Who Will Win The Radio Wars?

If you often find yourself switching aimlessly among the hundreds of radio stations beamed to your car by AM, FM, and satellite radio, get ready for even more choices. Lots more.

Ford announced earlier this year that, starting with the new Fiesta, its Sync interface will work with Pandora radio’s mobile phone application, allowing drivers to use it hands-free via voice commands.

Some might see this as a coronation of Pandora, an Internet radio service with 54 million subscribers, but in fact it’s an opening of the floodgates for new companies and services looking to enter the already-crowded marketplace that is your car stereo.

In addition to traditional broadcast and satellite radio, which attract 239 million and 35 million listeners, respectively, Pandora also faces off against HD radio, which gives FM and AM digital sound quality and more stations, and stored media on CDs and MP3 players. And then there’s the fact that Pandora is only one of many fledgling Internet radio applications pining to cooperate with automakers.

At one time, we might have seen automakers lining up in alliances, as happened during the Sirius and XM showdown. Now, it’s more likely that they’ll let the contenders duke it out for themselves.

“Going forward, we’re looking to offer the customer as many choices as possible,” says John Schneider, Ford’s chief infotainment engineer. “We’ll let the market determine [what format people listen to].”

That’s easy, because unlike satellite radio a decade ago or even FM radio in the 1970s, there’s almost no new investment required for an automaker to accommodate for these new services. Millions of drivers already pay for powerful mobile devices and data plans, and most new cars, even those as inexpensive as the Kia Forte, are set up to connect with them via Bluetooth and USB inputs.

“It’s not a big deal for automakers to interface with our product,” says George Lynch, who worked at XM radio when it launched with the aid of $50 million from General Motors and who now serves as vice president of automotive business development at Pandora. “They don’t need a new chip set in the radio or anything. It’s not costing millions of dollars.”

The biggest development on Ford’s next-generation Sync system is secure, robust software that will allow mobile applications to communicate with the car. Ford will also maintain control by screening third-party developers in much the same way Apple does with applications for its iPhone. In addition to Pandora, Ford has already partnered with Stitcher, which aggregates talk radio and podcasts, as well as OpenBeak, a mobile Twitter application.

Still, it’s likely that for the next few years, car stereos will be like the Wild West, as traditional broadcasters and startups battle for a chunk of the millions of hours of radio listening that Americans do in the car each year. And although each format has its own advantages (see next page), there’s simply no way to know what will come out on top five or ten years in the future. “I tell you, when I know that for sure, I’m going to leave my job [at Ford],” Schneider says.


Reach: 239 million listeners
First broadcast: 1916/1937 (AM/FM)
Sound quality: equivalent to 256-300 kbps* (FM)
Automaker availability: All
Pros: Local entertainment, sports, and news; free
Cons: Limited coverage; patchy service in rural areas; commercials; local preachers with talk shows

Reach: 35 million listeners
First broadcast: 2001
Sound quality: 48-128 kbps*
Automaker availability: All
Pros: Full coverage from New York City to Death Valley; lots of variety; “Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour”
Cons: Pricey subscription fee; signal can be blocked by trees, underpasses, etc.; Jimmy Buffett’s Radio Margaritaville

Reach: 54 million subscribers
First broadcast: 2004
Sound quality: 64-128 kbps*
Automaker availability: Ford
Pros: Near-infinite, personalized content; millions already own the hardware; free or very cheap
Cons: Relies on wireless networks that may soon start blocking data-intensive applications; doesn’t include the cost of a smartphone

Reach: 3 million units
First broadcast: 2003
Sound quality: 128 kbps*
Automaker availability: Audi, BMW, Ford, Hyundai, Jaguar, Kia, Land Rover, Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz, Mercury, Mini, Rolls-Royce, Scion, Volkswagen, and Volvo
Pros: No subscription required
Cons: Only in some cars in
some areas

* CD bit rate: 1411.2 kilobits per second