Emmis fine-tuning FM radio app for automobiles

Emmis Communications Inc. helped bring the FM-enabled smart phone to U.S. wireless customers last year as a way to keep over-the-air radio relevant in a world of digital music streaming and satellite radio.

Now the Indianapolis-based operator of 20 radio stations is closer to bringing its NextRadio app to automobile dashboards, where FM would also be married to Internet connectivity.

Emmis’ chief technology officer, Paul Brenner, demonstrated an automobile version of the app last week at CES, the consumer electronics industry’s big annual show, in Las Vegas.

NextRadio is an app developed by Emmis that is now available on certain Sprint, Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile phones. It allows the devices to receive an FM signal over the air, much like a transistor radio. There’s no need to waste expensive data minutes to stream a station from iHeartRadio or other online listening channels. 

The app also enables phone users to receive visuals on their phone display that correspond to the broadcast, such as album cover art, advertisements or coupons and maps to an advertiser’s local stores. Broadcasters participating in NextRadio encode that data in their broadcast signals.

Conversely, the app allows a wireless customer to interact via the Internet. For example, they could text to enter a radio station contest, give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a song and purchase a song they just heard from Google Play.
While FM has traditionally had a strong place on the auto dashboard, the lack of two-way interactivity threatens to kill the medium. Adding the interactive component to listening allows stations to claim a higher value proposition, thus charge advertisers more for their commercials.

“The highlight for us even beyond the launch of the Sprint [NextRadio-enabled] smartphone is that a number of automakers are now seriously looking at NextRadio as a solution in the dash,” Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan said Jan. 9 during the company’s quarterly earnings call.

“We think that’s critical, because the major battleground for the American radio industry in the future will be preserving our preeminent place in dashboards," Smulyan said.

Exactly how NextRadio would interact with a vehicle’s electronics is a bit fuzzy.

The newer generations of cars have color display screens of various sizes. Some of these radio receiver units connect with one’s smartphone via Bluetooth. Emmis has done some work with Ford Motor Co. that pairs a NextRadio-enabled phone with Bluetooth.

But Brenner noted that many automakers have already announced plans to build 4G connectivity into the vehicles. He said Emmis has had discussions with a number of automakers to integrate NextRadio.

While NextRadio eats into smart phone’s data minutes when connecting with the Internet, receiving the FM signal and certain visual information is free because it comes over the air.

“My job is to do everything it takes to make radio interesting again,” said Brenner, the brainchild of NextRadio.

Another way of making radio interesting again has been Emmis’ management of the Broadcaster Traffic Consortium, a group of 20 broadcasting companies in the U.S. and Canada that deliver real-time traffic information.

A handful of automakers including Honda and Mercedes-Benz sell vehicles with radios that receive traffic data. At first the BTC delivered the information over the Radio Data System, a communications protocol embedded in radio station signals that contains text such as song titles.

But last month, Honda became the first automaker to agree to sell vehicles with radios that can receive a new generation of BTC traffic info via HD Radio signals many stations now broadcast. The first Honda car with that capability is the 2014 Civic.

The new HD Radio-encoded signals are more capable in that they can push detailed maps of local traffic conditions to a car’s color display screen, even to vehicles without satellite-enabled navigation systems.

Brenner said the traffic consortium reached deals with other automakers as a result of the new Honda deal but won’t yet identify them.

Emmis has not disclosed how much revenue it has generated from BTC or from NextRadio. In fact, radio broadcasters participating in the NextRadio venture agreed to pay wireless carrier Sprint $15 million per year, plus a share of revenue, to enable at least 30 million phones to use the app.


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