James Cridland

Does radio have something to fear from the ‘connected dash’?

Much has been said about the ‘connected dash’ in recent weeks: the concern that radio has plenty to lose from forthcoming internet-connected cars, that’ll offer internet radio, Spotify-like services, and plenty more. I produced a great session at RadioDays Europe by Fred Jacobs and Michael Hill on this very subject. Apple CarPlay is coming, as are competing solutions from Google and Microsoft.

I’m here to tell you, after a brief trip to Las Vegas, that if you’re a radio broadcaster, you should start worrying right now.

I spent two days in Las Vegas “on vacation”, as our American cousins would say. I hired a car, and went to see some of the local tourist hotspots: the Hoover Dam (above), the Red Rock Canyon, the Neon Museum, and even the Atomic Testing Museum. My car, a Nissan Almera, didn’t have a connected dash. It didn’t even have HD Radio. Instead, the radio had four buttons — AM, FM, AUX and Bluetooth.

For the first hour, I flicked through the FM channels, feeling more disappointed with every click. Syrupy, national, NPR programming; a heavily-promoted “Morning Zoo” (though I only heard back-to-back music, and no actual radio personalities); a poor copy of JACKfm called Bob FM; Christian Rock; Spanish music; and financial advice… after the fifth play of Pharrell Williams’s Happy I desperately needed something else.

In the car park of the Hoover Dam bypass bridge (I know how to live), I navigated the primitive controls to pair my phone. And realised why radio has a lot to lose from a connected dash — even one as relatively dumb as this one.

From thereon in, choosing “Bluetooth” on the car stereo automatically connected to my phone, and the millions of tracks I have access to via Google Play Music (and my unlimited data tarrif — even in the US). Jumping out of the car puts the phone automatically in pause. Starting the car again automatically put it back into play mode. Hitting the ‘seek’ button flicked to the next track.

The user experience was just like music-intensive radio: but with my music choice: not someone else’s. Better — the music dipped every so often, while Google Maps told me where to turn. (I’d have missed those turn instructions if I were listening to FM radio).

For the rest of my trip, I was listening to Google Play’s personalised ‘radio’ service. Not to FM radio.

For a short while I felt guilty. Here I was in the US, a place once famed for its radio, and I was missing out on hearing more about the local area from the local stations. And then I reflected that, while tuning around, I’d not heard a local voice at all: with one exception of a local news bulletin crammed into a national radio programme from Tennessee.

For this radio person, I had underestimated the user experience of something as simple as a decent Bluetooth implementation in-car. And I’d also over-estimated the radio experience in southern Nevada.

In this car, I simply turned my back on radio. And that’s before any fancy connected dash. That’s a bit worrying.