Disasters strike every year in every corner of America. Hurricanes on the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard, ice storms in the Midwest and Plains states, wildfires in the west and arid states of the southwest, tornados through our nation’s heartlands and flooding along the Mississippi and elsewhere. And horrific acts of terrorism like the Boston Marathon, the Oklahoma City federal building bombings and the attacks on September 11th are all too familiar reminders of just how important information is during and after these events.
During every hurricane, tornado, flood and wildfire, local public radio stations play an essential role in conveying information about response efforts, local relief supplies, evacuation orders, emergency routes, and where to find food, shelter and fuel, as well as on-the-ground, at-the-scene reporting to help affected communities understand and respond.
Because of public radio’s role as a trusted media and information resource and an essential public-safety asset, we hope all stations will join us in calling upon the mobile phone industry to install and activate FM chips in all cellphones and smartphones.
Today, more than 90 percent of Americans own cellphones, and approximately 60 percent of those are smartphones, which means that every year today’s radio listeners are getting their news, weather and music on more and more devices and media channels. Now is the time for major cell carriers and manufacturers to activate FM chips in their mobile phones.
Every smartphone today contains an FM chip, but unlike in Europe, most in the U.S. are not activated. This will change if consumers put enough pressure on service providers to activate the chips in their phones. There is no cost for manufacturers to activate the FM chips. Sprint has worked with the radio industry and agreed to do this with almost all of its smartphone models. We know change is possible, but it’s fair to say that many consumers are not yet aware of how little this would require of cellphone manufacturers and how great the benefit would be for consumers and listeners.
If the effort to convince all major carriers and manufacturers to activate FM chips in their phones succeeds, users will be able to listen to their favorite public radio stations without using their monthly data allotments, and they will reduce battery use when listening to these stations by 66 percent. But first, we need to help inform consumers — our listeners and supporters — about what is possible.
During emergencies, electric power grids often go down, disabling cellular phones and most Wi-Fi systems. Even when cellular or Wi-Fi networks remain functional, usage spikes and overloaded networks become useless. By contrast, radio stations usually have backup power and do not experience usage overload. Since a growing portion of the public carries a battery-powered smartphone, we should — and we must — start there.
Jeff Smulyan, c.e.o. of Emmis Communications, the commercial radio industry’s leading advocate for FM-chip activation, has already reached an important milestone. With support from the National Association of Broadcasters, Emmis has created a smartphone app, NextRadio, that allows smartphone users to access interactive FM radio without charging against a data plan. Other apps will come along, and we encourage them, but this one is ready now.
Working in partnership with Sprint, Smulyan and other commercial radio industry leaders have made it possible for most Sprint customers to activate NextRadio on their FM-enhanced phones, allowing users to find and listen to local public radio stations with local station branding, album art, and interactive promotions displayed on screen. Someday soon, the same should be true for all service carriers, including AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile.
We encourage stations to take action in the following ways:
Public radio audiences expect to find us anywhere and at any time. Giving our listeners direct access to their local public radio stations via FM chips in smartphones is another way to ensure that they’ll have access to vital information during times of emergency and crisis.
We hope you’ll join us to make this a reality for our listeners.
Paul Haaga is acting president and c.e.o. of NPR. Jon McTaggart is c.e.o. of American Public Media Group, the parent company of Minnesota Public Radio, American Public Media, Southern California Public Radio in Los Angeles and Classical South Florida in Miami.
Copyright 2014 American University