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Radio gets a makeover

What you need to know about the latest technology.

By Karen Datko Jan 21, 2010 12:30PM

This Deal of the Day comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner site SmartMoney.


Music fans looking for free tunes are tuning in to an oldie but goodie -- radio. The medium is gaining a new audience thanks to technology upgrades that offer listeners more control over their music with minimal financial investment.

Although music downloads have grown into a $3 billion-per-year industry, consumers are actually keeping fewer MP3s on their computers these days. The average person has 641 songs; an 18% drop compared with last year, according to a December 2009 study by Mintel, a market research group. The same study found that Internet radio use doubled in the same period, with the average listener turning in for 4.3 hours per week via computer or cell phone.


There are a number of new iterations of this old media: live radio on your phone, niche HD channels, and sites like and that customize online playlists. The choices can offer listeners fewer ads than on traditional AM/FM radio, better sound quality and more ability to tailor songs heard to your tastes, says Michael Saffran, an adjunct professor of communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y. While some services charge a small monthly fee for ad-free subscriptions, most services are free.

Advanced radio connectivity is increasingly available in existing technology. Samsung and Sony have both incorporated Internet radio offerings into their latest lines of Internet-connected TVs and Blu-ray players. Ford recently announced iTunes tagging for its cars’ HD radio offerings, allowing listeners to save songs for later purchase. The automaker’s line of MyTouch cars will also include an app for free Internet radio service Pandora. Earlier this month, Internet radio service Slacker introduced free apps for the Palm Pre and Palm Pixi that store music on your phone, letting you listen to your customized stations even when there’s no connection.


But Internet radio is unlikely to become your main source of music anytime soon, says Ronnie Parisella, the chief technology officer of Primary Support Solutions, a New York-based information technology firm. Available music selection can be slim, and you’ll never have full control over what’s played when. Consumers paying for a subscription would be better served with a streaming service like Napster or Zune, he says. For $15 a month, Zune users get unlimited downloads and can choose 10 songs each month to keep (the rest disappear when you stop subscribing). Buying a service-specific portable radio is risky business, too, since there’s no telling how long the free sites will stick around. (For more on your options, see our digital music guide.)


If you’re ready to give radio another listen, check out these recent developments for your current technology:


Flycast. A free app for your cell phone, Flycast offers more than 2,000 radio channels. You’ll find local offerings, as well as big names like Bloomberg, PBS and ABC News. Use channel-shifting features to pause or rewind (and then fast-forward back to current time) live broadcasts. Flycast released apps for the Droid and Android G1 earlier this month; versions are also available for the iPhone, iPod Touch and select BlackBerry models. Listeners can download versions for their home computer, too.


HD Radio. If you’ve purchased a car in the past year or so, it’s likely you have HD radio. The digital connection should mean less static and better reception, but the real advantage is programming, Saffran says. Stations can transmit additional information such as traffic updates and song titles to the radio receiver screen, while iTunes tagging lets listeners save content for purchase later. Multicasting lets stations split the signal to broadcast say, two sports games at once, letting listeners pick. Now, new devices like Radio Shack’s Gigaband HD tuner ($80) let you pick up stations on your iPhone or iPod. Microsoft’s new Zune MP3 player models ($220 to $290) also come with HD Radio connectivity.


Slacker Personal Radio. Choose from preset stations or build your own based on a favorite artist, song or genre. Over time, the free site tailors selections to your taste, based on ratings you assign to songs and artists. (You can also ban a particular song or artist from showing up.) Listen from your computer or send selections to your phone. Apps (also free) are available for Android, BlackBerry and iPhone, and now select Palm models. Slacker recently introduced caching for iPhone and Android, allowing users to store music on their phone for listening when they can’t connect wirelessly.


Related reading at SmartMoney:



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