Let’s Talk About Streaming Music in the Car. Again.

Way back when, the only way you could get music in the car was with a clunky AM radio.  The first car I ever got to drive–my mom’s 1973 Pinto–had a big Philco in the dash with chunky push-button presets, a manual tuner, a volume knob and something marked “tone control” which didn’t do very much at all.  But I loved that radio.  It was the only thing that brought music to my driving experience. And since I drove a lot, I couldn’t imagine being without it.

(My Uncle Eddie, a Manitoba conservation officer, once had a bare-bones government car that didn’t come with a radio.  Even though he had to drive for four, five, six hours at a stretch, his masters believed that a radio in a government car was an unnecessary luxury.  Incredible.)

I had options, of course.  By the middle 60s, we had access to AM/FM radios and 8-track decks.  The 70s brought higher-end car audio with the cassette, better tuners, better speakers and much more powerful amplifiers.  In 1984, CD players began showing up in cars with six- and 10-pack changers not far behind.  Satellite radio began creeping into the dashboard in the early 2000’s.  Finally, we started seeing AUX-in, iPod/iPhone connectivity and Bluetooth. We’ve come a long way since that Pinto.

The next big thing when it comes to car audio is deeper integration with smartphones and the apps they deliver, especially streaming music services.  Using my data connection, I often stream playlists from Songza whilst I drive. But there are plenty of options.

The New York Auto Show opened on the weekend and there have already been many stories about streaming in the car.  For example, Billboard has an article entitled “Streaming in the Car is Huge Business–So Which Service Will Win?”  Here’s one of the paragraphs that caught my attention:

According to Gartner Research, in five years 70 to 80 percent of all new vehicles will include the high-speed wireless service options. As in the smartphone wars, the same players — Google, Apple, Microsoft and BlackBerry — are battling for supremacy over the connected car.

And this doesn’t count Pandora, which is already embedded as an app in millions of cars being sold in America (and Canada, too–except that we can’t access it.)

Once again, I’ll trot out my concerns for traditional broadcast radio.  The more choices in the dashboard means that AM/FM radio–a business that’s been part of our economic, social and cultural for almost a hundred years–is being increasingly marginalized.  If you think I’m overreacting, all you need to do is rent yourself a car with the latest in-dash offerings.  You’ll change your tune within seconds.

James Cridland, a “radio futurologist,” relates his experience.

I spent two days in Las Vegas “on vacation”, as our American cousins would say. I hired a car, and went to see some of the local tourist hotspots: the Hoover Dam, the Red Rock Canyon, the Neon Museum, and even the Atomic Testing Museum. My car, a Nissan Almera, didn’t have a connected dash. It didn’t even have HD Radio. Instead, the radio had four buttons – AM, FM, AUX and BluetoothFor the first hour, I flicked through the FM channels, feeling more disappointed with every click. Syrupy, national, NPR programming; a heavily-promoted “Morning Zoo” (though I only heard back-to-back music, and no actual radio personalities); a poor copy of JACKfm called Bob FM; Christian Rock; Spanish music; and financial advice… after the fifth play of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” I desperately needed something else.

In the car park of the Hoover Dam bypass bridge (I know how to live), I navigated the primitive controls to pair my phone. And realised why radio has a lot to lose from a connected dash – even one as relatively dumb as this one.

From thereon in, choosing “Bluetooth” on the car stereo automatically connected to my phone, and the millions of tracks I have access to via Google Play Music (and my unlimited data tarrif – even in the US). Jumping out of the car puts the phone automatically in pause. Starting the car again automatically put it back into play mode. Hitting the ‘seek’ button flicked to the next track.

The user experience was just like music-intensive radio: but with my music choice: not someone else’s. Better – the music dipped every so often, while Google Maps told me where to turn. (I’d have missed those turn instructions if I were listening to FM radio).

For the rest of my trip, I was listening to Google Play’s personalised ‘radio’ service. Not to FM radio

Read more at RAIN.

And then we have this from consultant Mark Ramsey:  “The Internet Radio Revolution Has Arrived.”

I ask again: what plans are traditional radio broadcasters making to integrate themselves into this new world?




Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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