Does the proposal to force handsets to include FM radios make any sense, or is it a futile stab at "back to the future"?
I glanced though an article in The New York Times about a proposal (aka "deal") for changing the royalty-payment structure for songs played on the radio (read it here). I didn’t give it too much attention, since it's the old story: in a static market, everyone either wants a bigger piece of the pie while they can get it, or at least a bigger piece of the shrinking pie. In this case of over-the-air music, the owners of the songs are looking for a different royalty structure to offset the loss of revenue due to collapsed CD sales, piracy, and other factors.
But mid-way in the article was something which really caught my attention. Part of the "deal"—and like all things political, it is a deal—would require that all cell phone handsets must have an FM-radio function built in. Wait a second, I thought . . . whether implemented as a separate IC, or added to an existing RF/mixed-signal chipset, it will add cost, power consumption, antenna-design issues, and more to the handset design. And all for what purpose, exactly? To force people to listen the FM band? Yeah, right, that will do it, absolutely.
The fact is that broadcast radio listenership is down over the past decades. I recently saw a radio-industry sponsored study (sorry, don’t remember exactly where) that claimed more people are listening to radio than ever, but when you peeled it back, it actually proved the opposite. The study defined "listened to" as just 15 minutes/week (wow, big deal) and also showed that most of this so-called listening was unintentional, such as music heard while waiting at your local pizza shop or dentist's office, none of which constitutes a dedicated and devoted audience. Fewer people these days listen loyally or consistently to music via broadcast radio, which has pretty much become audio wallpaper for most folks. In fact, those people who are really into music choose a streaming radio services, or Sirius/XM, or other alternatives such as Pandora, but not the commercial-laden, talk-heavy broadcast stations.
I have nothing against broadcast radio; in fact, I learned practical electronics
by building AM, FM, shortwave, and amateur radios, messing with antennas, and straining
to hear weak signals despite all sorts of atmospheric and man-made noise, and
low SNRs. So if a cell-phone vendor wants to offer handset models with built-in
FM reception, I say "good, go for it". Users can decide how much this
added feature is worth to them in terms of cost, complexity, and battery run
time. But to mandate inclusion of FM radio into the handset: please, don’t go
there. It's another case of a market which is fading away, but trying to use
its lobbying influence to last a little longer and squeeze a few more bucks
from the fleeing customers.
I say this even though the mandate might,
at least temporarily, increase sales of FM-receiver ICs and associated
components, which would be good for those vendors. But our industry has rarely
counted on government-defined "must include" mandates like this to
prosper (there have been exceptions, such as the HDTV standard), nor do we need
more top-down regulatory mandates, whatever the rationale. The law of
unintended consequences will triumph, as it usually does, and little good will
result. Plus, most "mandates" often bring along friends you later wish
you didn't have, see here.
What do you think? Along with that proverbial chicken in every pot, do we need an FM radio in every handset? ?