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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  • Hi Wade,

    Thanks for the great write up on the project. Just a minor clarification, we’re not going to be releasing an Android version of the app in May, version 2.0 will have on-demand and program guide information but will still be for the iPhone platform. We’re building as much of the app as possible so that we could then port to Andriod with minimal effort.

    Glad you are enjoying and using the app.

    -thanks
    -matt

  • Well, if you liked this, then you will love stitcher, with on-demand custom streaming to your iPhone of public radio content and a myriad of other news and talk.

  • Flo

    World Wide Wade . . .
    Thanks for the shout out . . . would you write me at the station email? I’d like to know more about your listening to KNPR . . .

    Flo Rogers
    President & General Manager, Nevada Public Radio.

  • Thanks, this is a very cool app that I hadn’t heard of. I’ve been using podcasts for NPR and This American Life, but sometimes (like election night) I want local content. Luckily I already knew what website to go to for streaming local coverage: KUOW (Seattle). On-demand sounds very exiting, too.

  • Public Radio Tuner is one of my favorite iPhone applications. I can now sleep late on the weekend and still listen to Weekend Edition, by listening to a west coast public radio station, or if I wake up really late, I can catch Weekend Edition on one of the Hawaiian public radio station.
    Being a program director, I’ve found this to be a great source for monitoring other station’s pledge drives, to get ideas of what others are doing to generate calls.

    Larry Mayer
    Program Director
    WETS 89.5FM
    Johnson City, TN

  • Jack Valinski

    Check out NPR Mobile, it list topics on all the main npr shows and you can listen to those missed segments after the audio is posted. Also Tuner shows the bit rate so those of us on 2G can listen to those stations that stream in lo-fi.

  • Last week in SF, I listed to WQED and then found WBUR. Both dropped a few times and significantly drained my power but it was worth it. Nice to have a taste of home away from home (as long as its not Boston food in SF!)

  • Bob

    Has anyone else stumbled across the new format/programming that they have on 1680 AM in Grand Rapids? I was flipping through my radio and planned on reminiscing to a little Radio Disney, which has apparently been replaced. Anyway, it is now billing itself as Public Reality Radio. I only got a chance to listen for a little bit, but they announced a URL as http://www.publicrealityradio.org. I checked out their site, and there is some interesting programming that they have. If anyone else has listened to this, I would love to hear some opinions, and if you haven’t heard it yet, I would give it a listen. I was particularly fond of “The Infidel Guy”.

  • Bjorn

    The Toy Lounge of St. Paul MN – http://thetoylounge.com – makes custom iPhone apps for radio stations, both traditional stations and online radio stations. Basic starter app for streaming radio (up to 5 streams on one app) and add optional iTunes tagging and ad serving. Like the Public Radio Tuner, these apps only play live streams and will disconnect if you need to check mail, etc.

  • Valerie Garagiola

    To whomever it may concern,

    I am very impressed with your website and have a video that I think may be of some interest to you. My friend is a member of NPR’s Los Angeles affiliate KPCC and was recently selected as a finalist in the Challenge.Create.Change contest for a video he created espousing the benefits of public radio membership. The contest, sponsored by Target and ConverseOneStar encourages people to challenge, create, or change something about their world. I thought this might be interesting to share with other affiliates as a means of encouraging people to contribute. You can watch the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DviTjyyw8lo. Please encourage others to view it and if they like it, to vote for his entry “first charitable act” at http://www.youtube.com/converseonestar.

    Thank you,

    Valerie Garagiola