James Cridland

Radio in the car — a better experience

About 50% of all radio listening happens in the car (the figure’s lower in countries like the UK, but higher in places like the US).

In many ways, radio’s best in the car. Radio — the original multitasking medium — lets you concentrate enough to drive your 1,300kg (2,800 lb) metal death-machine along busy streets alongside soft, vulnerable fleshy pedestrians, while you enjoy an unfunny stunt from breakfast show presenters who are such awful people you’d never let them into your house.

Radio’s popularity in the car is clearly important to us as an industry. But the experience of a car radio hasn’t changed much since the original car radio in the 1950s. We have to remember two random numbers to listen to a radio station — a frequency and a preset number. Switching between FM, AM (and DAB) often changes the user experience entirely.

The experience for DAB is especially poor in most cars. My Toyota Prius (yes, I’m one of those) lists stations on DAB by service ID, not alphabetically; and lists ensembles separately.

In the US, HD2 stations offer usability issues in a car. If you want to listen to Bloomberg Radio in San Francisco, you need to tune to 103.7 FM, then wait a few seconds (no, really), then hit the ‘up’ button to find the HD2 signal. A triumph!

It’s good news, therefore, that someone’s trying to fix this on behalf of radio.

Radioplayer, the not-for-profit project that is now in many different countries including Canada, the UK and Germany, showed a research prototype last week in Berlin. It highlights how we in radio want the in-car experience to be; and it looks like this:

Tuning is by station name, not by random frequency. Station names are announced by voice before the audio starts (good for your station’s brand awareness). Decent quality logos are on the screen while you listen. And, probably most importantly, there are no “band” buttons — if a station’s on FM, HD2, DAB or just the internet it gets equal prominence. The radio will even switch between FM and the internet if it needs to — and back again.

It’s just a reference design for now: but auto manufacturers already know how important a decent radio is in a car. Hopefully this will give them the information and the data they need to help make a better one.

This is important work for our future — and deserves our support.