The Hidden FM Radio Inside Your Pocket, And Why You Can't Use It : All Tech Considered Most smartphones have a built-in FM chip. But whether or not it's activated is in the hands of the mobile carriers, who profit when you stream radio. The broadcast industry is pushing to change this.
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The Hidden FM Radio Inside Your Pocket, And Why You Can't Use It

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The Hidden FM Radio Inside Your Pocket, And Why You Can't Use It

The Hidden FM Radio Inside Your Pocket, And Why You Can't Use It

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/400178385/400178386" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There was a time when radio had little competition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO LISTENS TO RADIO")

SARAH VAUGHAN: (Singing) Who listens to radio? That go-where-you-go medium called radio.

SIEGEL: The go-where-you-go medium - that jingle was written by the late Stan Freberg for the Radio Advertising Bureau in 1965. Today, smartphones are the go-to for go-where-you-go audio. But even though most smartphones actually have FM radios inside them - actual receivers, they are not activated on two thirds of those devices. Before we go any further, a full disclosure here. NPR is part of a lobbying campaign to get them switched on. The Indiana State Senate is now also urging wireless carriers to activate the FM receivers, and similar actions are expected to happen in other states.

Jeff Smulyan is the point man for the National Association of Broadcasters on this issue. He's president and CEO of Emmis Communications which owns radio stations in Indianapolis, New York, Los Angeles. He's in Indianapolis. The NAB is in the midst of its convention in Las Vegas, I guess, this week. Welcome to the program.

JEFF SMULYAN: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And tell us - there are actually little FM receivers in most of our smartphones even if we can't listen to radio with them?

SMULYAN: We think just about every one - every one.

SIEGEL: Well, can we just download apps which would activate the FM receivers?

SMULYAN: Only in a couple. The HTC and the Motorola phones have not been blocked, but Samsung, the iPhone, LG have all had the chips turned off. Now, from Sprint, we know that all those phones have turned on the chip, and the chip is there and active.

SIEGEL: Why do companies build these receivers into the phones but then not activate them?

SMULYAN: Well, that's a good question. In the rest of the world - these phones are mostly manufactured for global use, and in the rest of the world this isn't an issue. They're in the phone. They're turned on. People listen to them. So it's just not an issue.

SIEGEL: Now, I have to tell you that when this subject came up at our daily meeting, several of my younger colleagues looked really oddly at those of us who thought it might be a good idea to get FM radio on your phone. Why, was the question. Why would you want to have that? And, for example, I have an app on my smartphone called TuneIn radio here. I can start it right here.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Through phone speaker) ...The campaign finance corruption...

SIEGEL: You know what station that is?

SMULYAN: No.

SIEGEL: That's WIBC in Indianapolis.

SMULYAN: Yes.

SIEGEL: Yes. Why do I need an FM radio if I can even get your station from Indianapolis anywhere in the country with that app?

SMULYAN: Very simply - number one, the American public spends 10 billion hours listening to local radio on streaming devices, and they're paying for every instant of that data. That is millions of dollars of data charges that they could avoid if they listened to the FM chip for free. So you could listen to all that local radio for free. Also, listening through streaming drains your battery three to five times faster than listening to the exact same content on the FM chip. And in an emergency when the power goes out, there is no Internet. There is no cell system.

SIEGEL: The NAB has asked the mobile phone makers for this. What's been the response from Apple and other companies?

SMULYAN: We've had dialogue. And there's - make no mistake, Craig Fugate, the head of FEMA, has said, look, in an emergency, this is critical, and called for it to be adopted. The carriers of the discussions are better since we launched an industry campaign letting every American know there's a free chip in their phone that they paid for. That's really turned up the pressure, but what we've said to the carriers is, look, we will offer you a share of interactive revenues to sort of recognize that you're giving up data that you would be selling the American public. And the discussions are moving along.

SIEGEL: Jeff Smulyan, thanks for talking with us.

SMULYAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Jeff Smulyan is president and CEO of Emmis Communications. And we should clarify - the FM chips in iPhones, even those sold by Sprint, do not work. We asked Apple for a response. We got a call back, but we don't have a specific reply yet.

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