Public Radio for People Without Radios

I have a bunch of wireless devices at home, but none of them are radios. And if I’m at all typical, then the radio business has a big problem.

For broadcasters, getting radio programming to people like me, who find most or all of their news, information, and entertainment on the Internet, is challenging enough. But the problem gets even more acute when you consider that more and more of us are accessing the net using our cell phones. A lot of phones today can play podcasts and streaming audio—but when it comes to finding a specific radio station’s audio stream on a mobile device, there aren’t a lot of good tools. And that means members of the mobile generation are increasingly cut off from their local radio stations.

Now, if we were only talking about commercial radio, with its evanescent mix of Top 40 music, shock-jock antics, and right-wing political talk, I wouldn’t be too worked up about radio’s crisis. It would be just one more old medium, like newspapers, finding itself left behind by technological change. The problem is that public radio—one of the country’s key bastions of arts, culture, and independent news and analysis, not to mention jazz, folk, and classical music—is also endangered.

Fortunately, the public radio community is awake to the problem. “Cell phone ownership and its many uses and applications also provide both potential and fragmentation” for public radio, the Public Radio Program Directors Association concluded from a survey it conducted last year. “As consumers avail themselves of many different functions on these devices, it will be imperative that Public Radio streaming efforts, as well as related digital products, be available on these gadgets that are rapidly become handheld computers.”

Public Radio Tuner iPhone appThis isn’t just idle talk. Late last year, a coalition led by the Cambridge, MA-based Public Radio Exchange (PRX) created the best tool yet for accessing live public radio streams on a mobile device: The Public Radio Tuner, a free app for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch. (The effort also brought in American Public Media, National Public Radio, Public Interactive, and Public Radio International, and was funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.)

I was ecstatic when I found the app recently. I love shows like “On Point,” “All Things Considered,” “Marketplace,” “NPR: Science Friday,” “Car Talk,” “Fresh Air,” “Radio Lab,” and “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” But the only radio I own is the one in my car. Since my commute to work is a disappointingly short 12 minutes—and I often bike or walk—I only hear infrequent, short snippets of these shows.

But I’ve always got my iPhone with me. So now I just turn on the Public Radio Tuner, pull up my favorite local station (WBUR), and listen to my heart’s content over my phone’s 3G data connection. The audio quality is perfectly adequate, and I can listen when I’m at home just by hooking my iPhone up to my HDTV’s audio input jacks (using a $6 Belkin cable splitter that I should have bought ages ago).

Perhaps the coolest thing about the tuner is that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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