Radio’s problem is that it doesn’t look very good. It sounds fine but, compared to newer online audio services that give users a visually rich experience, AM/FM radio needs to up its game. 

The good news is that several potential solutions to radio’s lack of visuals were presented at the Digital Strategies Exchange for Radio 2013, a day-long session at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in Las Vegas.

Internet Radio and Cars: The Future is Now – Or Else

Paul Brenner, EMMIS Communications Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, understands radio’s need to be visually appealing. “The average person looks at their smartphone 45 to 60 times a day. We need to give them something to look at.”

Emmis’ Next Radio app, which uses FM chips in smartphones to pull in over-the-air radio signals, can supply users with album cover art, station logos, host pictures and other information when synched with a station’s programming. “I work for a radio company. We thought about what radio is and tried to visualize what it looks like.”

The system is also interactive working with the phone’s geo location, web, calendar and SMS functions. Events promoted by the station can be added directly to the listener’s calendar, text-to-win contests can be entered with one touch and advertisers can provide coupons and directions to their nearest location.

Brenner says in addition to working with mobile companies, Emmis is in talks with some car manufacturers to bring the system to the automotive world but another system appears to be leading the charge to enhance radio’s appearance on the digital dashboard; HD Radio.

The long maligned technology originally touted as broadcast’s answer to the challenge of satellite radio may have finally found a home in cars with connected entertainment systems because its digital delivery system affords broadcasters enough bandwidth to transmit additional visual data and provide interactive functions consumers are beginning to expect.

Jon Bucci, Executive Vice President of Planning at Concannon Business Consulting, says initially car manufacturers didn’t understand HD Radio. “Was it about [the digital signal] or the extra channels?” But in recent years the system hit a turning point with 300 models currently featuring HD Radio, “it is headed toward 100% inclusion.”

While those two solutions could make over-the-air broadcasts more compelling, radio also needs to continue improving apps that deliver station streams. Fred Jacobs, president of JacApps, says “early station apps were just streamers but now it’s important that stations keep up with what is considered state-of-the-art.”

His company is building apps with unique functions ranging from news, weather and traffic interfaces to trivia games, phone wallpaper featuring major recording artists, the ability for listeners to record and upload sound files to the station and one-touch pizza ordering. “The game is how to stand out in this space. There is so much clutter now that even stations with a great brand have to stand out in some way.”