Sending Out New Signals: Radio Catches Up to a Changing World

(Courtesy Boston Acoustics - Courtesy Boston Acoustics)
By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 22, 2006

As vehicles for bringing music to the masses, radio and records were born within a few years of each other, shortly after the end of World War I. From the start, there was a tension between the joy of being able to hear whatever music we wanted and the passion to discover new sounds that radio stations magically delivered through the air.

Today's new music gadgetry has done little to ease that tension. The iPod, other MP3 players and a slew of new technologies just now coming on the market have shifted the balance of power away from radio as tastemaker and toward consumers' ability to select, hoard and arrange our own music. But try out a shelf full of new gadgets and you'll still search for a way to mold your own soundscape while also exposing yourself to new music.

In recent weeks, I've spent time with three new toys that purport to create new kinds of listening:

· XM Radio's XM2go is a wearable, Walkman-style satellite radio that can also record up to five hours of music off the radio.

· Motorola's iRadio is a cell phone that turns your car radio into a cross between an iPod and an Internet radio, letting you download hundreds of channels of music at home, then tune in as you drive.

· Boston Acoustics' Recepter Radio HD is one of the first digital radios, a tabletop unit that opens the door to the second and third channels that broadcast stations are starting to encode into their over-the-air signals.

If those three paragraphs are enough to make you want to grab your trusty old transistor radio, lock the bedroom door and listen to AM radio through your pillow forevermore, I have bad news for you: One day soon, you will be forced to make a change. Just as Congress will require us to give up our old analog TVs within a few years, pushing us on a mandated march to the digital age, radio, too, is going digital. Eventually, today's radios will become obsolete; they may still pull in broadcast signals, but the sound quality and choice of programming will seem outdated.

This is a huge boon for the electronics industry but unsettling to consumers and to the content industry. The music business, already so panicky that it's suing its own customers in a vain attempt to stuff the downloading genie back in the bottle, frets that the new gadgets will turn radio into a service that pumps music into your house for you to keep without anyone getting paid.

While lawyers rack up billable hours figuring out how to save the record business, young people are already voting to control their own music. A study by Bridge Ratings interviewed 2,000 Americans ages 12 to 24 and found that 85 percent prefer their MP3 player to broadcast radio. The same group picked Internet radio over traditional radio by 54 percent to 30 percent. This is an enormous cultural shift from the 1970s, when a young generation was turned on to revolutionary music by a new technology known as FM, whose deejays played the role of Pied Pipers leading kids to the new sounds.

But wait: In this fast-spinning world of fads and innovations, some researchers already see "iPod fatigue," the creeping sense among many young people that the 500 songs on their iPods feel stale and predictable. Simply because listeners know what's on their players, they suspect that better sounds are hiding somewhere out there.

That's the hook these three gadgets use to enter your life. Now that we've collectively had our fun playing downloading deejay, we realize we're missing out on the serendipity and education radio has always provided.

Satellite radio's 100 channels of music attract millions of listeners, but the folks at XM and Sirius, feeling pressure to compete against the iPod, are reaching beyond the car dashboard and into the portable market. XM got there first, with three models of portable receivers.

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