You might think the world is all podcasts, Pandora, Spotify and playlists these days but that's not the case: Of the 73 minutes of in-car audio the average person consumes daily, 67% goes to AM/FM radio or streams of it, with 17% going to SiriusXM satellite radio. What's left is divvied up by the increasingly fashionable streaming services like Spotify and Pandora (though these percentages will differ if you only count late-model cars or "late-model" drivers).
Both broadcast and satellite radio feel the heat of the streamers, though, and are answering with some major new features that aim to blend everything you love about both streaming and broadcast.
The latest version of the only satellite radio system in the US is called SiriusXM 360L, available starting in the 2020 Dodge RAM, 2021 Ford F-150 and a coming standalone unit from SiriusXM called The Tour. It combines a satellite feed with wireless internet from a car's built-in 4G LTE modem to offer an interactive experience. You can tag artists so you'll be notified when they're playing on any channel, tag sports teams the same way to know about game broadcasts, search for both live and on-demand streaming content, and even create Pandora stations from artists you hear with an easy on-screen touch.
Satellite radio is expensive compared to a lot of other media offerings today: Between $11 and $21 on a monthly basis, and you'll need that top tier to get the new Pandora integration, but at least the stations you create will be commercial-free. You may also need a new car: Only a handful of late-model cars offer SiriusXM 360L and it's not yet available in any aftermarket head units.
The TuneIn app is the leader in radio streaming. It claims to stream about 100,000 stations from all over the world, as well as millions of podcasts (including CNET's podcasts). For $9.99 a month you can step up to a premium version that adds a lot of sports broadcasts, audiobooks and commercial-free listening to several hundred streaming radio stations that normally play ads.
You'll find TuneIn built into a number of cars but just as easily streamed from your phone via Bluetooth to almost any car you have.
As we'll see in a moment, there has been some revolt against TuneIn by some radio groups that feel it cheapens or commoditizes their content. Still, if you're looking for one place to listen to the most radio, TuneIn is it.
iHeart Radio is the streaming app of giant iHeart Media, which owns over 850 radio stations in the US, but also rolls in many more stations from its competitors. It's not as big a collection as TuneIn, but for US listeners it may be effectively so. And iHeart has done a remarkable job of getting built in to a lot of devices, cars and even airlines.
Like seemingly every media app these days, iHeart Radio is also a podcast aggregator and also offers premium versions for monthly fees ranging from $5 to $13 per month for abilities that replicate the premium features on pure-play streaming services.
The Radio.com app is an example of TuneIn revolt. It's the streaming home for Entercom stations, the second largest group of radio stations in the US, totaling 235 of them in 46 metros, all no longer available on TuneIn or other apps. If you want to stream any of these stations, you'll be doing it via the Radio.com app or site.
The list includes the CBS Radio stations Entercom acquired in 2017 (note that CBS Corporation is the parent company of CNET), so it's a leading source of streamed local radio news. Having to install an app for one corporate group of stations seems very 90s to me, but at least it's also a podcast aggregator.
I've covered this effort over the years, but you can forget about it: NextRadio is basically dead, though oddly still available for download. This moribund platform from the Emmis broadcast company blended broadcast signals from some phones' FM tuner chips with wireless internet interactivity from their 4G cellular data connection for enhanced broadcast interactivity and presentation.
Even if Emmis pulled the plug on NextRadio, it was a harbinger of other ways radio is being modernized.
Hybrid Radio largely picks up where NextRadio left off: It's a developing global standard for blending broadcast content with wireless internet delivery of related text, visuals, basic interactivity and meta tags for categorization.
Hybrid Radio is backed by RadioDNS, a not-for-profit company owned by its members and based in the UK. As such it has taken root much faster in the Europe, where 80% of radio content is said to be Hybrid Radio enabled, than in the US where it's still in quiet trials.
Hybrid Radio relies on broadcasters and other parties to use its platform to enable rich, interactive broadcasts, but it doesn't do it for them. Much of the appetite for such a platform won't come from users but from carmakers who are disappointed in the poor look and feel of broadcast radio in their modern high-tech dashboards. Radio DNS says BMW has implemented the tech for North America and Europe, while VW, Audi and Porsche offer it on all their new cars in the EU that have a data modem and will do so in the US eventually.
DTS Connected Radio
Similar to Hybrid Radio is DTS Connected Radio, also a platform for richer, more interactive radio via simultaneous broadcast and wireless data connections. It's backed and licensed by Xperi, the company that licenses both DTS audio technology as well as HD Radio. Details of its US rollout are scant at this point, but Xperi and LG promise to soon name the first car that will arrive in showrooms with DTS Connect Radio tech in the dash. I'll be looking for it by the time CES kicks off in January, 2020.
Xperi's track record of getting HD Radio installed in new cars will serve it well when it comes to getting the auto industry to embrace DTS Connected Radio, though as we're about to see, installation is not the same as usage.
Many people have HD Radio in their car but have never figured it out or even know it's there. In a nutshell, it makes FM stations sound CD-quality, makes AM stations sound FM-quality, and lets stations add additional stations to their base frequency.
HD Radio isn't an interactivity powerhouse, but it does offer a better presentation of radio as well as targeted weather and emergency alerts. Some 60 million cars on the road in the US are said to have an HD Radio in them, but I'm pretty sure nowhere near 60 million people are actively using HD Radio, which means the odds are good you have it but haven't used it. Give it a try: It's free and may give radio just enough of a goose to keep it relevant in your life.
Know that HD Radio is generally better at making FM sound really clear and clean, less a success on AM. And many stations don't take advantage of HD Radio's ability to add extra stations, having their hands full trying to make a success of the one they already have.
Radio still has legs
Before I came to CNET in 1995 I did morning drive radio, so I know well the enduring appeal of "real" radio: It's live, local and personal. Those attributes can be relied upon in the future, but radio shouldn't get lazy about technology. Interactivity is no longer gadgetry or just for the tech-savvy: It's an expected component of all media experiences and, done thoughtfully, will extend radio's advantages.
(Updated on 11/8/19 to change TuneIn Premium price to $9.99 instead of $7.99)