Frightened by changes in the car dashboard? Lots of radio people are.
Roger Lanctot has some words of comfort: “It’s early days. No one has figured
Roger Lanctot. ‘Don’t worry about Pandora. Improve
access to your own content on these emerging platforms.’
He works for Strategy Analytics. He’s an automotive technology analyst
who spends much of his time talking about infotainment products, operating
systems, user interfaces and telematics — the “fizz” stuff that nowadays is
such an important part of car buying.
So he keeps an eye on products and companies like OnStar, SiriusXM,
iHeartRadio, Aha and TuneIn; and he thinks about the evolution of the “center
stack” in the car. I called him for perspective on the question of radio’s
future in that environment.
Hoping for payoff
Lanctot readily grants that these are painful times
for U.S. radio business people.
“You’re investing in HD and crossing your fingers on
the payoff. You’re investing in streaming your content, and that’s costing you
a fortune, with an unclear payoff down the road. You’re having to pay attention
to all these mobile platforms and operating systems, and everyone’s telling you
that mobile advertising is going to be a big deal, but it’s not right now.”
But he tells radio that there is power in being the incumbent. While new
entrants scrabble to figure out a dashboard business model, radio already is
there, with a strong presence in minds of “strapped in” listeners. Radio is
free. And consumers continue to expect it, at least for now.
Also, streamed content may be attractive but it
costs a lot to deliver; that reality won’t go away soon. And Lanctot is
encouraged by developments on the wireless carrier side: “I’ve seen the ‘green
shoots’ of FM on handsets; and the fact that this is happening at all is
significant.” FM in phones is an issue that crosses into automotive, since
smartphones so often are the portal to Internet listening there.
Lanctot reminds traditional broadcasters of a core
strength: their local infrastructure.
“The mobile advertising experience is in its
earliest stages. What they’re trying to enable is a location-based experience, [but]
radio has always been a location-based
experience.” So while satellite and Pandora try to succeed with monolithic national
content, stations with local towers enjoy an advantage by providing localized
Notably, he adds, user interfaces on emerging
technologies arrive with their own challenges. They are new and confusing; they
are dependent on wireless connections that may or may not work.
“There’s a little bit of disarray and fragmentation
on the IP side,” Lanctot said.
This question of the “user experience” is important;
broadcasters who want to thrive in the automobile need to understand the
Radio, Lanctot says, was always easy to use. Everyone understood a radio
dial. “But we’re moving into a world of electronic programming guides, like
those on the TV. What was normally associated with a ‘lean back’ experience is
coming to the ‘lean forward’ driving experience.”
What will that interface look like, ultimately? How
will content providers control, contribute or promote certain activities? Should
they deliver via IP or regular broadcast signals? Should a broadcaster partner
with an organization like Aha or TuneIn or iHeartRadio? Or should stations
stand alone? If they choose that path, how will they be discovered? If they
work with a partner, how can they be discovered?
“We’re just beginning to leave the shore for the
different ways of delivering that broadcast signal,” Lanctot said. But
broadcasters do have a voice in shaping the outcome.
Technology suppliers are working to standardize how
consumers find content; for instance Lanctot senses that HD Radio developer
iBiquity Digital is pushing to standardize how multicast stations appear on
platforms like Cadillac Cue. Watch too for more emphasis on “contextual
advertising,” ads that consumers opt into and that are relevant to them.
But radio must understand the new layers of interaction drivers are
having with content via electronic program guides such as on TuneIn.
“We’re just beginning to think about ‘searching for
things on the radio,’ whether it’s regular or IP content,” he said. Solutions
like Stitcher and Aha provide for a search engine or front end to find
localized information or a particular song or artist. Control of such offerings
may be via touchscreen, steering wheel controls, someday maybe heads up
display. “It’s almost a content management experience for broadcast content.”
Radio must think not just about linear delivery of a broadcast stream
but about how it will appear on these services, and how to flag content so it
can be tapped in a non-linear way, including access to podcasts and time-shifted
By some arguments there’s no need for a radio in the
car (Lanctot’s son told him after buying a stripped down Impala, “Dad, all I
need is an Aux jack and a phone”). Lanctot says yes, such conversations have
come up among carmakers and audio companies. Anything is possible in an age when
manufacturers are exploring electric vehicles, three-wheel vehicles,
But Lanctot doesn’t see that outcome as likely. The
car user interface is a special instance, he says, because of the safety issues.
Meanwhile free broadcasting remains a key source of emergency information and,
increasingly, critical data services. (If anything, he feels satellite faces a
bigger threat in the dash. “There are carmakers that are saying, ‘Look, take
that satellite content and send it over an IP stream, because we want to get
rid of that box. It’s not doing anything for us.’ Whereas the cost of an AM/FM
tuner is pennies.”)
He summarized the challenge for radio as “how to get its local content
to all possible locations where listeners may want to find it based on their
preferences, in a profitable way that’s easy to understand and to use.”
It’s a big job. But broadcasters have the opportunity to participate in
redefining this key user experience. And they aren’t alone in trying to figure all
“The car makers are having the same trouble with Windows 8 and Android
and BlackBerry and enabling all those devices to work in cars,” Lanctot points
out. “These are multimillion-dollar investments in hardware, testing and focus
The car is a critical listening platform, he
concludes. “It’s a huge fragmented mess right now. Anyone who thinks, ‘It’s too
late, I’ve screwed it up, everyone’s using Pandora…’ No. Pandora has its own
problems. Don’t worry about Pandora. Improve access to your own content on
these emerging platforms.”
Comment on this or any story. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is one in a series about radio’s future
in the car dashboard. Read