Protecting radio in cars is a top priority for Radioplayer. Managing director Michael Hill explains why.

The connected car will soon be the norm, but the radio industry has not talked to car companies in any great detail about how and where it will feature. It is just starting to realise that its long-held position on the dashboard is in danger of being usurped, Hill told Radiocentre’s recent annual conference.

In evidence he showed an example of the ‘dashboard of the future’ unveiled earlier this year at CES. “It’s fully loaded with all the toys, including voice control,” he said. But amidst all the innovation (including the ability to stream pictures from your fridge - why are appliance manufacturers so obsessed with connected refrigerators?), radio appeared to be something of an afterthought, with a retro design that harked back to the 1950s.

“Imagine having a team of talented people looking at the future of cars and building all those incredible things into the dashboard and then coming up with this?” said Hill.

More than 90% of new cars come with DAB radio fitted, he reported, but they don’t look cutting edge when set alongside the interfaces of Apple and Spotify. “Car manufacturers and dashboard designers are having their heads turned by Spotify and other audio and music services coming into the dashboard,” Hill said. “We think Spotify has a team of about 50 people working hard to get equal prominence with radio on the dashboards of the future.”

Car technology changes slowly but irreversibly, he added, “so once this stuff is out of the bag it is baked into car dashboards for ten years as it drives around on the road”.

The good news for radio is that it enjoys an exalted position in the car: Radioplayer’s own research has found that 82% of UK drivers would never buy a car without a radio, while 84% almost always listen to the radio during the course of every journey. “People love the radio content model, it’s just this interface we’ve got to get right.”

Hill highlighted research from WorldDAB, across five European markets, that indicates what the radio industry should be pressing for – and some of it is very basic. “People want a radio button – a button marked radio,” he said. “It might sound stupid but radio is becoming less visible on the dashboard.” And they need to find radio stations easily and set their favourites easily.

If an internet connection is available, whether via a driver’s tethered phone or an embedded SIM card, then a next level of ‘basics’ needs to be in place, including putting up-to-date station logos on screen and service-following – “a posh term that means your radio continues to play even if you lose reception” – so the radio seamlessly switches from DAB to FM to streaming.

Once the industry is getting all that right then “it can do some great stuff”, said Hill, such as adding podcasts and catch-up features, for example, and ‘now-playing’ information. Voice control is another desirable option but this isn’t just about transplanting Alexa or Google Home into a car, largely because their cloud-based tech can’t be relied on to work in a car. It needs to work offline when there’s no data connection and when you can’t stream, Hill explained. “This is quite a challenge.” Return paths, meanwhile, will offer broadcasters valuable detail on who’s listening.

“That’s quite a shopping list,” admitted Hill, who had just returned from a trip to Germany to talk to car manufacturers about these issues, but he argued that a unified radio industry working together could achieve it.

And since Radioplayer itself is the creation of the BBC, Global Radio, Bauer Radio and Radiocentre and is available under licence in another seven countries apart from the UK, that’s as good a place as any to start, he suggested. “The first thing we need to do is get Radioplayer into more than those eight countries  – particularly the EU ones because car companies think internationally.” They want standards that work across countries.

“Then we need to put our money where our mouth is and actually build some of this stuff. We need to show car companies it’s possible to have a great podcast experience in the way that the radio broadcasters would want you to have a podcast experience.” In-car voice trials, meanwhile, get under way this summer.

Hill stressed the significance of the development of WRAPI (Worldwide Radioplayer API), which is now available to car companies under licence. “Meta data is really crucial to car companies – this will help them get the experience right.” The deal breaker, he added, is “there must be a button marked radio”. There must also be sensible navigation and protection for brands and content.

Deals have already been struck with Audi and VW. “There is hope,” said Hill. “We can keep radios strong in cars, but it’s a complex job, it’s an international job and we have to work together.”