If People Trade AM-FM Radio for Streaming, What Happens in the Car?

If there’s one thing that keeps broadcasters up at night, it’s the future of radio in the car. Automobiles and radio have gone together like peanut butter and chocolate since the 1930s. But with the rise of smartphones, sophisticated in-car infotainment systems and music streaming options, what are the prospects for radio in the car? NiemanLab takes a look:

Last year, for the first time ever, my husband and I bought a car. At the dealership, one of the first things that the sales guy wanted to show us was how to hook up our phones to the car’s Bluetooth entertainment system. When we said we’d be able to figure it out, he explained that enabling the technology for us was a dealership requirement. Apparently, Boch Toyota Norwood is assuming that a lot of people aren’t going to just turn on the radio in their new cars for their first drive home.

The audio listening habits that we’d acquired during years of public transportation-and-walking commutes came into our new car with us. We listen to the radio if our phones are low on batteries or if we’ve forgotten to download podcasts. Our two-year-old hates the radio and only wants to listen to music we’ve saved offline to our phones from Spotify. In dire tantrum situations, we’ll stream music, data plan be damned. Our car is the basic model — it doesn’t have its own Internet connection or anything like that. But its in-dash entertainment is good enough to let us skip the radio completely if we feel like it, and we usually do.

We’re used to hearing that young people are no longer reading newspapers or subscribing to cable. Logic would suggest that a similar transition is inevitable for radio. But radio is also in a unique, lucky spot because it’s usually free, it’s ubiquitous in cars, and it can be listened to as a form of background entertainment. So will it manage to escape newspapers’ fate?

Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ 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.

Alan Cross has 37821 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

3 thoughts on “If People Trade AM-FM Radio for Streaming, What Happens in the Car?

  • Living in NYC, I don’t own a car, but I download podcasts of radio shows from NPR/WNYC (among other things) to listen to on my commute. I wake up to “actual” radio (WNYC) because I want to find out what is going on that morning in the city (weather, possible traffic/subway disruptions, latest local news, etc.), but I actually *can’t* listen to the radio (or streaming for that matter) for most of my commute because it’s underground with no radio or cellphone signal – they’ve wired up some of the stations with cellular/wifi access, but the tunnels between them are still dead zones.

    But it doesn’t mean that *radio* is dead – it’s changing form. By making these shows available to download, a lot of these shows are finding new audiences (and keeping old audiences who were looking for ways to “time shift” their listening to more convenient hours of the day – I’m not going to sit at home in the middle of a Sunday afternoon just to listen to This American Life). I think the biggest challenge for the NPR/local NPR affiliate model right now is not finding new listeners, but that the podcast/download model disrupts the traditional affiliate model as it relates to how public radio gets paid by individual donors – people are simply downloading shows directly from NPR and bypassing the local affiliates (some locals, like mine, are really strong and produce a slate of popular local shows, but I don’t think the NYC model is translatable to significantly smaller markets).

    I don’t know how this translates to the less structured, music-oriented commercial stations, but it could totally work for shows like yours (that is, of course, if you ever solve the separate music licensing issues!)

  • Radio embedded directly in the car stero might fade, but I guarantee you if smartphone manufacturers start enabling over-the-air radio reception, people will use it, whether walking on the sidewalk or through their car’s auxiliary port. Data is expensive and you can’t always decide what to listen to.

  • Tyler, Smartphones all USED to have radio reception, but that was phased out due to pressure from pay-streaming, as well as the fact that you need a large antennae within the case (where there’s no room) or you needed to have your headphones plugged in like they had to be on my Samsung Galaxy S2.


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