“Had we asked the same question 15 years ago, the answer would have been “pretty much the same.” But it’s clear that radio is going through one of the most fundamental changes in its history since the dawn of stereo FM signals in the 1960s.
Already, satellite radio services like XM Satellite Radio (nasdaq: XMSR – news – people ) and Sirius Satellite Radio (nasdaq: SIRI – news – people ) have proved there’s a market for pay radio, though both have a long way to go before satellite radio is truly a mass-market service the way cable television is today. Ask any subscriber of either service and they’ll tell you they wonder how they ever got along without it.
Terrestrial broadcasters–those that broadcast from the ground, as opposed to in space via satellite like XM and Sirius–are in the process of rolling out enhanced services that will boost sound quality and add the ability to broadcast two programs on one station.
But what makes the future of radio interesting is the Internet. Some of the best radio programming is available online. This can be convenient if you’re from one region of the United States but living elsewhere, for example, and miss a favorite local radio program from back home. So far the best way to do this is via a computer equipped with a broadband connection.
But take a radio and give it a network connection. There are radios and tabletop stereo sets on the market that can connect to the Internet without a computer and stream audio from Internet radio stations. Add in support for Wi-Fi networking–essentially equal to an Ethernet port without a cord–and you have a radio that can go anywhere in the home and play sound from anywhere in the world without regard to the broadcasting station’s location. You may live in San Francisco and listen to state radio from Beijing or London or Bombay as easily as you do local radio, just as long as those faraway stations stream their programming online.
Take it a step further. Wi-Fi is limited by how far a network signal can reach–generally a few hundred feet from the access point or hot spot. Now imagine wireless Internet connections that aren’t as limited by distance. The new buzz is surrounding WiMax, a Wi-Fi-like networking technology that could boast a range of up to 30 miles from its source. Suddenly, every radio station in the world that broadcasts on the Internet will be reachable from nearly anywhere in the world where there’s WiMax coverage. A wireless Internet connection will be an expected feature, not a curiosity found only on a few high-end models. Radio will be a global medium once again.
That’s not all. Radios will have hard drives. At least one handheld radio, the Radio YourWay from Pogo Products, has one. The drives will serve at least two functions. You’ll use them to record favorite shows so you can listen anytime you like–the equivalent of TiVo (nasdaq: TIVO – news – people ) for television.
Second, the drives will be used to cache extra content that comes embedded inside the radio signal. You’ll select certain local stations that will broadcast constantly updated news, traffic, weather and perhaps even stock quotes, and those broadcasts will be automatically stored for you to listen to anytime you want to hear them at the push of a button.
Having a hard drive embedded in a radio opens up another range of possibilities. If a radio has both an Internet connection and a hard drive, it will be able to download software that gives it increased functionality. Radios will be able to do many things if only their owners are willing to pay for the features. Inside these radios will be chips that can adapt to whatever task they’re called upon to do.”