Public Radio for People Without Radios

2/13/09Follow @wroush

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 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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