The NAB: Old technology, lousy content, national security?
August 29th, 2010 by scaredpoet

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is a lobbying group that caters to something that hasn’t been relevant in many people’s lives for years: terrestrial, FM radio. And there’s a really good reason why FM radio hasn’t been relevant to lots of people for a good long time: FM radio sucks.

The NAB is of course aware that people aren’t listening much to FM radio these days, and they want to do something about it.  Of course, a common sense thing would be to improve the content that FM radio stations provide: like, say, good music from artists people actually want to listen to.  But common sense doesn’t seem to be something that the NAB has a lot of.  So instead, they’d rather do something else: force phone manufacturers to embed FM receivers in all cell phones and mobile devices, in the hopes that people will be compelled to listen to their crappy content. To do this, they’ve gone to Congress:

...mid-way in the article was something which really caught my attention. Part of the “deal”—and like all things political, it is a deal—would require that all cell phone handsets must have an FM-radio function built in. Wait a second, I thought . . . whether implemented as a separate IC, or added to an existing RF/mixed-signal chipset, it will add cost, power consumption, antenna-design issues, and more to the handset design. And all for what purpose, exactly? To force people to listen the FM band? Yeah, right, that will do it, absolutely.

One of the arguments behind this mandate is the tried-and-true, instill-fear argument that every desperate party turns to: national security and public safety.  The argument goes that people will need to turn to FM radios in the event of a serious crisis or national emergency.  Makes sense, right?

But the public safety argument is merely a red herring.  This isn’t about public safety in the least. The NAB is trying to legislate the foisting of old technology on electronics vendors in the vain hope that it will compel people to listen to FM stations, without their constituency having to make any effort to draw listeners back to them.

But even if those folks at the NAB really were compassionate, well-meaning souls who just want to make sure everyone stays safe and informed, where should this type of nanny-state legislation stop? How about we pass laws that require every US resident to subscribe to a minimum level of cable TV service, since over-the-air or satellite TV might be subject to weather conditions or transmitter failures due to terrorists attacks, and new video technologies like FiOS and UVerse are simply too new? How about we also mandate that every household subscribe to copper POTS wireline phone service (again, Fiber is “too new” and untested) and connect rotary corded phones to that service?

What those fine, well-meaning (I’m sure) folks at the NAB don’t understand is, people like me aren’t listening to FM not because we don’t have FM radios, but because the stations we can receive on those radios provide us with no reason to listen. Perhaps if they innovated, and provided compelling programming, and didn’t play the same 6 songs over and over between 20+ minutes of a commercials per hour, their audience numbers would grow.

What’s worse, most of these FM radio stations no longer have news departments of their own, having sacrificed them as cost-saving measures, in the (quite ironic) belief that people won’t want to listen to the news all the time. As such, most FM stations are not equipped to provide news and information on their own in a serious crisis or emergency. In fact, during past crises, since September 11 on, many have tended to cut over to the audio of CNN or similar news feeds. So… what’s the point? A potential listener like me could just go to CNN to get the video that goes with the audio.

There are of course, pure news stations on terrestrial radio, but the majority of them are on the AM band, and so, such stations would still not be accessible to mobile phone users with their required-by-law FM receivers.  So much for that.

There are entities like satellite radio, online broadcasting stations and online music stores that don’t mandate by law that everyone be forced to own equipment capable of receiving their content, and yet they do just fine. The NAB could learn from their example.

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