others will be sure to follow. That will encourage the shift to digital even in an arena where radio has long felt safe. It might even nullify the argument about data charges.
Though Jeff Smulyan speaks of an intentional slow start for NextRadio, I can understand the criticism. After all, we're living in a world where new companies can see millions of customers within months of launch. We're in a world of rapid adoption, so when this NextRadio thing doesn't seem to be happening quickly, complaints are understandable.
I know the industry is promising big ad dollars to Sprint and others to promote these phones. So let's assume for a moment that you're an average consumer who hears an ad talking about the NextRadio app. Like most consumers, you don't pay attention to the details and probably don't hear that the app is on new Sprint phones only. Oh, and it's not on all Sprint phones -- just on certain models. And what's a "new" phone? Your phone isn't old -- you got it maybe a year ago. So you go to Google Play or the App Store and search "NextRadio." And unless you have one of the few phones that can use it, it doesn't show up.
I tried it on my phone, which is almost two years old. The search gave me nothing for NextRadio, but it did offer alternatives -- Slacker Radio, 8tracks, and dozens of other radio apps. As a consumer who took the time to look it up, I'm now frustrated and won't look any further.
Let's assume for a moment that those NextRadio ads, which play on hundreds of radio stations, have reached millions of people. And most of those who are interested enough to look for the app can't find it. Will that experience prompt them to go out and buy a new Sprint phone? Probably not.
If the ads work, if millions became aware of NextRadio, if millions look for the app, and if nearly all of them can't find it -- then almost all those ad dollars are wasted, or even counterproductive.
Why not have a Next Radio FM app that works on all phones and can be found on all searches? Of course, we know they can't do that right now -- not all carriers and phones are offering FM. But the consumer doesn't understand that. In this app-centered world, they hear about an app and want to try it. They probably don't even get that it's designed for FM over the air -- to them, it's just an app to listen to the radio.
Why can't NextRadio be offered as a station-streaming app like TuneIn or iHeart, at least as an option until many more phones and carriers are on board? (I'm sure TuneIn and iHeart would work with NextRadio to provide station data.) I asked Jeff Smulyan about that, and he said it hadn't been considered and might confuse consumers. But I think consumers are just as likely to be confused by hearing about an app and then being unable to find or use it.
The NextRadio app needs to be available to everyone on every phone. When listeners go to use it, and they have the right phone with an enabled FM chip, they could get a message explaining, "You're listening on FM radio and not spending any money on data charges." Those who use NextRadio as a streaming app could see a message that says, "You're paying data charges to listen, but you don't have to. Some phones have FM radio embedded. Click to learn more."
I have no idea whether consumers will embrace NextRadio. I think it's worth the effort, and I'm thrilled to see this industry behind it. But there's an opportunity to make this a bigger win for radio. If we don't get a lot of consumers onto phones with FM right away, at least we can provide another access point. And when more phones with active FM become available, there will be an app for those phone buyers that they may well be using already, with a familiar interface and features. No conversion required.
It's worth considering.