Public Radio for People Without Radios

2/13/09Follow @wroush

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it can connect you to so many stations around the country—more than 200 at last count. I discovered public radio as a teenager growing up in central Michigan, so it’s nice to be able to check in from time to time with WKAR in East Lansing. Having lived in San Francisco and (briefly) Las Vegas, I’m fond of both KQED and KNPR, and my brother lives in Alaska, so it’s also fun to hear when the river ice is breaking up in Talkeetna on KTNA.

In the latest version of the tuner, released in January, programmers fixed some of the app’s early problems with frequent crashes, and added oft-requested features like book marking, a search function, and the ability to find nearby stations using the iPhone’s GPS chip. With all these features, it doesn’t surprise me that the Public Radio Tuner is currently number 15 on the App Store’s list of the most popular free apps. And if you’re not an iPhone owner, never fear—the team that built the app says the 2.0 version, which is coming in May, is being built using technology that will be easier to port to the Android operating system. [<-- This sentence clarified with input from Matt MacDonald at PRX; see his comment below. Thanks Matt.] Versions for Windows Mobile and Blackberry smart phones may be coming later.

Public Radio Tuner, tuned to WBUR BostonIt’s worth repeating, though, that for now the Public Radio Tuner only plays live audio streams. If you want to time-shift your radio listening, you’ll need to dig into the podcast section of the iTunes Store. The good news is that a growing number of public radio shows, including most of the shows I listed above as my favorites, are available as free podcasts. If you subscribe to them, they’ll show up automatically every time you sync your iPhone or iPod. (Meanwhile, there’s a report [confirmed by Matt] that the May update of the Public Radio Tuner will let listeners hear on-demand content.)

There’s an amusing coda to the story of the Public Radio Tuner app. If you look at the app’s page in the iTunes Store, it gets only two stars out of a possible five. That mystified me, since the majority of the recent reviews are raves, giving the app four or five stars. When I clicked all the way through to the earliest reviews, it turned out that the Public Radio Tuner had a bit of a marketing problem: Most of the people who downloaded it when it first appeared thought they were getting a tuner for all radio stations, and therefore gave it one star out of disappointment. Some representative comments: “Horrific stations for stations! and the ones they do have are classical? WTF!!!!????” “Garbage unless ur over the age of 90.” “This app needs more hip hop stations or something I was not plzd.”

Well, I’m not over 90, but I’m very plzd with the Public Radio Tuner. Now my iPhone isn’t just a phone, a music and video player, a camera, a Web browser, an e-mail device, an e-book reader, a speech-driven search engine, a geocaching navigator, a fitness tracker, and a four-holed flute; it’s also a good old-fashioned radio.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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